Taxicabs of the United Kingdom

Taxicabs of the United Kingdom
Taxicab rank with "black cabs" outside Liverpool Lime Street railway station

Taxicabs are regulated throughout the United Kingdom, but the regulation of taxicabs in London is especially rigorous both with regard to mechanical integrity and driver knowledge. An official report observed that: "Little however is known about the regulation by anyone outside the trade. The Public Carriage Office, which regulates and licenses taxis and private hire (commonly known as minicabs) was transferred from the Metropolitan Police to become part of Transport for London in 2000."[1]


Types of cab

  • Private hire vehicles ('minicabs') are passenger vehicles which can be either a 4 door saloon/hatchback, carrying up to four passengers or MPVs that are licensed to carry between 5 and 8 passengers. These may not be hailed in the street.
    • Chauffeur cars are a sub-set of private hire; generally a higher-value car such as a Mercedes or Jaguar where the passenger pays a premium but in return receives a higher level of comfort and courtesy from the driver, some of whom wear a uniform.

Hackney carriages

Only licensed hackney carriages can pick up passengers on the street without pre-booking. London's traditional black cabs (so-called, despite being of various colours and advertising designs) are specially constructed vehicles designed to conform to the standards set out in the Conditions of Fitness. Cab drivers are licensed and must have passed an extensive training course (the Knowledge). Unlike many other cities, the number of taxicab drivers in London is not limited. For many years purpose-designed vehicles were used, but from about 2008 specially-adapted "people carrier" vehicles have also been used.

There have been many models over the years.[2] The space beside the driver's seat can be used for luggage, although there is much luggage room in the passenger compartment. For improved manoeuvrability, the turning circle is smaller than other vehicles of similar size (a black cab is said to be able to "turn on a sixpence"). The cab seats three people on the back seat, and two more in backwards-facing "jump seats". There is good headroom, to facilitate entry to and exit from the vehicle. A ramp for access by disabled people is fitted.

Private hire ('minicabs')

UK minicab with company name and telephone number on each side

In England the term minicab is used to refer to a private hire car and "private hire" is used in Scotland; that is a car with a driver available for hire only on a pre-booked basis. They began operating in the 1960s in competition to hackney carriages after a loophole in the law was spotted (although in some areas it is possible to hold a dual hackney/private hire licence). A minicab must be booked, for example, by telephone, internet, or fax, or in person at the registered minicab office. A minicab can be booked at the time it is required, but only at the office of a company registered to accept bookings rather than directly with a driver.

Since 2001 minicabs have been regulated in London and most other local authorities. London minicabs are now licensed by the Public Carriage Office, now renamed LTPH, London Taxis and Private Hire; the same body that regulates London's licensed taxicabs, but the minicab drivers do not have to complete The Knowledge. All vehicles available for hire by London minicab drivers must hold a LTPH licence showing that they are fit for purpose; this is updated twice a year after an inspection at a licensed garage. In London all private Hire Drivers must undergo a topographical test in order to obtain a Private Hire Drivers License. In London a new applicant must send their Topographical Skill Certificate along with their application to the PHV Driver Licensing Section of London Taxis and Private Hire formally known as the PCO / Public Carriage Office .


London Black Cab
Advertisements for Barclays on a Leeds taxi.


Horse-drawn hackney carriages began providing taxicab service in the early 17th century. In 1636 the number of carriages was set at 50, an early example of taxicab regulation. In the same year, the owner of four hackney carriages established the first taxicab stand in The Strand. In the early 19th century cabriolets (cabs for short) replaced the heavier and more cumbersome hackney carriages. Battery-operated taxis appeared briefly at the end of the 19th century, but the modern taxicab service took off with the appearance of petrol-powered taxis in 1903. In 1907 meters were first introduced to calculate the fare and were set at 8d (8 pence) for the first mile. Today, taxicab service in London is provided by the famous black cabs (typically the distinctive FX4 depicted in the photo above) and by minicabs.

