Strength through Knowledge

(original edit of article published in Taxi magazine this week).

With fewer people starting the Knowledge, our reaction could be “good, more work for us.” It’s a short-sighted view though, as fewer drivers means less collective power. And collective power is something we are currently in need of right now. We need strength in numbers to fight the long-running licensing of Uber, and to curtail TfL’s damaging road “re-modelling” projects and road closures.

The private hire contingent outnumbers us considerably – around 113,000 mini-cab drivers against fewer than 24,000 taxi drivers. Of course, there are nowhere near 113,000 drivers on active service. Not many PH drivers stay around for long, but they keep their licences as they double as a Congestion Charge season ticket. Private hire drivers are less of a coherent group. We have the advantage as if we put our different political viewpoints aside and pull together, we can effect some change.  It’s more than ever important to attach ourselves to trade organisations.

It might be a good time to start the Knowledge as you’re likely to get through the system quicker. When I became a Knowledge examiner in 2011 I was part of a cohort of six who were recruited to replace others who had recently left. Waiting times between Knowledge Appearances were running at double what they should have been: ie. A 56-day appointment could run to 112 days. This would have been incredibly frustrating for those affected.

I completed the Knowledge 30 years’ ago this coming December. It was tough in the eighties, but not as tough as some people make out. Sure, some people had bad experiences with examiners who made life difficult for them or acted inappropriately. Comparatively recently I’ve heard anecdotes from former Knowledge Boys who had things thrown at them – or had their appointment card damaged by the examiner scraping it against a wall during the last days of the Raj at Penton Street. No examiners were ever rude or unreasonable with me, though, and the Knowledge was easier to learn. No examiners asked me for silly Points of Interest. I just plodded along, safe in the knowledge that as long as I didn’t give up, I’d get there in the end.

The Knowledge is harder now. For a start, some districts of London barely existed in the 80s. There were a few pubs in Wapping, but past News International on Pennington Street, Points of Interest were thin on the ground. There wasn’t much in Rotherhithe, and Canary Wharf didn’t exist. There wasn’t even a lot going on in the square mile of the City, where livery Halls were the bread and butter Points. Knowledge Boys neglect livery halls at their peril to this day, but they also need to keep up with the hotels and bars. The City pretty much closed at 5pm. Restaurants and bars barely existed. The City is now chock full of lovely Points that need to be learnt.

It’s hard work remembering Points, and they change so frequently it’s hard to keep up with them. My Knowledge is nothing special. I have the memory span of a guppy. As an examiner, I only used to ask all those Premier Inns, Travelodges, Double Trees, &c. in the vain hope that I’d remember them myself. I remember few livery halls.

Compared with the old PCO at Penton Street, things aren’t quite so austere up The Towers; but the marking system puts undue stress on the candidate. Unless you’ve experienced the Knowledge in the last 17 years you won’t be aware of the Red-Lining system. You were rarely told how well you were doing, and you didn’t know how you were scored (many years later I learned the examiners used a marking system consisting of smiley faces). You understood that once the examiners felt you knew enough, they’d put you up a stage. These days you can go down. You can be relegated.

In the spirit of customer-focussed transparency, everyone leaves with a feedback sheet containing their scores – and possibly a few scribbled comments on their performance.  If you don’t gain enough marks in order to gain a C pass in four Appearances you are Red-Lined and sent back to start that stage from the beginning. It could result in months of hard work down the drain. I think once you’ve amassed a certain amount of points you should be put up to the next stage. I don’t think anyone should be put back. The Knowledge shouldn’t be made easier, nor should it become medieval torture.

At least today’s Knowledge candidates are clear on what questions they can be asked. During my tenure, TfL finally worked out how to put a circle on a map.  One amusing event was when we tried to manually draw the six-mile exclusion zone on the wall maps with marker pen. I was the one with the degree so they thought I should draw the first one. I made a right mess of it.

Anyway, for those starting the Knowledge now, they have more realistic expectations of the job. It’s been a tough few years, but I believe we’ve hit the bottom and we’re bouncing up again. I believe their investment in the trade can only go up.

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