Taxi Noir: Starting Out as a London Cab Driver
Cab driving in London is one of the most democratic occupations known to man. How many other occupations allow you to start training with no previous qualifications, then offer a job for life? You’re not asked about your academic record or previous experience; and you’re not even asked to provide a CV. The entry requirements are a good brain and above-average staying power. It’s not about who you know, but about what you know. Your parents can’t arrange an internship from a chum at the golf club to help you on your way; you are on your own. If you’re good at analysing thousands of road patterns and remembering important buildings, you could become one of the 30% of cab licence applicants who succeed on the Knowledge of London exams and gain your green badge. Whether you graduated from a sink Comprehensive, or have a degree behind you, you can find a home in the weird and frightening world of cab driving (in this article you’ll see a picture of myself as a Knowledge Examiner, and one of my desk. My Dead Hard Runs file was really a joke to amuse my colleagues).
It takes most people about three years to complete the examinations to gain an all-London licence. What happens then? Once you’ve got your badge and licence you just find a cab to rent, work out how to set the meter, and away you go. You’ll need to put together a bagful of change as your fist customer is almost certainly going to pay with a £50 note. The majority of London cab drivers own their cabs, but most people start off renting from a garage. It’ll cost you at least £250 per week. Taxis in London have traditionally been diesel automatics, but if you want to buy a new one it has to be electric. It costs around £60,000. Neither the iconic-shaped TX4, nor the Mercedes Vito van conversion, can be bought new. Despite the exorbitant price, and lack of rapid charging points, the new TXE has sold well. Most cabs are black in colour, although you can have any colour you like. My TX4 is Oxford Blue. Even a blue cab looks black.
All London cab drivers are fully self-employed. We meet with an accountant once a year to arrange our tax returns. Our outgoings are high, but our costs are offset against our tax bill.
Until quite recently, the London taxi trade was based on cash. This has changed. You need to ensure you have a working credit card reader installed in the passenger compartment, as this is now compulsory. Many drivers subscribe to a hailing app. I subscribe to a traditional computerised system. It’s a sophisticated bit of kit. My credit card reader is connected to my meter, my on-board computer, and my printer. My account passengers get an automated call on arrival when I press a button. Drivers are free to use any combination of hailing methods they wish. Responding to a wave of a hand on a street is still the most common method.
Most drivers circuit the tourist and business hotspots of Central London, such as the West End or the City (financial district). Business used to be almost non-stop when I started in 1988, but it’s a lot slower now. Rather than drive around and around Oxford Street and Regent Street, most of us park up on designated taxi ranks or at train stations some of the time. We can also rank up at the two airports in London; Heathrow and City (no matter what the marketing says, all other airports prefixed “London” are in other counties and are served by taxis from those areas). Heathrow is Europe’s busiest airport and it’s a city within a city. The ranking system is complicated and there will be huge queues of cabs waiting in the huge feeder park to be allocated a rank. You have to pay for the privilege. I’ve never picked anyone up at Heathrow, partly because there’s a good chance of being asked to go somewhere I’ve never even heard of. Heathrow drivers are a different breed. Some have nicknames and flirt with an outlaw image. They dream of being asked to turn left onto the M4 and head towards Bristol or Wales. Many don’t spend any time in Central London. Central London drivers are known as “Town” drivers.
London cab drivers don’t rely on satnavs, they trust their own training and experience. We don’t usually have time to fiddle with a satnav anyway, as when someone gets in we’re expected to set off immediately. And everyone is in a hurry. Tourists are more relaxed. I prefer working weekends when customers are mostly tourists, and when the traffic is calmer. The two aspects of the job that cause the most problems are:
- the traffic.
As a day man I get few problem passengers, but it’s different at night. Although there are fewer vehicles on the roads nowadays, it feels as if there are more. Road space has been systematically reduced by the anti-car agenda of Transport for London and other authorities. Many roads have been narrowed or blocked off permanently. Many days are blighted by demonstrations, marches, and other road closures for special events. On some days I consider it impossible to work and have a day off. It’s a bit political, but I’m sure to say more about London’s traffic in the future. If you want to know more about the Knowledge of London training, please see my last two articles – or read my book. In future articles I’ll talk more about the people who pay our wages – our customers.