Why Do London Cab Drivers Know So Much?


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London Cab Driver

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What teaching techniques are used to learn 400 street names across London?

In my research and exploration of memory, I have been delving deeper into academic journals and books to upskill my understanding of how we can learn better. As a result, I hope to find out evidence-based methods for improving teaching and learning.

The knowledge…

My latest adventure is reading the book, The Brain by David Eagleman, who explains a complex world of decision-making that takes place inside our brains, exploring human behaviour from empathy to genocide and neuroscience in a bid to help the reader understanding human nature.

Eagleman explains how a deeper understanding can “enhance our wellbeing, boost our cognitive skills and even forge a more just society, and ultimately a better future for everyone.” I’ve read several books on memory over the last few months of lockdown and my belief is now that memory is a social justice issue and the number one thing all teachers should learn (other than mastering behaviour management and their subject knowledge).

In the opening chapter, Eagleman discusses various case studies, including London cab drivers, explaining how they learn ‘the knowledge‘ and why they remember so much. “London’s licensed taxi drivers are the people who operate, what are universally known as London’s Black Taxis, which are found plying their trade all over London” (Galvin, 2016). ‘The Knowledge’ is the practical test any London Black cab driver has to pass before being able to work. Having lived in London for 27 years I was captivated and immediately, putting the book down, turned my attention to the research on London’s cab drivers.

Why do you London cab drivers know so much?

I ask this question, not in terms of them learning the streets of London and how drivers remember lots of different routes to reach various destinations, but more specifically on the techniques used and how they taxi frim develop the ability in their drivers to memorise information. I discovered three research papers which I have summarised below.

“The knowledge has existed for ~160 years and has never used any form of technology. It is a legal requirement for London taxi cab drivers to learn it” (Stok, 1999), which is tacit knowledge of London streets and associated places of interest. Remember, tacit knowledge is implicit knowledge consisting of concepts, rules and facts. Reading and researching this on a deeper level makes me question my use of Uber – purely used on the basis of affordability and ease of booking via an app. Skok writes, the “knowledge of London examinations were introduced in 1851 following the great exhibition in Hyde Park, when drivers were severely criticised for not knowing where they were going.”

Initially only main roads between major points. in the capital needed to be known. Skok cites that all drivers require “a detailed knowledge of 25,000 streets within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross” which consists of streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, government and public buildings, rail and tube stations, important places of worship, cemeteries, restaurants and historic buildings to name a few. When cab drivers accumulate certain knowledge and vast various tests, they are provided with a respective coloured badge (licence to carry).

400 basic routes…

The knowledge also includes personal conduct, various ‘runs’ (or possible routes) and basic information about schools. Drivers are informed that the knowledge cannot be learnt from the book and that they must go out and travel around London to acquire the depth of knowledge required. Skok suggests that the ‘All London’ licence can take between 24 to 36 months to learn by driving 3-4 times a week. The ‘Blue Book’ holds 400 basic routes and approximately eight runs and is tested in a series of (retrieval practice) multiple-choice questions, with a pass rate of 65 per cent or more in order to proceed onto the next stage (the appearances).

The appearances…

The next stage consists of appearances, a term used to describe 15-minute interviews which take place over a period of time. This is used to acquire the ‘green badge’ and consists of face-to-face interviews where candidates have to verbalise how to get from one location to another by the most direct route. Potential drivers have to mentally work out the best route and recite it verbally, noting all traffic restrictions and indicating the appropriate left and right turns until the destination is reached! Five questions are posed and these ‘appearances’ may last for about two years. Officials say the learning period is typically four years with a maximum of 56 days allowed between each appearance. Once the examiner judges that the candidate has satisfactory knowledge, the frequency is reduced to 28 days, and finally to 21 days. After successful appearances on 21-day intervals, candidates eventually achieve what is known as the ‘Req’ or requisition and at the same time take a driving test.

Characteristics or a question of teaching techniques?

“There is no published curriculum, topographical testing is random and unpredictable and the scoring process is secretive”  (Galvin, 2016). There is also a high dropout rate due the length of time it takes to pass. One can start to understand why Uber demand has increased, as well as its poor reputation: “During 2014 and 2015, 48 licensed drivers were charged with a journey-related sexual offence against a passenger in London, 15 of these were booked through Uber” (London Assembly). I could keep writing and there is much to explore. There is also a wide range of words which taxi drivers must become familiar with.

  • Bankers: questions that are regularly asked by examiners
  • Bilker: someone who skips paying a fare
  • Cockney: an East London dialect
  • Dirty dozen: 12 streets drivers memorise in complex one-way systems across Soho
  • Governor (pronounced Guvnor): a colloquial term for a taxi fleet owner
  • Knowledge Boys: students who are studying the knowledge regardless of gender or age
  • Liver: the shortened name from Liverpool Street station (used in radio transmissions)
  • Musher: taxi driver who owns their own taxi
  • Run: route between two points
  • Srubs: cancelled bookings
  • Wangle: when a knowledge boy is ready to take a driving test.

“Those who complete the Knowledge of London, about 10 per cent of those who start it, appear to already possess or acquire the personal characteristics of being self-disciplined, highly resilient to adversity, physical discomfort and surprisingly persistent” (Galvin, 2016). I am keen to learn if it is the characteristics of the drivers, or the teaching techniques used by the examiners make a difference, but on first impression, it appears to be a mixture of episodic and semantic memory/experience by the cab drivers.

London’s taxi drivers are regularly tested through a mixture of spaced and interleaving practice in order to acquire an astonishing range of routes through the streets of London.

Sources:

  1. Using Knowledge Wisely, L., Sheilds, 2018
  2. Culture, Change and The Management of London’s Taxi Drivers, M., S., Galvin, 2016
  3. Knowledge Management: London Taxi Cabs Case Study, W., Skok, 1999

4 thoughts on “Why Do London Cab Drivers Know So Much?

  1. Hello Ross,
    You may be aware that this has attracted the attention of neuroscientists eg the excellent Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. In Inventing Ourselves (2018) she discusses the work of Elearnor Maguire and her team: the posterior hippocampus of an experienced London cabbie is significantly larger than that of other men. The research suggests a cause and effect here: it’s acquiring the knowledge that affects hippocampal size, rather than men blessed with such asset becoming cabbies.

    These findings are also reviewed in Ericsson and Pool, Peak (2016). They also note that once the cabbies retired, their hippocampi shrank!

    1. Hi Robert, thank you for the comment. I was supposed to work alongside Sarah Jane Blakemore before lockdown. Sadly it didn’t happen, and I am aware that there will be extensive research on this particular topic, as well as everything else. I guess I’m just developing a newfound fascination for exploring lots of case studies and determining how this can correlate with teaching and learning. I’ll check out your links.

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