Like the Big Ben and the red double-decker buses, London’s black cabs are an inseparable part of the city. So much so that these taxis have attained a legendary stature hardly paralleled anywhere else in the world. Modernization, however, has seen to it that not all the black cabs in greater London remain black; a trendy, streamlined version has now replaced some of the old ones.
Ever since the days of horse drawn carriages, the specifications of London’s taxis have been regulated. In 1679, passenger safety concerns resulted in the development of Conditions of Fitness. These requirements, modified as and when necessary, are still strictly enforced by the Public Carriage Office, a division of the Metropolitan Police.
The London taxi which lingers in most people’s memories is the Austin FX-4, which was introduced in 1959 and remained in production until 1997.
A London taxi is subject to thorough periodic inspections and is retired after 10 to 12 years and thousands of miles of service. When retired, many of them move away to other cities where rules are less stringent. Some are dismantled and their parts sold off. A collector feels proud if he does have a London taxi in his collection.
“The Knowledge” test
Membership of the team of London’s black cab drivers does not come easy. Drivers have to get through a tough test known as “The Knowledge” before earning the right to sit behind the wheel. They have to memorize almost every road near central London and also be familiar with the location of every hospital, theatre, train station, hotel etc. Finally, they undergo months of tough tests before being eligible for the certificate.
Black cab ride
Black cab ride is expensive, so it becomes easier if you travel in groups and share the steep fare. Evening rates are still higher with a surcharge introduced at 8pm, which also goes up after midnight. Normally, tipping at about 10% is expected.
You can catch a black cab in different ways: telephone for a black cab, hail one in the street or find one in a rank. Ranks are usually located near airports, stations or famous hotels. The taxis carry a yellow ‘For Hire’ sign above the windscreen which is lit up when they are unoccupied. In order to hail a taxi, hold out your arm to stop it and tell the driver your destination when it stops.
A black cab is bound by rules to take you anywhere within a six-mile radius as long as that is within the Metropolitan Police district. Most of the Greater London area and Heathrow Airport fall within this radius. They are fitted with two fold down seats and can carry a maximum of five passengers. Black cabs have sufficient space for luggage and some of them have wheelchair access as well.
All black cabs have a meter and the fare is displayed in the taxi. Both Radio Taxis (020 7272 0272) and Dial-a-Cab (020 7253 5000) run a 24-hour telephone booking service. Ladycabs ( 020 7272 3300 ) operate with only drivers of the fair sex. Ladycabs provide a safe way for women to travel particularly late at night.
Taxi Lost Property on Baker Street, near Baker Street Underground station, handles only the property that has been found in registered black cabs. The office (tel: 07918 2000) remains from Monday to Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Transport for London Lost Property Office operates from the same address.
If you want to register a complaint, dial 020 7230 1631. For this purpose, you need to know the cab’s badge number, clearly displayed in the rear of the cab and on its back bumper.
You should not be surprised if you find it hard to catch a taxi in well-known nightclub or tourist areas. Drivers do have the rights to refuse a fare, apprehending trouble if they suspect you’ve been partying hard.
Some companies offer sightseeing tours of London on black cabs ranging from two to eight hours with a qualified guide. These tours will take you through all the important landmarks and historical buildings of London. Some also rent out black cabs for personalized shopping trips.
Mini cabs are an alternative to the traditional black cabs in London. Belying its name, mini cabs may accommodate more passengers than a black taxi. While traditional London taxis can seat five passengers, mini cabs can accommodate four to seven people. Mini cabs carry no signs and cannot be hailed on the street like a black cab.
Mini cabs are normally cheaper than black cabs, especially at night and weekends, but they are mostly unlicensed. They are sometimes uninsured and cannot be relied upon. Women should avoid traveling in mini cabs on their own especially at night.
Mini cab operators are now working with the Public Carriage Office to implement a licensing scheme. As the licensing process is still continuing, some of them may carry temporary licenses.
You should hire a mini cab only by telephone or personally visiting one of their offices, usually open 24 hours a day. There are a number of reliable and licensed companies dealing with mini cabs.
As most mini cabs do not have a meter, it is always wise to negotiate your fare before you travel. Before making a decision, always telephone several firms to compare prices and confirm the price with the driver before starting your journey. .
Unmarked, unlicensed and uninsured “Gypsy cabs” are often found on major tourist areas like Leicester Square and Soho. Avoid them; if you require a cab, phone for a licensed operator.
London taxi travels abroad
London taxis have now reached foreign countries including the United States, Russia and China. It is a testimony to their popularity, efficiency and durability.
London cabbies’ jargon
Butterboy – fresh licensed driver
Clock – meter
Cock and hen – male and female passenger
Flyer – a fare to Heathrow or Gatwick airport
In and out – a return journey
On point – taxi at the front of a rank