The Wiki Man

Rory Sutherland: Don't abolish The Knowledge

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

Now that most taxi drivers use satnavs, should ‘the Knowledge’ be abolished? Shouldn’t we ditch the requirement that all London black cab drivers spend several years acquiring an insanely detailed knowledge of London before obtaining a badge?

In cabbie folklore, the model for the Knowledge was first suggested by Prince Albert. True or not, there is something German about the notion that every tradesman should have a qualification. And the test is teutonically stringent: more than 70 per cent of applicants fail or drop out. It demands that the prospective driver memorise 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks within six miles of -Charing Cross.

Now, useful as it once was, many people feel the Knowledge has been made superfluous by the arrival of cheap satellite navigation devices. I thought this. Conventional economic thinking, obsessed with ‘market efficiency’, would argue that the Knowledge is a ‘barrier to entry’ erected to maintain the scarcity of cab drivers, rather like a medieval guild. But as some people have begun to realise, markets need trust before they can be efficient. Medieval guilds existed for this reason. Trust is always more difficult in cities because of the anonymity they afford. Guilds offset this problem. If it is costly and time–consuming to join a guild, the only people who enter a trade are those with a serious commitment to a craft. And guilds are self-policing; the up-front cost of being admitted adds to the fear of being ejected. Could you really trust cabbies as you do now if they had gained their licences through attending three or four evening classes and shelling out for a second-hand TomTom?


Reciprocation, reputation and pre-commitment are the three big mechanisms which add to trust. You can use a small local firm which needs your loyalty. You can use someone larger with a brand reputation. Or you can trust someone who has made a big investment in getting a badge, and stands to lose everything if caught -cheating.

If you don’t believe this, go to Athens. Foreign passengers are on average taken on a route 10 per cent longer than Athenian passengers. Try Seville, where I was menaced to pay an imaginary €20 ‘suplemento aeropuerto’. Or Rome, where a colleague of mine was mugged by his taxi driver (he had admittedly made the mistake of being German, a nationality widely known for carrying egregiously large amounts of cash; one reason I suspect Germans are averse to bailing out southern Europe is that most of them have already been robbed there).

The Knowledge may have a value which outweighs its ‘inefficiencies’. One of the mistakes made by conservatism over the past 30 years is that it has become too much in thrall to rabid free-market economists, with their naive model of ‘an efficient market in equilibrium’. A proper conservative should ask, before excising some supposed inefficiency (the Knowledge, the monarchy or the human appendix) whether its removal may damage some valuable mechanism not easily understood by first-order thinking. Asking an economist to explain the workings of human society is like trying to understand human sexuality by consulting an expert on hydraulics.

A new and interesting breed of economics has arisen which draws inspiration from evolutionary thinking rather than from simple maths. Two good places to start in understanding this field would be Matt Ridley (The Origins of Virtue) or Paul Seabright (The Company of Strangers).

A fairly simple definition of conservatism would be as follows. If it comes to a showdown between reason and instinct, you bet on instinct. And if it comes to a showdown between maths and biology, you bet on biology.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Iain Hill

    This is an old favourite, dredged up each year in the silly season. I spent the whole of last week in London black taxis, and in awful traffic jams.

    Do you seriously believe the Knowledge still counts for anything? Every day, I had to explain to drivers where my destination was, using nearby land marks. When I mentioned the Knowledge I got the response “Never ‘eard of it”.

  • beloved2

    I simply don’t believe Iain Hill.

  • TD

    Lol, iain thats a huge lie. You would never find a black cab driver who not heard of the knowledge. I think you maybe have been using Addison lee.

  • Laurence Traynor

    I started the knowledge over 20 years ago, when it was still a ‘Knowledge’ worth having. Yes it was gutty, yes it was incredibly hard work and yes it was easy to see why so many who started it threw the towel in long before the end. I personally hated every single second of it, but it had to be done if I wanted to complete the process. We were all well aware of the grief and aggravation associated with doing it long before we ever began but if you were serious about wanting to become a London Cabbie, you sucked it up and just got on with it, no arguments.
    Ever since control of the Knowledge passed from the old Public Carriage Office (run under the auspices of the Met Police) the whole process has been continually watered down and made easier and easier to complete. This is what I suspect is the real reason behind Iain Hill’s experience of licensed Taxi Drivers not knowing as much as they should do. The Knowledge simply isn’t as difficult as it was, and that is a fact. TFL and it’s pandering to politics has destroyed an archaic, but effective system. In the past it produced arguably the best Professional Taxi Drivers in the World and now career politicians and Public servants with their own personal agendas and axes to grind have made it a shadow of its former self. It really is a great pity.

    As for Sat Nav’s, I have one in my own car and to be honest I never use it. I totally believe that a computer will never fully replace the knowledge and experience to be found in a real live person. Certainly they can be a useful aid to find the obscure suburban street that the Cabbie has probably never visited before (after all this time I constantly end up in destinations that are new to me), but realistically they are little more than that, an aid. A modern version of an A-Z and nothing more. I know there are plenty of people who will think that my opinion on these is driven by a fear that they will one day make the Knowledge superfluous and that the ‘jig will be up’ for all of us London Cabbies, but it really isn’t. I love a bit of tech and a boys toy as much as the next man but I honestly do not believe that the current technology available to us is able to provide a realistic alternative to having completed the Knowledge as it was meant to be.