Electric taxi

Chinese carmaker Geely Automobile has been in talks over the possibility of converting London’s black cabs into electric-powered cars. The company, which co-owns London taxi-maker Manganese Bronze, says it has held talks with UK government officials about the plan.[3]

The Knowledge

The taxicab driver is required to be able to decide routes immediately in response to a passenger's request or traffic conditions, rather than stopping to look at a map, relying on satellite navigation or asking a controller by radio. Consequently, the 'Knowledge of London' Examination System,[4] informally known as 'The Knowledge', is the in-depth study of a number of pre-set London street routes and places of interest that taxicab drivers in that city must complete to obtain a licence to operate a black cab. It was initiated in 1865, and has changed little since. It is claimed that the training involved ensures that London taxi drivers are experts on London, and have an intimate knowledge of the city.

It is the world's most demanding training course for taxicab-drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve 'appearances' (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination.[5]

Course details

The 320 main (standard) routes, or 'runs', through central London of the Knowledge are contained within the 'Blue Book' (officially known as the 'Guide to Learning the Knowledge of London'), produced by the Public Carriage Office which regulates licensed taxis in London. In all some 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross are covered along with the major arterial routes through the rest of London.

A taxicab-driver must learn these routes, as well as the 'points of interest' along those routes 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.

The Knowledge includes such details as the order of theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, or the names and order of the side streets and traffic signals passed on a route.

There are a number of Knowledge Schools that provide books, maps and classroom tuition which help Knowledge students to learn the 320 runs and points of interest.[6]

There are separate shorter courses, for suburban London, with 30 to 50 'runs' depending on the sector.[7]

"Knowledge boys"

"Knowledge boy"

During training, would-be cabbies, known as Knowledge boys (or girls), usually follow these routes around London on a motor scooter, and can be identified by the clipboard fixed to the handlebars and showing details of the streets to be learned that day. Taxi-driver applicants must be 'of good character', meeting strict requirements regarding any criminal record,[8] then first pass a written test which qualifies them to make an 'appearance'. At appearances, Knowledge boys must, without looking at a map, identify the quickest and most sensible route between any two points in metropolitan London that their examiner chooses. For each route, the applicants must recite the names of the roads used, when they cross junctions, use roundabouts, make turns, and what is 'alongside' them at each point.[9]

A man who murdered his wife in 2001 and was imprisoned under the Mental Health Act 2007 as a paranoid schizophrenic had been doing the Knowledge after his release in an attempt to become a taxi driver. The London cab drivers' union demonstrated against this.[10] After magistrates dismissed his appeal against revocation of his private hire licence, as of April 2010 he planned to appeal to the High Court. His conviction is spent, and barring him from working could lead to legal action citing restraint of trade or human rights violations.[11]

In research, film and literature

A humorous 1979 film about this learning experience, called The Knowledge, was written by Jack Rosenthal for ITV,[12] and was in 2000 voted number 83 in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes compiled by the British Film Institute.

In the Up Series documentary films, Tony Walker is seen on his motor scooter learning "The Knowledge" before becoming a cab driver.

In The Knowledge Miniseries, which was a spin off from the comic book Hellblazer, Chas Chandler's job as a taxi driver is the basis for various plot elements of the series.

Knowledge boys/girls and their online learning communities have recently been the subject of academic research, including a PhD dissertation by Drew AR Ross at Oxford University.[13] There is evidence that training for the Knowledge can measurably alter the hippocampus of trainee cab drivers. The hippocampus is the area of the brain used for spatial memory and navigation, and is generally larger in taxi drivers than in the general population.[14][15][16]

The Knowledge, its runs, and to a certain extent the role of the PCO, form the basis for a future religion in the author Will Self's The Book of Dave.[17]

In one issue of Viz comic, the character Cockney Wanker took The Knowledge to become a taxi driver. Although he answered the route correctly the examiner advised him that he should not take the shortest route but instead take the fare paying passenger a much longer way. He then had to pass a fictitious The Ignorance test in which he had to speak starting from one topic to end at another unrelated topic consisting of several racist, bigoted and ignorant irrelevant linking topics.

TfL Taxi and Private Hire office

The Taxi and Private Hire office is the body responsible for licensing taxicabs within Greater London. Taxi and Private Hire is part of Transport for London and is responsible for licensing the familiar London taxicab or "black cab" and also licenses private hire or minicab services. "Black cabs" were traditionally coloured black, but this is not a requirement and cabs are painted in other colours, sometimes bearing advertising; however they are traditionally called black cabs as distinct from minicabs.


