Olympic Blues: London Cabbies Feel Left Out of the Party

Barred from access to Olympic VIP traffic lanes, many cabbies would rather park their iconic rides than suffer through snarled traffic.

There are many ways one can navigate the labyrinthine streets of London—the sweaty Tube network, Boris’ bicycle hire, the top deck of a red bus—but there’s only one way to get around and get an education at the same time: the iconic black cab.

Climb into a licensed London cab, name one of the city’s 25,000 quaintly named streets (like Lamb’s Conduit, or Threadneedle) and a London cabbie will get you there, no questions, map, or GPS required.

It’s apparent that Londoners take pride in their cabbies, and also that cab drivers take pride in their profession. The clout that London cabbies drive around with is well-earned, and due in a large part to what is known as "the Knowledge.”

The Knowledge essentially amounts to a university course in London’s street network and is the only test of its kind required by any major world city. Based on 320 core routes, mastering the Knowledge—which trainees generally do on a motorbike, taking anywhere from 2 to 4 years—includes knowing the 20,000 landmarks and places of interest within a six mile radius of Charing Cross.

“It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done quite honestly,” said driver Lindsay Franklin, who completed the Knowledge in two and a half years, even braving London’s notorious winters on a motorbike. “The knowledge is harder than the actual job itself. But once you’re out of it, you always fall back on it to thread it all together.”

For London cabbies, it’s not just about getting people from A to B. In addition to efficiently doing their jobs, says Neil White, a born and bred Londoner and cab driver of 23 years, cabbies are always eager to share this vast urban knowledge they’ve spent so long accumulating. London cab drivers collectively voted against a 22% increase on an already expensive taxi rate during the Games (unlike London’s bus and tube drivers) because they thought it would discourage use and give a bad impression of cab drivers.

“The best part about this job is the sense of fulfillment—London’s a famous place and you’re representing it,” White said. “But with the Olympics, Londoners are leaving town and we’re not able to help the tourists that are here because if we take them anywhere, it’s going to take twice as long and cost twice as much. We don’t want to do that to them.”

For a group of people that are so obviously proud to represent London and serve its residents, cabbies are less than pleased at the prospect of London 2012. This is due in large part to the decision to bar London’s 23,000 licensed cab drivers from using designated Olympic lanes, which are reserved to transport officials, diplomats, and athletes. Doing so will result in a fine of £130, as will a list of other Olympic-specific infractions.

Last week, cabbies staged a protest in the Olympic lanes outside Parliament, bringing traffic in Westminster to a halt. Friday, the day of the opening ceremony, cabbies took their action to Hyde park to show their continued disapproval.

“The mayor says we’re the best cab drivers in the world, or so they keep telling us, and we feel good about that,” explained Denis Stobie, a cabbie for 41 years. “The boys are protesting to say we shouldn’t have to join the queue like everyone else.”

White says some drivers are choosing not to work at all during the Games, claiming that their bread and butter customers have left London and it’s too crowded to drive tourists around anyway. Because of this, visitors are missing out on a local treat: the opportunity to drive around in one of London’s most iconic attractions.

“We feel like London is having its biggest birthday party ever and we’ve not been invited,” said White.

Image (cc) Flickr user Germeister

via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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