London’s Black Cabs Could Take A Turn

London's black cabs could take a turn

Some taxi drivers are upset at a plan to help minorities prep for the difficult licensing test. Officials say the service should reflect diversity.

By Kim Murphy,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 1, 2007

By night, Gezim Cokaj is a bouncer at a West End nightclub. By day, he is a seeker of “the Knowledge.”

Each morning, he rises late, has his tea and climbs onto his motor scooter. For the next six, seven, eight hours, he rides: from Knatchbull Road to Surrey Quays Station; New Cross Station to the National Maritime Museum; Peckham High Street to Chalk Hill Road.

What gets you there faster? Warwick Way off Vauxhall Bridge Road? Or left on Grosvenor? Or wait — avoid Vauxhall altogether by going down Battersea Park Road!

These are the questions that consume Cokaj's days, and his nights, as he stands by the nightclub door, silently repeating the endless route sequences in his brain like mantras. When he has memorized all 320 of the fastest ways around London, he will have reached the holy grail of taxi drivers, passing the test known as the Knowledge, and will be eligible to ply a black hackney cab in the capital.

“I've been doing it for two years, but I can call myself a beginner,” said Cokaj, 37, an immigrant from Kosovo, who figures it will be at least another year before he can hope to get his license.

A little more than 24,600 people have mastered the Knowledge and won London's coveted black-cab licenses, the large majority of them white men. They are the perennially wisecracking, occasionally curt, always opinionated blokes familiar to everyone who's ever been late, lost and loaded with money in London. Prone to calling female fares “luv” and aiming their large black vehicles like guided missiles down crowded thoroughfares, they've been known to toss tips out the window in disgust at passengers who have had the cheek to question their route.

This rarefied world has been rocked in recent weeks by an initiative from Mayor Ken Livingstone to attract more women and minorities into the hackney cab trade. A third of Londoners are of an ethnic minority background and more than half are women, but only 5% of the city's cab fleet is composed of ethnic minorities and less than 2% of taxi drivers are women, the mayor's office said in announcing the program.

Officials at the London Development Agency, which is overseeing the campaign, emphasize that the test will not be dumbed down. Instead, the $4-million program, dubbed by some the “Ethnic Knowledge,” aims to provide a three-year training course, language and math help, child care and other support to as many as 600 women and ethnic minorities seeking to enter the quintessentially British brotherhood.

There has always been a distinct class barrier between the city's elite black hackney carriages and their poor relations, the nondescript minicabs, booked in advance by phone and not nearly so painful on the pocketbook.

The minicab is a Toyota or a Volkswagen that shows up anonymously at your door, as often as not with an Indian, Pakistani or Afghan behind the wheel. One flags a hackney from the street, should it deign to slow and collect you. Once inside its functional and roomy embrace, one is either ignored or lectured on the subject of the day (former Prime Minister Tony Blair's shortcomings and England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson's heroics being among the favorites). Which it is depends on one's mood, which a London cabbie can sense with a sly squint into the rearview mirror as keenly as a bartender.

Famous for their maneuvering ability — a London cab, it is said, can “turn on a sixpence” — the barrel-shaped bricks stop for neither yellow light nor pedestrian to reach their destination; the putt-putt of their diesel engines at full bore is as much a part of the audioscape of central London as Big Ben's chimes.

The controversy over the mayor's new program began almost immediately, with the London Cab Drivers Club organizing a protest and launching a major letter-writing campaign.

Club members, who are scheduled to meet Friday with representatives of the mayor's office, say the program to help minorities is unfair to those who spent years of their lives studying on their own for the Knowledge. On average it takes 40 months to study for and pass the test. They fear the city's ambitious plan to turn out hundreds of new cab drivers will flood the market and inevitably diminish standards.

“There has never been any history of racism within the cab trade — you've got only to look at the amount of black drivers and Asian drivers and drivers of other minorities that have actually got their license and gone to work,” said Alan Fleming, the club's chairman. “But when you start to social-engineer, all of a sudden when you've got a driver who's black, people are going to look at him and say, 'Did he get his license because he's black? Or did he do the Knowledge?' ”

Many other drivers say they aren't worried about the pool of drivers expanding as long as the standards remain the same for all. The cab drivers union has come out in support of the program, saying drivers run the risk of being “divorced from the community” if they do not become more diverse.

City officials say increasing minority representation will also help augment the number of cabs before the 2012 Summer Olympics and ease congestion by discouraging private cars in neighborhoods not served by public transit. (A taxi milk-running passengers through the city takes up less space than four or five motorists trolling for parking spaces, engineers say.)

“The project simply aims to support people from communities that are underrepresented in the industry, as they undertake the arduous Knowledge process, so that over time, London will have a taxi trade that looks more like its population,” the mayor said.

In the end, what drivers fear most is that the encyclopedic memory base that distinguishes a hackney driver from a mere cabbie will begin to seem less important — especially with the advent of satellite navigation systems, a fixture in many minicabs.

The city's 43,000 minicab drivers are required only to have three years' driving experience and pass a test showing they can use a map to plan a route.