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The London Cabbie Life

From riding elephant back in Africa to taking a tuk-tuk in Thailand, getting from place to place in a foreign country often requires a certain degree of skill. As a travel and adventure writer, Todd Jarrell has used just about every mode of transportation you can think of. He's found that even hailing a cab in London can have its challenges. But as he tells us, finding a taxi driver in London was nowhere as difficult as actually being one.

The London Cabbie Life
by Todd Jarrell

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For the tourist visiting London, there is one highly reliable mod of transportation...the Black Cabs. These were originally horse-powered Hackney Carriages, first licensed way back in 1654.

These 20,000 rotund and affable cabs provide the world's best-trained taxi service. The road to receive a Green Badge - the license to work the 700 square miles of Greater London - is arduous, at best.

Required is "the Knowledge," a huge body of minutia. To start, trainees memorize four hundred basic routes, each containing dozens of streets and points of interest, providing well over one million route combinations. Any of these must be precisely recited to the hard-nosed examiner at a series of qualifying "appearances" each hopeful student must endure.

Chris, a two-year cabbie, explains the dreaded appearances...

Chris: "Horrific, is one word. Uh, nervewracking. You get in that chair and you feel like a ten-year-old schoolboy who is just about to get the cane..."

The London Cabbie Life

Even the Public Carriage Office spokesman admits that quote, "Fear governs the process." Ten percent of applicants quit immediately. Forty percent fail the appearances. Grown men cry. Divorces and breakdowns are not uncommon among those who seek the Knowledge.

Chris: "Your mind goes blank. You panic. Your brain just locks up, and then he could ask you your own name and you wouldn't know it."

Melodramatic maybe, but much is at stake. To complete the Knowledge takes three to four years. With classes, books, maps, lost wages, and a moped to run the routes, some invest $40,000 before buying the cab. The cab costs another 4,000. Serious committment.

For all of this, cabbies are autonomous operators in London's fourth largest industry. Good nights bring in 200 pounds sterling, which is just under $300. The best nights can bring 500 pounds, which is almost $700. The license brings a "remarkable free-spirited independence," as one school director put it, and careers can span decades. One cabbie recently retired at age 92.

Edwin, a cabbie of thirty years, says it's the mix of customers that keep him interested...

Edwin: "I had Hulk Hogan, is he? One of your famous wrestlers, is it?...I had, uh, Charlton Heston and his wife...Dustin Hoffman...where I saved him a few bob, he gave me a twenty pence tip. We had all the American lawyers here earlier in the year. Funny enough, they didn't tip at all!"

Hollywood stars and attorney's aside, Chris, the two-year cabbie, tells me that Americans hold up very well with most cabbies...

Chris: "Americans tend to tip a lot, because they've a tipping culture. French and German people never tip, or very, very rarely. I've always had pleasant experiences with Americans."

At least Americans have a good reputation with ONE group of foreigners, so, next time in London, hail a black cab. He'll know where you're going. And if you tip a reasonable ten to fifteen percent, he'll also know where you're coming from.

In London, I'm Todd Jarrell for the Savvy Traveler.


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