PCO licence plate, as seen on the back of all licensed hackney carriages (September 2006)

Since 1600 public carriages for hire have been a feature of London life. The discarded coaches of aristocratic families, complete with their coat of arms, were among the first hackney carriages to ply for hire. They were the forerunners of the French hackney carriage or cab (cabriolet) which first appeared in London around 1820.

The first horseless cab, the Bersey electric powered vehicle, appeared in 1897, followed by the first internal combustion engine cab in 1903. At that time London still had more than 11,000 horse drawn cabs. The last horse drawn cab was removed from service in 1947. There are now over 20,000 licensed vehicles on London's roads.

Regulation of the trade passed to the Metropolitan Police in 1850 and was undertaken by the Public Carriage Office, which was originally in an annex to New Scotland Yard in Whitehall called "the Bungalow". It moved to 109 Lambeth Road in 1919, remaining there until 1966, when it moved to 15 Penton Street, Islington. In 2010 it moved again to the Palestra Building at 197 Blackfriars Road, Southwark.

Present role

On the formation of Transport for London on 3 July 2000, the licensing authority changed; however, the day-to-day licensing function remained with the Public Carriage Office.

With the introduction of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 the role of the PCO has been expanded to include the licensing of private hire operators, drivers and vehicles, bringing the capital into line with the rest of England and Wales.

In November 2005, in the report Where to, Guv?, the London Assembly's Transport Committee reported on a review of the Public Carriage Office and made some key recommendations.[1]


Hackney carriages in Leeds are white with black bumpers and bonnets

In many metropolitan areas throughout the UK, taxis are licenced by the local authority,[18][19] and in many places are required to be painted a certain colour.[20][21] For instance, hackney carriages in Bristol are blue, yellow in Derby, silver in Portsmouth and on the Isle of Wight. These restrictions do not apply to licences granted previously, and many taxis remain unchanged.

Luton is reported to have the highest number of taxicabs per head of population in the United Kingdom.[22]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Where to, Guv?", London Assembly Transport Committee report into the Public Carriage Office, November 2005
  2. ^ "Taxicab Make And Model History". Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  3. ^ "Geely: We’ll make an electric London cab". Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  4. ^ [1][dead link]
  5. ^ "The Knowledge", Public Carriage Office, Transport for London
  6. ^ "London Taxi Knowledge Schools",
  7. ^ "Applicants for a Taxi Driver’s Licence - The ‘Knowledge of London' Examination System", Public Carriage Office, Transport for London
  8. ^ "Requirements in order to obtain a taxi licence in London - by: Transport for London". Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  9. ^ "The Knowledge Boys", Scientific American Frontiers
  10. ^ "Unite London cab drivers demonstrate against convicted killer undergoing the Knowledge, 9 September 2009". Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  11. ^ "Killer fights on over bid to become cabbie, 27 April 2010". ThisIsLondon. Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  12. ^ The Knowledge (1979) (TV) at the Internet Movie Database
  13. ^ Abstract of "Backstage with the Knowledge Boys and Girls: Goffman and Distributed Agency in an Organic Online Community", Drew AR Ross, Organization Studies, March 2007, vol. 28, 3: pp. 307-25
  14. ^ Maguire, EA; Gadian DG, Johnsrude IS, Good CD, Ashburner J, Frackowiak RS, Frith CD (2000). "Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers". PNAS 97 (8): 4398–403. Bibcode 2000PNAS...97.4398M. doi:10.1073/pnas.070039597. PMC 18253. PMID 10716738. 
  15. ^ Blakemore, Sarah–Jayne; Frith, Uta (2005). The learning brain: lessons for education. Blackwell Publishing. p. 125. ISBN 9781405124010. 
  16. ^ "Taxi drivers 'have brain sat-nav'". BBC News. 2008-09-13. Retrieved 2008-09-14. 
  17. ^ ""The Book Of Dave"" "The Book Of Dave"
  18. ^ "About Taxi and Private Hire Licences". Eastbourne Borough Council. Retrieved April 2011. 
  19. ^ "Taxis and private hire vehicles". 2010-06-07. Retrieved 2011-04-17. 
  20. ^ City and County of Swansea (28 January 2010). "# # Vehicles - Hackney Carriage". Retrieved 18 May 2011. 
  21. ^ City and County of Swansea (17 June 2010). "Vehicles - Private Hire". Retrieved 18 May 2011. 
  22. ^ "Luton South", UK Polling Report

External links

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