London's Cabbies Say 'The Knowledge' Is Better Than Uber And A GPS : Parallels The drivers of London's licensed black cabs must memorize every street to navigate the city. In the era of Uber and GPS, this tradition is under threat.
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London's Cabbies Say 'The Knowledge' Is Better Than Uber And A GPS

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London's Cabbies Say 'The Knowledge' Is Better Than Uber And A GPS

London's Cabbies Say 'The Knowledge' Is Better Than Uber And A GPS

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Taxi drivers in London are, like, human GPS systems. Name any spot in the city, and they know how to get you there. All of that knowledge is actually called the Knowledge. Now some cabbies say technology and companies like Uber are threatening the tradition. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Driving a black taxi in London isn't as easy as just getting into the car. You spend months flitting around London's streets on a moped, and you go to places like this...

(CROSSTALK)

FADEL: ...The West London Knowledge School. It's one of several in the capital. It's an open room filled with wannabe taxi drivers hunched over large laminated maps of the city. They draw routes with marker pens and then close their eyes and call out directions from the image in their head.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Wellclose Square, left - Fletcher Street, left - Cable Street.

FADEL: They're learning the Knowledge. Rob Zapponi is one of the students.

ROB ZAPPONI: Well, at the moment, what I've done so far is I've completed all 320 runs, which is basically the skeleton of the Knowledge.

FADEL: Memorizing every nook and cranny of this ancient city as well as being able to point out places of interest is hard. London is not on a grid like New York. The roads are winding and confusing.

ZAPPONI: Hardest part about the Knowledge is there's 25,000 roads in London. And not only have you got to name them all. You got to name them all and know which ones you're not allowed to do a left turn down or a right turn down.

FADEL: And then it's months of practice, listening to instructors in rooms like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What have I always said to you? Go with your first instincts, Glenn. That's the way the Knowledge work, Matey.

FADEL: The instructors quiz students preparing them for a long series of stiff tests they have to take with examiners from Transport for London, the city's transport administrator. Recruits are expected to know the best way to get between any two points, like a cinema and a hotel that the examiner chooses at random. The Knowledge was introduced when taxis were first regulated back in 1865. These days, it takes over three years to complete. Brian Nayar is a Knowledge instructor and still drives his own black cab.

BRIAN NAYAR: I haven't stopped from the moment I got on that bike to go to Manor House Station until today. We're talking 13 years, 14 years, nearly. I've just immersed myself in it. I absolutely love it.

FADEL: But he's worried. He says that Uber is affecting the industry he loves.

NAYAR: There are companies - you mentioned Uber - which, as far as I'm concerned, they're circumventing the law. They're using technology to break the law.

FADEL: If you drive a car with a meter in London, then you have to have passed the Knowledge and have the coveted Green Badge. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association believes Uber's online app is breaking the law. It says the app tracks the cost of the route and is the same as a meter. But the High Court disagreed Friday and ruled in favor of Uber. The Taxi Association is appealing.

Uber heralded the decision. As spokesman says, it's bringing competition to a market that has been relatively competition-free for decades. And competition, he says, always makes things best for the customer. But for cabbie Brian Nayar, stopping companies like Uber is about protecting a British tradition.

NAYAR: I drive a London taxi, but I'm also an ambassador for this great city that we work and live in. And you can't get that from a GPS.

FADEL: He puts on the meter and drives me back to the office. He points out landmarks, tells stories about London and then drops me off exactly where I asked without having to check a map. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London.

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