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The changing face of the public-hire taxi driver

london black cab on the road in front of the houses of parliament with a blue sky and white clouds

Becoming a London back cab driver was seen as the pinnacle of the profession, with taxi drivers proudly memorising thousands of routes around the capital before earning their coveted taxi badge.

Outside London, Hackney carriage drivers were also seen as the elite in the trade and public hire insurance allowed them to be hailed in the street or taxi rank. This set them apart from PHVs or minicabs, which could only be booked in advance under private hire insurance.


Advances in technology have changed the way we use taxis and have been the driving force behind modernising the industry.

The biggest change has been the introduction of booking apps – for public and private hire vehicles – which make it easier for passengers to meet their cabs, to pay fares and leave tips, as well as giving the opportunity for both parties to leave reviews.

The Standard reports that this shift has seen a fall in the number of taxi drivers while private hire numbers have risen. Latest figures from Transport for London show there were 17,673 licensed taxi drivers in December – down almost 2,000 on a year ago, and 99,937 minicab drivers – the first time the number has fallen below six figures since 2015.

While numbers completing The Knowledge in London have fallen sharply, the historic test is being reviewed and is here to stay because the capital’s cabbies “want to retain the Knowledge’s gold standard while ensuring it remains relevant in the modern world”.

Updating traditions

And with apps such as Uber and Freenow signing up some of the capital’s black-cab drivers, the expensive Knowledge course is being made free to encourage more people into the trade. Freenow, an app for both taxis and minicabs, is offering to cover the cost of studying The Knowledge for Freenow drivers, with 181 already enrolled with training schools.

Mariusz Zabrocki, general manager at Freenow UK, told the Standard the aim is to overcome the two main barriers to becoming a taxi driver – the cost of doing The Knowledge and the time involved.

He said: “PHV drivers already have a lot of street knowledge. That is the reason we decided to support PHV drivers specifically – they have already done half of the work.

“They are already on the streets. They know the main landmarks. They’re already halfway to getting The Knowledge. We believe they can complete the course within two years or less.”


And he recognises how important the yellow and green taxi badges are to drivers.

He added: “It will mean a pretty big boost to their earnings and a pretty big boost to their social status. Let’s be honest – being a black cab driver is way more prestigious than most jobs, not just being a PHV driver.”

Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, said: “We welcome initiatives aimed at encouraging people who are willing to do the hard work required to complete the Knowledge, to uphold our gold standard and join the ranks of the world’s best taxi service.”

Having opened the door for more to learn the Knowledge, another obstacle is the cost of EV black cabs, with new vehicles costing up to £100,000.

Caroline Pidgeon, a Lib-Dem member of the London Assembly, told the Standard: “Given the uncertainty and challenging conditions faced by the industry, I am glad the mayor has agreed to my calls for a roundtable with the taxi industry, including the various taxi apps, to help shape a new strategy and action plan to help our iconic black taxi service continue to serve London.”

Keeping up

While the Knowledge is going strong in the capital again, it has been watered down in other parts of the country, with many drivers being able to use sat-navs instead of having to memorise routes.

Having already been established in Bury, Plymouth could follow the same route. The BBC reports that Plymouth City Council’s cabinet is backing plans to remove the Knowledge of Plymouth test for private hire drivers and, in a bid to cut costs, public hire drivers will no longer have to have green-and-white liveried cabs. If approved by the council, the changes will come into force on April 1.

And as the use of apps continues to grow, improvements in technology become even more important. A collaboration between HERE Technologies and Uber promises to improve global mapping and create advanced location-aware tools, Taxi Point reports.

This will make a huge difference to drivers and passengers at busy locations such as airports, stadiums, arenas, and other high-traffic areas.

It is good to see drives that encourage more people to become black cab drivers, and the modernisation of the industry helps ensure passengers can enjoy the best that public and private hire services have to offer.

All information is correct at time of publication. Information provided within this article may have changed over time. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by John Patons Insurance Services or any of its employees.