This blog says it is about, in part, learning and knowing. That brings us to the City of London. London is home to over 8 million people, and Charing Cross sits in the heart of the city. Six large streets intersect at that site. Over 25,000 streets are laid out within a 6 mile radius of that spot. Theaters, restaurants, government buildings, embassies, and most major tourist attractions are found in this area.
It’s been said that someone could eat at a different restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and supper for 20 years and never eat at the same restaurant twice in the city of London. Many of these restaurants are in that same central, downtown area.
Finding your way through this byzantine maze of spiderweb streets and alleys requires almost superhuman knowledge and memory. You may wonder how long it would take to learn how to maneuver from one place to another in this densely packed urban landscape.
Fortunately, we have an answer to that: 34 months.
Taxis have been in London for about 500 years. It’s been said that the first taxis were the used carriages of the wealthy Londoners. Eventually, the legal right to drive a taxi in London became standardized in the early 19th century. It was then that it became a requirement for taxi drivers to have a basic knowledge of the city and how to get about it.
Today, this knowledge is called, well, The Knowledge. If you want to drive a black London taxi cab, you must possess it. And it requires more than simply learning the tens of thousands of streets in the city.
London cab drivers must learn the streets and how to get through the city, certainly, but that is only the beginning of The Knowledge. In addition, taxi drivers must know the attractions, the hospitals, the businesses that are in the buildings, all those restaurants at which you could eat a different meal for all those years, and drivers must be able to tell passengers every location of every theater in London’s West End—in order in which they sit on the street.
This incredible feat of memory must be done within a process that averages 34 months in length in order to qualify to be a cab driver. Using a map, relying on phones or consulting navigation devices or even asking for information over the radio is something a possessor of The Knowledge would simply never do. Traffic issues ahead on this route? A London cab driver should be able to instantly switch to one of the other 319 standard routes through central London by tapping into The Knowledge.
Neophytes training in The Knowledge begin by learning routes on a motor scooter. As they train, teachers and examiners quiz them on crossroads, roundabouts, and what is on either side of them as they whiz along the London streets. And the system seems to work well. Researchers have found that the area of the brain used for memory and navigation, the hippocampus, is altered in cab drivers because of this training.
So, when you hop into your next Uber or Lyft in London, know that you’re depriving yourself of one of the greatest collections of information on the city that you could ever have: A London cab driver.