Monthly Archives: February 2016

Knowledge is Power

Knowledge is Power

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I hear that Conservatives on the Greater London Assembly are calling for the Knowledge to be scrapped in its present form.  Assembly member, Richard Tracey, mentions an ageing workforce, with the Knowledge standing as a barrier to future drivers.  The report also argues that the Knowledge is obsolete in the age of GPS.

As an ex-Knowledge examiner I take a particular interest in the subject, and I neither think the Knowledge is obsolete, nor deterring people from entry to the trade.  Unite Cab Section’s Peter Rose countered that the Knowledge isn’t a barrier, “it’s a qualification for the job.”  Quite right.  I’ve heard no calls for doctors’ training being made easier as it’s putting applicants off.  As far as I know, doctors still need an immense knowledge of medicine, even though their patients can self-diagnose on a computer, and the doctors themselves can brush up their knowledge on the web.

In the case of cab drivers, doctors, and other professionals, their qualifications on entry provide a minimum competence to do the job.  In our case, we know we don’t know it all when we gain our licence, but we have a sound basis on which to build our competence.  The Knowledge isn’t a barrier; it’s a hurdle, or a series of hurdles, that have to be successfully jumped.

The Knowledge is extremely hard work, but unlike other qualifications, it doesn’t have to be fitted into a set period of time like a degree course.  You can take as long as you want.  It’s possibly the most democratic form of occupational training known to man.  As the fictional examiner, Mr Burgess, says in the wonderful film, The Knowledge, it’s not about who you know, it’s about what you know.  Every applicant is on an equal footing; whether you start the Knowledge with a degree under your belt, or whether you earned a dishonourable discharge from a sink comprehensive.  You don’t need to sweat while your initial application is pondered over by a college admissions tutor, and you don’t have to convince anyone of your cleverness before acceptance.  You just need to have kept your nose fairly clean, and show the ability to identify some points on a map.  And I’m not diminishing the achievement of passing the map test.  I marked a few map tests as an examiner, and I wouldn’t feel that blasé if I had to pass one now.

Many more people start the Knowledge than complete it, that’s true, but every successful Knowledge Boy knows the maxim that “you can’t fail the Knowledge, you can only give it up.”  Some people are better than the Knowledge than others, but even the weaker candidates are rewarded if they believe in themselves and stick at it.  From the outset, you know the Knowledge is difficult.  Very difficult.  What Richard Tracey doesn’t realise is that the satisfaction comes from knowing it’s very difficult.  If it was easy it wouldn’t mean so much.  The one thing that all Knowledge candidates have is pride.  It’s a big achievement when they “score” at an Appearance, and a massive one when they get their Req.  When they attend their Finals talk and are presented with their badge they know they have achieved something monumental.

Those who would remove, or weaken, the Knowledge, would presumably be content to accept a taxi service where the driver relies on GPS.  On gaining your badge, you know more than any other new cab driver in any city around the world.  You also have the ability to beat the sat nav.  The sat nav is woefully inadequate for use in a complex city like London.  It can get you out of trouble, but it can’t handle the permutations of routes and road conditions that an experienced London driver has running through his blood.  GPS can’t analyse like a human brain, and it can’t advise on the best roads to use at certain times of day.  In these times of daily road closures and major diversions it is an inadequate tool to find you way around with.

The public would surely prefer their drivers to be trained to current standard, and I believe so would the drivers of the future.  The drivers are proud of their status.  A status that comes from knowing they are the best trained cab drivers in the world.

Would I change the Knowledge?  I wouldn’t make the Knowledge easier, but I would abandon the cruel points system that heaps unnecessary pressure on the candidate.  People shouldn’t be pegged back because of one or two bad Appearances.   Is the map test necessary?  In my day, you wouldn’t have an Appearance until you’d completed the Blue Book.  I think this is too long a wait for a benchmark assessment, so I’d go back to the time where you were examined on the first section of the Blue Book and abandon the map test.

There’s been a small reduction in the number of Knowledge applicants, but by no means has everyone deserted the Knowledge and gone over to Uber.  The taxi trade is still attractive enough to those who drive a mini-cab for a living.  Many Knowledge candidates are private hire drivers.  They initially took the easier option to do a similar job, so why would they put themselves through two or three years of hell for the green badge?  They are best placed to compare the two trades.  Do they know something others don’t?

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.


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The Wild West End

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I recently read about the rickshaw rider who tried to charge a Dutch tourist £600 for a thirty-minute journey.  Thankfully, the tourist stood firm and argued back.  The rider was filmed by passers-by and consequently shamed in the modern way.  There must be scores of similar rickshaw scams going on that are never discovered, where the victims pay up out of embarrassment of having seemingly agreed to the fare.

