08 September 2009

The Knowledge

Most Americans from big cities are used to a street system laid out according to some plan that makes it easy to get an idea as to where to find a specific address. Chicago bases everything as either north or south of Madison and east or west of State. New York has that rather alien-feeling system which involves giving addresses as “X street between Y and Z”, which to me seems odd but is taken in stride by the locals. But NYC's system seems clear as glass compared to finding an address in London.

I've only seen few London addresses that reach above 100. How can such a big city not have higher numbered addresses? Obviously they have plenty of streets. The secret is to continually change the name of a street. It's quite common for a street's name to change as you follow it through an intersection, and for it to change names several times. And every time the name changes, the address numbering starts over from the beginning again (at least they're all positive numbers).

To add to the challenge, the streets aren't laid out in any familiar pattern like a grid. Roads are in a mad tangle of rings, crescents, straights, and loops, more like they grew there organically than were planned in any fashion. I'm told that's not far from the truth, that many roads are simply paved-over versions of horse paths that developed as London grew. It makes sense, and it certainly gives one a great sense of the history present in the very streets of the city, but that doesn't help much when you're trying to find the dentist's office.

So to my mind, this makes it amazing that London's cab drivers are able to find just about any address so handily. There's a secret here too, and it isn't that there's a trick that they don't tell Americans about. It's due to the acquisition of something referred to as "the knowledge". In Chicago I'm used to cabbies only knowing the major streets and needing a passenger to provide the number of blocks N/S and E/W to find a destination. In London, you pretty much just tell the cabbie where you want to go, and somehow they can just take you there. This is due to the knowledge, a comprehensive map of London's streets that's more or less been tattooed on the cabbie's brain.

To be licensed as a London cab driver you must acquire the knowledge, a process that takes a few years of study. To demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge a prospective cabbie must undergo a series of tests that involve finding the most efficient path to a destination taking time of day, road works, and passenger preferences into account, while simultaneously being able to name every street traversed during the journey as well as being able to recite what's visible along the road on the way. Apparently obscure destinations are often thrown in to test depth of knowledge, and a cab driver is also expected to be able to recommend attractions, restaurants, and pubs to passengers who inquire about them. Clearly, cab drivers are expected to serve as unofficial good-will ambassadors for the city. And I have to say it works pretty well.

You can easily spot a cabbie in training in London; these are the people on the scooters with a clipboard mounted on the handlebars that's holding a map. They can be found in traffic frequently checking their map, or pulled off to the side where they're studying the map and the surrounding area. Obviously, you have to really want to do this job, as it's clearly no picnic to become a black cab driver.

Generally speaking a Chicago cabbie doesn't fare well in a comparison with the London version. While Chicago cabbies are expected to know the major streets in town, they often need the fare's help in finding the final destination. Not only is the London cabbie required to know how to get you to the doorstep of your desire, but are also expected to know points of interest along the way, including "streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, restaurants and historic buildings" (quoted form the Wikipedia article linked above). Essentially, you could book a cab for a day and have a pretty thorough tour of London.

And somewhere in this I can't help think there's a bit of insight to be had into the folks here. In a country that has a reputation for bad service (deserved or not), since 1865 they have institutionalized a level of taxi service that mostly likely has no equal anywhere else in the world. I have to wonder if national pride doesn't play a significant role in not only setting this standard but in people raising to the challenge it presents.

1 comment:

  1. If only they were so well trained in Orlando. I appreciate your writing. I will someday move to the UK.