London taxi drivers have a reputation across the rest of the UK, and even the world, as being perhaps some of the most knowledgeable drivers in the entire industry. The world renowned Knowledge of London (KOL) test that all licensed cab drivers must pass before they are able to ‘ply for hire’ often takes many years of study to pass. On average, the length of time needed to pass the KOL is somewhere between 3 and 5 years. This may sound like a long time, but when you think that drivers need to learn around 25,000 streets names and locations, as well as in the region of 20,000 unique London landmarks, it all begins to make a bit more sense.
Despite being well known for its difficulty, this is hardly ever quoted as a reason for putting people off becoming a cab near in London. Whilst it may be difficult, the simple volume of work available to drivers and the true flexibility they have, once they have passed, has historically been seen as an even trade-off. Rarely, if ever at all, has the difficulty of the test been plugged as something putting potential cabbies off applying to become drivers.
However, in more recent years, and not in response to the COVID pandemic, the number of people studying hard for the KOL has dropped dramatically. On an average year, there are in the region of 2000 individuals studying for the KOL. Today there is around 750 drivers at the test stage for the KOL. A number of industry reps have given explanations for this drop, and below you will find our summary of the more common reasons.
How the Industry is Seen
A mixture of media representation and industry morale has brought us to a relatively poor reputation for the taxi industry. Several high-profile legal cases involving taxi drivers in recent times have no doubt contributed to this negative perception of the industry, despite the huge amounts of positive work carried out by the majority of the industry. This is particularly unfair when you take into account the extra work and support that many cab drivers have provided to key workers over the entirety of the COVID pandemic.
On the other hand, there’s a very large vocal portion of drivers in the industry who some have called the ‘doom and gloom brigade’. These people tend to spend their life discussing how they think the industry is dead or dying on Facebook. As social media is so influential in the digital age, this loud minority is actively putting off the next generation of drivers from starting their journey as taxi drivers.
Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are one of the new flashpoints for the industry. One MP recently claimed that the introduction of LTN’s across a number of London boroughs has essentially invalidated the KOL. Tessa Villager, Tory MP for Chipping Barnet recently provoked a debate in the Commons after highlighting the massive impact that LTN’s were having on both passengers and drivers. She stated that for many individuals with disabilities or mobility issues, taxis were the easiest and most convenient method of transport. The introduction of LTNs in many areas has pretty much cut off some of these people from their primary method of transport.
The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and the United Trade Action Group have been given a judicial review after taking on Transport for London’s (TfL) and the London Mayor’s Streetspace plans. This review will be held for 2 days and begins 25th of November.
While the difficulty of the KOL is not generally believed to be a problem, one element of it has been identified as a possible issue. This is known as the ‘Suburbs Test’. This part of the KOL is solely dedicated to learning the areas on the outskirts of London, which industry reps argue that drivers rarely use anyway. It can take up to four months of study to be ready to take the test for this section. Lobbyists hoping to reform the KOL recommend that its removal will help boost driver numbers.
While the sheer numbers of applicants for the KOL was dropping before the pandemic, coronavirus and the associated restrictions have had a huge impact on the industry. Not only have taxi and private hire drivers been disproportionately affected by the actual virus, but the state of the taxi industry’s recovery is still very much up in the air.
The taxi industry relies on lots of other feeder industries, such as tourism, sport, hospitality and other large events. Hospitality has been one of the biggest hit sectors and even though things are beginning to reopen, they are facing a drastic staff shortage. Venues that may have just about survived the pandemic are now discovering that they don’t have enough workers to be able to reopen to full effect. This is resulting in many hospitality venues closing down. If this trend carries on in other areas, such as evening venues, then potential revenue streams could reduce significantly.
It still remains to be seen how the whole UK economy will come back from the effects of the COVID lockdown.