I’m normally tucked up in bed before midnight, but London’s night time economy brings out all the chancers offering to drive people home:  rickshaw rip-off merchants, rogue mini cab drivers, dodgy app-based car providers, and the myriad of blokes who chance their arm with unlicensed cars.  Most people get home, eventually, but you’d expect the public to be afforded more protection against the plethora of dubious hire and reward transport providers. The response is that nothing can be done about the rickshaws, or the issuing of hundreds of private hire licences every week in order to service app-based car providers operating in grey areas of the law.  Add madcap road systems that slow everything down, and the result is a transport system run like the wild west, in a city resembling a third world capital.

I’m sure visitors to London are aware that we live to very strict regulations:  do anything illegal and you’ll be caught on camera.  They are everywhere, watching your every move.  Visitors also expect our transport laws to be strict and enforceable.  Buses, trains and taxis, are regulated to an inch of their lives – down to what colour interior door handles are.  Thankfully, the things that go on in taxis in other countries doesn’t go on here.  Visitors know they can trust us.  But lower down the transport food chain, the regulations are slacker and the regulations blurred.  Private hire cars are allowed to obscure their licence stickers with tinted windows while pretending to be limousines.  Our friends, the rickshaw riders give the impression they are officially endorsed by way of phoney licence plates and fare tables.  The fare chart gives the impression of an official pricing structure, and the rider can claim that having it on display constitutes an agreement.  The rider’s hire and reward operation doesn’t need a licence, so there’s nobody to complain to.

London has many of the attributes of a third world capital.  There’s the unhealthy divide between rich and poor, where the less well-off are being socially cleansed.  On the transport front, there are badly congested roads full of pot holes, nonsensical traffic systems, and seemingly pointless road works that last for years.  Pancras Road between King’s Cross and St Pancras resembles Mumbai on a bad day with its triple parking free-for-all.  It’s all contributing to authentic third world pollution.

I rarely see the Police in Bedfordshire where I live, but there are enough of them in London to mount checkpoints and saunter around with machine guns.  They don’t control the traffic when the chips are down, like in a real third world capital.  Other groups have taken on the role of traffic management; such as the paramilitary builders who operate like lollypop ladies when they want their contractors’ lorries to pull out without waiting their turn.

Those who drive themselves around are fair game to modern day highwaymen; those legally-endorsed pirates who fine and photograph motorists who accidently get caught with a wheel touching a box junction.

There’s not a lot I feel I can do about it all as I watch yet another madcap traffic scheme add to the frustration of driving in London.  All I feel I can do is write about it, and contribute to consultations.  I’ll carry on driving my diesel-powered filth cart until a cleaner and cheaper alternative becomes available.

The city in which I work is changing rapidly.  Things are more difficult and uncertain.  London residents will have noticed that the old certainties have gone.  Taxis have always been seen as expensive, but reliable.  The cheaper alternative was to take your chances with a mini-cab.  Every man and his dog now wants to work as a cab driver and it’s easier than ever – maybe we should be flattered that so many people want to do our job?  Recent developments in private hire licensing has resulted in many thousand more private hire licences being issued, and a blurring of the boundaries.  Over the new year period, people using an app-based private hire service were shocked to find hundreds of pounds taken from their credit card accounts by way of surge pricing.  The operator would say they didn’t read the small print, so there’s nothing they can do about it.

Is the body who are meant to be controlling everything that happens on the streets taking enough responsibility?  Local authorities need to be reined in and prevented from implementing complex road systems that slow the traffic down and make driving more difficult. Driving should be made easier, not harder.  Traffic schemes that look good on paper, don’t always work in practice.

Rickshaws aren’t normally motorised, but they are vehicles.  Vehicles shouldn’t be obstructing junctions and forcing buses out of bus lanes so they can rank up.  If they are working for hire and reward they should be subject to licensing laws.  The app-based providers have exploited loopholes in order to ply for immediate hire by phone.  The race to the bottom by way of cheaper fares isn’t healthy for anyone.  Safety is compromised for both drivers and customers, as drivers are forced to work longer hours to make a living.  Today’s society is in many ways over protective, but at the lower rungs of hire and reward transport, it’s still a free-for-all.

Reports of tourists being ripped off aren’t good for the reputation of London, and particularly for those of us who depend on tourism.  London’s streets are becoming like the wild west, though the sheriff is nowhere to be seen.

