(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).
Reports suggest that cab passengers will soon be able to get alerts when the Google app they are using senses that you have strayed off course. Minor diversions shouldn’t trigger an alarm, but if you go off course more than 500 metres you might have to explain yourself. I don’t think I’m being controversial in saying that it’s largely the private hire competition who are going to be the more nervous, though we’re all likely to get the occasional passenger who thinks they know more than we do about the geography of London. I don’t know about you, but I trust my own judgement over a computer anytime.
I first became aware that customers were following my route on a phone app about five years ago. After a short hop from The Mall into Soho, my Indian man beamed and said “very good.” It was good to get the vote of confidence, though I had nothing to worry about. On a different run the bells might have been ringing though. I’m sure almost all cab drivers going from Central London to Heathrow use the M4. Look at a map: we should be using Bath Road for some of those runs to Terminal 5. Someone following the route on an app might question this. I’ll go any way a passenger wants me to go. If anyone ever questions me over a run to Heathrow I’d me more than happy to sit on Bath Road and go around those roundabouts and around buses.
I’m unsure if the new alerts on Google will factor in the time element. Or the pain-in-the-arse element. Have a look at Victoria to Cricklewood. It’s a straight line, so would satisfy the bots at Google. Have you ever tried driving from Marble Arch to Cricklewood? I go home via the M1 so if I ever finish near Victoria I make for Staples Corner. I wouldn’t go up Edgware Road though! It involves negotiating two of London’s most slow and challenging gyratories: Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch. Then there’s the crawl up Edgware Road. If the shisha fumes don’t overcome you, the stop-start traffic will. It goes on for miles, dragging through Kilburn and Cricklewood. West End Lane is no better.
Driving myself home I usually bypass Marble Arch and go through Mayfair. Once I’m on Regent Street I just go straight up into Regent’s Park and come off at Avenue Road. It’s a much longer route than going straight up Edgware Road, but it’s faster. Carrying a passenger it may or may not save money as well as time. Finchley Road can be bad with all the buses and coaches, so I sometimes use Fitzjohns Avenue.
A satnav only shows you one way, unless you fiddle about with the settings. Both the shortest or fastest route settings are pretty useless in London. I also warn against using a satnav if you’re on holiday in Wales. I once set the satnav for a route that would have been simplicity itself had I followed a map in the traditional way. My satnav’s shortest route sent me down narrow country lanes for miles. It was a very stressful experience.
A satnav doesn’t take into consideration road closures – I’m unsure if the new Google app does. Cannon Street has hardly been open since they closed Bank Junction off a few years ago. The Bank closure left Cannon Street as the only sensible option through the City, but it’s never open. At the time of writing half of Mayfair and Marylebone is closed. I think the closures are temporary, but who knows? Even if there’s a yellow sign up, they don’t tell you much.
Our Knowledge training teaches us to use the shortest route. It’s right and proper that our default is set to the shortest route, but in practice we need to employ our own internal computer – our brain – to find the optimum route in any given situation. Traffic conditions change throughout the day. With experience we learn what certain roads are going to behave like at certain times of the day. It’s a huge matter of pride that we know the shortest route. We’re proud of our lines, but sometimes they’re out the window when we need to keep moving to save time. The skill is to have alternatives stored in our brains to use when traffic is heavy. This is where misunderstanding can occur. Thankfully few people question us, as our customers usually have confidence in our judgment.
We could get a few more questions as more people follow the route, preparing themselves for an alarm bell to go off on their new Google app; but we’ve every right to feel confidence in our abilities to both know the shortest route, and to get out of trouble if we need to take evasive action due to heavy traffic or road closures. The situation is worse for our mini friends who have largely learnt on the job, often slavishly following a satnav. Our work is cut out keeping up with the constant changes to our road systems and traffic behaviour. We know that a satnav won’t get us out of trouble, but our brains just might.