It is now hard to argue that the Knowledge of London (KOL) is not only declining in interest and participation, but it’s also dwindling away with little hope of coming back.
And the sad part of this story... does anyone really care?
The KOL was seen as an achievement to be proud of and a qualification into a respected trade that offered a job for life should the cabbie wish to trade. That has been slowly eroded away to the point where we now find ourselves.
WHERE HAS IT ALL GONE WRONG?
The start of the decline in KOL applicants dates to when electronic hailing systems arrived. The boundary between what was a booking and what was a hailing was quickly blurred. It created confusion for those looking to enter the plying-for- hire market and provided an opportunity for those that would normally work off pre-determined bookings. The market was disrupted, drivers suffered.
An explosion in private hire vehicle (PHV) drivers ensued, saturating the market and making the job of a taxi driver unattractive, and for some in the trade, financially unviable. There were no caps on numbers introduced to safeguard taxis which offer 100% wheelchair accessible cabs. A decade on and there is still no cap on numbers.
Publicly hailed taxis were then demoted to a similar status as delivery vans and private vehicles. Road space was lost, and this trend has continued rapidly for years. This has created doubt among those looking at the taxi trade as a prospective career and brought questions about whether London’s transport authorities actually see the service as a solution to inclusive public transport mobility.
Taxi tariffs have been stifled, slowly reducing the earning power of cabbies. Multiple tariffs frozen and below-inflation tariff changes, not always reviewed annually, has made the job less appealing to new entrants and pushed others out to higher paid employment. The number of licensed taxi drivers has continued to drop steadily. In 2015 there were 25,891 taxi drivers in London. Now, that figure stands at just 18,391 and will continue falling fast due to inaction.
Expensive vehicles and rising costs are a huge problem off the back of the global pandemic where the industry was brought to its knees. The industry is still catching up on lost revenue during that period, but now inflation and interest rates have pushed the only vehicle available to buy through the £100,000 mark if purchased on finance and a low deposit. TfL could have supported the industry by bringing in a new tariff that matched the increase in costs... but instead opted for a below- inflation tariff meaning cabbies will be at least another 4% out of pocket this year.
After training hard at their own expense for upwards of three years, applicants then run the risk of losing that licence to work in the very first day of working if they accumulate points on their licence, but ridiculously are still able to then apply to work for a London bus company. The risk of losing a licence is too great now for the commitment each KOL application gives to the capital to serve it.
Lastly, and this is becoming even more prevalent when considering doing the KOL, how will the introduction of autonomous vehicles impact an industry that is already declining in numbers? No one knows the time scales involved or just how ‘autonomous’ a vehicle can be in a bustling London city with people, bikes and scooters flying in all directions. But what it does do is create doubt for those looking to enter the trade. No one has considered or explored what would happen to 300,000 taxi and PHV drivers across the UK. What would happen to their licences, plying-for-hire and disabled mobility?
A review into the KOL has been ongoing and findings were set for release last year. There is however still no further news on this.
Changes were needed years ago. Any changes brought in today would take years to filter through given the length of time to train KOL applicants. Dumbing down the KOL to fast-track drivers would devalue the qualification already obtained by drivers. But the problem isn’t the KOL test. If the job was worthwhile people would invest time and money to reach the standard required.
Can the Mayor of London and TfL find a way to make the job, not the KOL, more attractive and worthwhile? The last decade of decline would have many believe not.