What Colour Are London’s Black Cabs?

One of LTI's original black cab models from the 1940s.

One of LTI's original black cab models from the 1940s.

London’s black cabs and their drivers are world famous. Not only are the drivers licensed by the Public Carriage Office only after a grueling test of their mastery of the Knowledge—the whereabouts of every street within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross, plus the locations of many public buildings and sites of interest—but the taxicabs themselves are distinctive: big, boxy, and black.

Taxi with Thompson Reuters advertising

Taxi with Thompson Reuters advertising

Except when they’re white or purple or multicoloured, that is. They’re still mostly boxy, but they come in all colours these days, and some even have advertising painted on the sides. The drivers are self-employed, and while I may think a plain traditional black cab has more class, they may think that a purple one is more eye-catching, or that a white one can double as a car for wedding parties, or that using the sides of their vehicles as moving billboards and being paid money every month by the advertisers is a pretty sweet deal.

I can see why these enterepreneurial drivers would want to take on advertising. For starters, they have to buy (or rent) their own vehicles and those things cost. New black cabs from LTI—London Taxis International, slogan: “Hailed the world over”—cost about the same as Mercedes E-type sedans. LTI taxis also have a turning radius/turning circle of only 25 feet, which is the reason I’d rather have the taxi than the Mercedes.

Unfortunately I can't tell what this cab is advertising, but the wording reads "Black Cab You Are Colourful Today"

Unfortunately I can't tell what this cab is advertising, but the wording reads Black Cab You Are Colourful Today

The training takes a big investment of time, too. On average, a would-be London cab driver spends almost three years learning the London streets, often by moped or scooter, and will take the test of the Knowledge a dozen times before passing it. To recoup the investment takes a while, even if you market Taxi Treasure Hunts to corporations as management team-building exercises, or promote your taxi for weddings, stag nights, and hen parties, as some do.

So why, with all of that know-how and all of that financial investment, do black cabs occasionally just pass me by when I try to flag them down? I recently happened onto a possible explanation. It seems that the drivers have their own rules that augment the regular rules of the road, one of which goes like this: if Taxi A lets Taxi B out into the flow of traffic, then Driver B, now in front, has the first chance at the next fare, but must leave that fare for Driver A, to return the favour. So they sail right by me, or turn off the light on top that indicates they’re available. Nice to know that it’s not that they just don’t like the look of me. Or maybe the guy/chap who drove me to Waterloo on Saturday just told me that to save my feelings.

Taxi with advertising for GE and for the London Olympics in 2012

Taxi with advertising for GE and for the London Olympics in 2012

Now, the fellow who drove me from Waterloo that morning was another type altogether. The stereotypical London taxi driver, I’ve heard many times over here, is an opinionated possibly-racist know-it-all who never shuts up. Like most stereotypes, this one has little to do with reality. I’ve always found the drivers to be pleasant, willing to be quiet if I want quiet, willing to chat if I want to chat, willing to help me out if I have questions about where I’m going, and generally to be really nice guys. (Women do drive black cabs in London, but I’ve never met one, which is not surprising given that they make up something under two per cent of the total population of black cab drivers.)

But I got in a taxi on Saturday with a driver who must have been the prototype for the negative stereotype. Maybe he’s the only one. Maybe he is so opinionated, and talks so much, that he’s tainted the image of all of the others. He talked faster than he drove, and I found myself wishing he’d get a move on as we putt-putted to my destination, creeping down even the streets that had no traffic, presumably so he wouldn’t have to stop the car and therefore end his rant but also running up the meter.

Taxi advertising Chiquito Mexican Grill & Bar

Taxi advertising Chiquito Mexican Grill & Bar

England, he said, is a horrible place to live, the worst place in the world, because it’s so full of foreigners. (Apparently he hasn’t considered the fact that anyplace outside England is by definition even more full of people foreign to him than is England.) Ireland is a much better place to live, because Ireland looks now like England did 40 years ago, before all the foreigners came. He was saying so just the other day to a couple from Indiana that he picked up. (Apparently, Americans aren’t foreigners, nor are the Irish.) The Indianans said that they feel more at home in London than in New York, because there are fewer foreigners in London. (I can’t even figure out how to wrap my head around that one.) His daughter lives in Washington DC, and she can tell you that Americans are very strange, most of them crazy, and the farther you get from the big cities of the east coast, the worse they are. (As I was at the time of this conversation about 3500 miles away from the nearest city of the US eastern seaboard, presumably I am totally loony.)

After that, it didn’t come as a big surprise that he had few good things to say about Obama. His heart really wasn’t in the complaint, though, because he doesn’t think it actually matters who’s president. The CIA, you see, “runs everything” and the president of the USA only “says what the CIA tells him to say”.

A lot of the taxi advertising is for London theatre productions

A lot of the taxi advertising is for London theatre productions

He may have mastered The Knowledge, but perhaps has something left to learn about talking to the public.

So there you have it: there is at least one London cab driver who fits the negative stereotype. Fortunately there are about 22,000 licensed black cab drivers in London, so I don’t expect I’ll run into him again. And after that experience I’m more pleased than ever that society takes a more liberal view, on the whole, than that fellow does and that taxicabs, like people, are no longer expected to be exactly the same. If I ever get to drive a London taxi, I think I’ll opt for chartreuse.

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2 Comments

Filed under Culture

2 responses to “What Colour Are London’s Black Cabs?

  1. W.M.Spillett

    The striped taxi that you weren’t sure about is advertising the “Comes With Music” service offered by Nokia with some phones.

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