  • Martin Nash

    First of all Iain ,your comment is there just to provoke London Cabbies,Well done it worked you are talking dribble.Secondly Mr Traynor having got my badge last year at the age of 54 it was mentaly the toughest thing i have done I served in the Royal Navy and London Fire Brigade for many years ,if you look at how much London has developed ovaer the last 20 years you will see there is rather a lot more of it ,I spent 8-10 hours a day 6-7 days a week for nearly 4 years at it ,so please dont tell us its a knowledge not worth having.

  • Thomas the Taxi ©

    A couple of things you failed to mention
    1) signal: there is vertically no 3G signal in parts on London which explains the erratic driving of most minicabs who rely totally on Sat Navs
    2) ask any one who’s got one…Sat Navs are crap.
    In test after test on Top gear, fifth gear and Auto Mags a taxi driver always beats a Sat Nav

    • Laurence Traynor

      The closest race I ever heard of between a London Taxi Driver and a Sat Nav system saw the Cab Driver win by 27 minutes in a 3 hour test. This was about 5-6 years back.

    • simhedges

      I have a sat nav. It’s great.

  • Jon Laver

    Well I for one only got my badge last year. Hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Anyone that really believes the knowledge is useless, go to other cities around the world- cabs everywhere else are pretty poor in comparison. New York, Rome, Paris they ain’t a patch on the black cab trade in London and Mr Hill, the fact you can describe your destination by landmarks surely counts for something. At least we know those which is more than can be said for lots of places around the world. Thirdly we are not miracle workers. Traffic happens, it’s not something that we as cab drivers have any control over and sometimes there is nothing that can be done about it, as professionals we don’t want to sit in it anymore than our passengers do but there are only so many options available and 9 times out of 10 your damned if you do and damned if you don’t- I don’t know what the traffic is like 3 roads away If I could tell that I wouldn’t be driving cabs for a living

    To anyone that thinks the knowledge has been dumbed down- my req appearance Wimbeldon Park Station to Lewisham Police Station, Wigmore Lawn Tennis Club (Becmead Avenue) to Norwood Bus Garage – no use of Streatham High Rd north or south, Lewisham Hospital to Novotel Greenwich (no use of Loampit Vale Roundabout), Lea Valley Ice Rink to Willesden Fire Station. I earned my badge I can assure you!

  • rorysutherland

    Bernard Levin in New York in the 1980s had a taxi driver who had never heard of Grand Central station or the Empire State Building.

    • Nat

      I was once asked ‘which way is that’ when asking for the corner of 25th and 2nd. I was standing at the corner of W3rd and 6th.

  • SG

    Mr Hill you have no idea & Mr Traynor you should never pass comment you know nothing about, perhaps you should get out of the trade.

    • Laurence Traynor

      SG what are you talking about? I’m commenting on a trade I have been part of for almost twenty years.
      As for the other guys who have passed the Knowledge in more recent years, I applaud the fact that you completed it but it is true that it was made easier. When Ken Livingston was elected as Mayor of London he sent every Licensed Taxi Driver a letter stating his aim to make the Knowledge more ‘accessible’ to all and lessen the time it took to complete. This resulted in a reduction in the number of initial set runs from 460 down to circa 320 and the implementing of a multiple choice section in the early testing stage. Multiple choice! From a set number of possible answers displayed on a computer screen. When we started we also had a form of multiple choice, but there were in excess of 65,000 answers and we had to answer verbally within a very few seconds, much as you do know in the later stages of the process.
      I take nothing away from anyone who has taken the time and made the effort to pass the Knowledge, in any form, however the point made by Martin Nash regarding the development of London over the years is neither here or there. The six mile radius is still in effect, the testing range hasn’t changed.

      • Martin Nash

        The range has not changed ,but the amount of biuldings (points ) has increased.Also there was no multiple choice ,five runs with points out of the 320 runs, all done with pen and paper How long did it take you ? It is something that i am very proud to say i have done the Knowledge of London.

  • Chris Field

    I’m with Iain Hill. I’ve got the knowledge, the taxi driver hasn’t – but who’s brave enough to tell him he went the long/wrong way?

  • Chris Field

    I had that Rory Sutherland in the back of a cab once. Bloody clever bloke

  • Brian Ghairbhain

    The Knowledge of London didn’t get easier, that’s another chestnut that older out of touch cabbies come up with. Cabbies should never stop learning their city as it keeps changing.
    As for sat navs, well they are unaware of the idiosyncratic nature of cities, cities are organic, they live and breathe and their custodians and diplomats know and love them, their cabbies.
    Try tapping,’Wicked’, into the sat-nav or ‘nearest knocking shop’.
    To be a cabby in London you have to be aware that when a Gulf Arab stops you and says Ajwa St, that he means Edgware Rd.
    Our favourite passengers are the know-it-alls like Iain Hill, we call them pass-navs, as they instruct you where to go in sat-nav style as if you didn’t know. They gain from the experience by thinking they have out-knowledged a cabby and we gain as they have paid over the odds for the experience.

