The Knowledge: Trade positivity key to support early signs of growth in new taxi driver applicants

In a recent article, TaxiPoint revealed the low number of students currently being tested to become London taxi drivers.

The number of students currently stands below 1,000 according to Transport for London (TfL) data.

But what are the reasons for the low numbers and is that trend about to be turned on its head with offshoots of growth on the horizon?

In a recent Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) podcast with taxi drivers who recently passed the KOL, they all recommended others take up the challenge.

One student said “it was a life changing experience” and they enjoyed “the flexibility and freedom to earn your living”.

TaxiPoint asked Steve McNamara, the General Secretary at the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA), why he thought the Knowledge had been struggling to attract students, despite the positive feedback from newly qualified cabbies.

McNamara said: “Undoubtably the negativity perpetrated by some cabbies on the various forms of social media have played a massive part in the decline in numbers doing the KOL.

“In the bad old days the banter from cabbies to passing knowledge boys/girls was a cry of ‘The Games Dead Mate!’. It was not that common and was easy to ignore and dismiss from your thoughts, with social media it’s impossible to avoid.

“The negativity from, relatively few cabbies, can seem like a tsunami of reasons to give up, or better still, not to even start, be it on Twitter, Facebook or any other platform and it’s taken its toll.

“Fortunately, many within the trade have grown tired of this pessimism and have started to call out the doom and gloom merchants and the tide is beginning to turn, resulting in the number of applications now slightly up.”

TaxiPoint spoke to a Knowledge student, Tony King, to find out more about the perception of the industry through the eyes of a student currently on the world famous Knowledge of London.

“I started doing the knowledge in 2012 after becoming fed up in my current job working at Heathrow Airport. A mate of mine was a cabbie and he put the idea in my head. After a while I started, not really knowing what was ahead of me, but my mate tried to guide me and I got on with doing the runs. I eventually finished them, did some pointing and started appearances,” said Tony.

Would-be cabbies must learn hundreds of ‘runs’ which consists of memorising the road names and turnings between two points in London. All students must then start ‘pointing’ thousands of places of interest, starting with the most well known. Every student must memorise the road name and where on the road each landmark is placed in preparation for the next stage.

The next stage is the fearsome ‘Appearances’. Each appearance requires the student to visit Transport for London for oral one-to-one examinations. Each Appearance usually consists of four questions about the shortest route between any two points in London. An appearance takes about 20 minutes, and you'll get a score from A-D.

Depending on your score you will accumulate points; when you have enough you will progress to the next stage, when appearances will become more frequent. However, if you get too many Ds, you will be ‘Red Lined’ and may be put back to a previous stage. At each stage you have a maximum seven Appearances to score the points required.

To begin with, Appearances are about 56 days apart; score enough points and you move to the next stage where Appearances are about 28 days apart; and at the final stage they are about 21 days apart. On average you will have to score on four appearances to accumulate enough points to progress to the next stage.

Image: Tony King preparing for ‘Appearances’

Tony said: “I didn't have a clue when it came to the Appearances, looking back I was so poorly prepared, no surprise I was failing really. I ended up with just one score from four Appearances on 56's after getting red lined first time around.

“I joined the West London School and improved a lot, to a point where I scored on consecutive appearances to give me a chance for my drop to 28's. Unfortunatly It didn't happen and I was Red Lined again. I re-sat my map test and failed that by two percent and thought ‘sod it I've had enough’.

“I'd spent no time with my family and my daughter had been born six months before my last appearance which was making studying and sleeping tough!

“I'd spent four years on the knowledge and had nothing to show for it. I was gutted.

“I didn't ever think I would do the Knowledge again, but my cabbie mates kept telling me to give it another go. After nearly a year and a half off, I restarted the Knowledge again. This time I was going to learn from the mistakes I'd made first time around, and I have, I am now sitting here having scored in three of my first four Appearances on 56's and up for my drop to the next stage.”

So, why has Tony been lured back onto the Knowledge and what’s the perception of the job that he and others are training so hard for?

Tony told TaxiPoint: “I feel I have realistic idea of what doing the job is like. Five of my friends that I've studdied with are now cabbies, so I have a good understanding of what it's like out there.

“The Knowledge community still believes it’s a great job and that's why we put ourselves through this. We know it's not as good as it was, and maybe a few more hours have to be put in to earn your dosh for the day, but the earning potential and flexibility are great motivators. 

“Like any working community, there are always going to be negative views in the job you do. I've learnt to ignore the negative chit chat and only listen to people who want to motivate. I can remember being out on my bike late at night in the pouring rain, obviously feeling a bit sorry for myself. A cab driver leant out his window and shouted 'don't worry mate, it'll soon be summer!' It’s strange, because at that point I felt like someone had just given me a big hug! It felt good at that point and I really appreciated his support.”

Image: Knowledge student Tony King

“Cab drivers should go out of their way to motivate knowledge boys and girls. You guys need us, we are the future of the trade, and numbers studying the knowledge are now less than a thousand.

“Perceptions of the Knowledge from a lot of people I speak to is 'why do you need the Knowledge when we have Sat-Navs?' I actually like changing the perceptions of these people because, as we know, the Sat-Nav is no match for the human brain and The Knowledge.

“People often mention the ‘Uber’ word to me. I'm fully aware of the negative effect this has had on the trade, but I think the London public are now beginning to see through the promises of Uber and realise it's not all it's cracked up be. Safety, price surging and shocking driving practices are changing peoples opinion of Uber.

“I am passionate about doing the Knowledge and I'm proud to say I'm doing it. The challenge of completing the Knowledge is obviously not easy, it's bloody tough at times, but I keep reminding myself of what that feeling will be when I get that final handshake. For me on a personal level for something that I would have achieved for myself will probably be the happiest day of my life.”

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