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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Knowledge Article

What Will You Be Asked?
You’ve passed scrutiny by TfL security and you’re in the reception area at 230 Blackfriars Road (you need the back entrance in Chancel Street). This is where you present your appointment card to the administration staff on reception. Note that, the appointment time on your card isn’t the time you should expect to be seen: it’s the time you’re meant to present yourself at reception. If you arrive more than twenty minutes after the time on your card it’s down to the examiner’s discretion whether they see you or not.
Nearer your appointment time, you’ll be allowed to sit in the waiting area and soak up the atmosphere. It must be quite exciting watching people exit the examination rooms and trying to read their faces to gauge how they did. What examiner will you get? Will they be in a good mood? Did they find some new Points over the weekend to hit you with – beware the Monday Morning Special. It’s easy for me to say, but try to relax. The hard work should have been done in the days and weeks leading up to this moment. It’s now time to convince Sir or Ma’am you’ve been eating, drinking and sleeping one-way systems, river crossings, and all those little turnarounds that examiners like to ask.
If it’s your first appearance you’ll be asked runs based on the Blue Book. The runs might be reversed, but the Points shouldn’t be too difficult. This is your chance to demonstrate what you have learned and get yourself off and running. You are allocated more time on your first appearance. Your examiner will give you a little spiel that will probably cover any questions, but don’t be afraid of asking the examiner to clarify things you’re not sure about.
On subsequent appearances you are more exposed to the unpredictable whims of the examiner and more is expected of you as you progress – particularly when you might get a drop. The Blue Book will re-appear throughout your Knowledge career and you neglect it at your peril. I often gave Reqs out after asking Manor House Station to Gibson Square.
The Knowledge is not an exact science and the “best” route is open to interpretation. I’m constantly dismayed reading Knowledge noticeboards where Knowledge boys quibble over a few yards! It usually doesn’t matter. I used to ask a lot of what I called “Dilemma Runs”: runs going between two bridges, or through parks. Regent Street to Hampstead? I usually didn’t care what way round the park you went, but people spent too much time and energy on analysis. There might be a point’s difference in it; not enough to get worked up about. If you find it hard to decide between two options it’s usually because it doesn’t really matter. I often used to ask the Blue Book staple, Victoria to Liverpool Street. “What does he want?” they would ask on Knowledge forums, thinking it might be a trick question. No trick. I didn’t care if you used the embankment or two bridges. I just wanted to see a bit of confidence on handling the basics.
If you don’t know if you’re allowed to leave on a particular side of the road, ask. If the examiner is in a good mood, he might tell you. If not, offer an alternative.
Runs are sometimes taken from the top of the examiner’s head after you’ve sat down, but it’s more likely they are decided upon earlier that morning or on the previous day. One examiner writes his runs out at least a week in advance. Beware the examiners with the tidiest rooms. A tidy room equals a tidy mind. An ex-detective examiner will dissect your runs with a forensic rigour. Don’t make your appearance a crime scene. Before you can say “I’m sorry sir…”, the blue tape will be out and you’ll be a chalk outline on the floor. That’s the corpse of your twenty-one day appearance, son. Stand back sir, there’s nothing to see here…
For best results, call with confidence. Examiners don’t like candidates who call so fast they can’t be followed, but a steady-paced, confident, call, will hold you in good stead. Rushing off seemingly without thinking works for a minority, but most people prefer a bit of thinking time. If the run doesn’t come to you quickly, try reversing it in your head. If you know the run, but can’t recall the name of a particular road, say so, and continue. I never cared much if you confused Cab Road, Station Approach and Spur Road; I just wanted to know you’d been there.
Hesitation is probably the area most open to interpretation. What one examiner sees as reasonable thinking time, another sees as not knowing, and worthy of docking a few points. In my introduction to New Starts I always made it clear that if you connect the Points up you will get some kind of score. Don’t tie yourself in knots chasing perfection, just connect everything up! There’s nothing wrong in keeping it simple. Don’t over complicate things if you’re not sure. You could make mistakes and loose marks.
Many candidates waste time on learning Points from the school’s sheets while neglecting to look for their own. Examiners are well aware that too many people “find” points on a computer and not on the street. If you’ve not seen it, drop it. You’ll lose one point, but if you’re guessing a Point and leave it wrongly, you could lose up to ten. I was never a Points Man. I wanted to satisfy myself that you knew the hotel ranks and could find your way out of train stations: the essentials a cab driver needs to know.
My advice to those on Finals is to have a good drive around Heathrow. It’s easier to learn it now than wait until you’ve a cab full of passengers and a mad coach driver behind you.
Dire warning: You will lose the whole ten points if you do anything illegal. If unsure, don’t attempt it. There are still people who turn right into Stratton Street from Piccadilly because they’ve seen cabs do it!
Good luck on your appearances! In the next issue we’ll be dispelling myths, and I’ll look at the most common questions I’m asked about the Knowledge process.
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.


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