  • T feldman

    Dear Mr Hill,

    London Cab drivers drive cabs, not helicopters if you think that getting into the back of a london cab means that traffic will just melt away,then you are living in a land of make believe .

    Our masters at TFL have made sure that you are stuck in traffic, because they change traffic light phasing to the benefit of the red light , they plan roadworks without any thought of the consequences to any road user let alone us, they close short cuts and turn roads into one way’s etc,this all culminates in making our job in certain areas impossible to overcome ,they never consult cab drivers on these road closures and changes .

    And about the Knowledge and standards, I believe that Ken Livingstones creation of the ethnic knowledge has damaged the london taxi trade, if you dont know about this then to nutshell the plan for you.

    Livingstone called the trade a white racist organisation and set about introducing an ethnic regime, this attracted ethnic applicants in to the KOL who had a moped clothing and a fuel allowance given to them free of charge.

    Its a fact that throughout the last 12 years ethnic knowledge candidates have been treated with kindness in order for Mr Livingstones wish for the cab trade to reflect Londons cosmopolitan population.

    The knowledge is still a difficult process to complete and still has the dropout rate it always had, but because of political correctness ethnic candidates where english is not their first language are getting through the process much quicker because an inspector is unable to comment on the way the applicant in front of him at an appearance speaks and delivers english, what i mean is the foreign accent may be so strong that the street names being delivered to the ears of the examiner might be un-intelligable but who can say if the applicant is calling the run with accuracy or hiding behind his accent safe in the knowledge that he will not be challenged. so you can see the scenario of a applicant calling a run at high speed the examiner cannot stop the flow and has to accept the run as correct although he may not have heard anything at all. this means that ethnic applicant are getting through their knowledge quickly getting their badge and are out on the streets of london possibly having fudged there way through the process and end up driving Mr Hill.

    When the Metropolitan Police were the licensing authority for the trade you knew exactly where you stood, ” the goalposts were set in concrete” since TFL took over the goalposts have had the concrete slowly removed and these days are now on a sliding mechanism, TFL do and have already brought in legislation which is plainly unlawful but they seem to be able to get away with anything and everything on their wish list.

    T feldman

    40 years in the trade.

  • Quartz Quartz

    – All London Black Cab drivers must complete The Knowledge, so it is impossible to find one who has not heard of it.
    Is The Knowledge harder than 20 years ago?
    Not sure, I did not do it 20 years ago?
    But these things have to be considered for the current student:

    – The driver does not just learn roads, they learn “Points’ which are places of interest.
    – There are at least 50 more rail stations than 20 years ago, all must be learned.
    – More hotels and restaurants too.
    – More one-way streets, which complicates matters.
    – More bus lanes, which makes it harder as one has to try not to go in them or get fined.
    – The Congestion Charge, which adds cost to study for those who use a car not a bike.
    – Parking restrictions; more residents zones makes it harder to stop and consult a map for those using a car.
    – Red routes – see above.
    – 24 hour city. More traffic round the clock.
    – Increased cost of fuel and cost of living – puts great financial strain on Knowledge students.
    – The Map Test is multiple choice, but it does not replace the series of verbal-one on-one appearances with an examiner, it merely acts as the initial test before one gets to appearances. Multiple choice does not make it easy.
    – Appearances are now spread out with the first round 56 days apart, the second round 28 days apart, and the third round 21 days apart before a final two month section on the outer suburbs.
    In the “Old Days” appearances were a month apart, reducing the financial strain on Knowledge students and meaning that the Appearance stage could be got through faster for most students than today, the record is apparently seven months from start to finish, which would not be possible these days.
    Even if a student got through all the current exams with maximum points, the exam process alone would take a minimum of nine-and-a-half months to get through.
    But prior to exams it would take a full time student about one year to drive all the 320 required routes too, so a really amazing student could pass in just under two years.
    But the average is three-and-a-half to four years, because beyond the minimum 320 statutory “Blue Book Runs” there are many specialist drivable routes (Cross Sections, Missing Pieces and Rambles) that help with the study, and many students are part time, having to work for a living whilst studying.
    Also factor in a couple of weeks per year of bad weather/tube strikes preventing driving, the odd bout of illness, some family commitments and bike/car repairs, Sunday road closures in the West End and the need to attend study classes.
    Anyone who belittles The Knowledge without having attempting it is arrogant in the extreme, it is a crushingly hard process as evidenced by a 70% drop out rate.

  • LBD

    The Knowledge was smart- about 10 years ago. But now with apps like Waze I know where the road construction is. I even know where the police are hanging out. I don’t need to memorize thousands of streets in order to get from point A to point B as fast as a black cab. That is why Uber will win out in the end. The tech is better than simply having a GPS – it is living knowledge of millions plotting out everyday occurrences LIVE to get cabs to locations faster.

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