Taxicabs are regulated throughout the United Kingdom, but the regulation of taxicabs in London is especially rigorous both with regard to mechanical integrity and driver knowledge. An official report observed that: "Little however is known about the regulation by anyone outside the trade. The Public Carriage Office, which regulates and licenses taxis and private hire (commonly known as minicabs) was transferred from the Metropolitan Police to become part of Transport for London in 2000."
Only licensed hackney carriages can pick up passengers on the street without pre-booking.
London's Black cabs are particularly famous on account of the specially constructed vehicles and the extensive training course (the Knowledge) required for fully licensed drivers; unlike many other cities, the number of taxicab drivers in London is not limited. Medical tests have discovered that London cab drivers tend to have developed an especially big hippocampus, a region of the brain where, among other things, information about locations is stored.
In the UK, the term minicab is used to refer to a private hire car; that is a car with a driver available for hire only on a pre-booked basis. They began operating in the 1960s in competition to hackney carriages after a loophole in the law was spotted (although in some areas it is possible to hold a dual hackney/private hire licence). A minicab must be pre-booked, for example, by telephone, internet, or fax; or in person at the registered minicab office. One can book at the time at which one needs the minicab but only with a company registered to accept bookings rather than directly with one of its drivers.
Since 2001, minicabs have been regulated in London and most other local authorities. London minicabs are now licensed by the Public Carriage Office, the same body that regulates London black taxicabs but the minicab drivers do not have to complete the Knowledge. All vehicles available for hire by London minicab drivers must also hold a Public Carriage Office licence showing that they are fit for purpose. This is updated twice a year after an inspection at a licensed garage.
Horse-drawn hackney carriages began providing taxicab service in the early 17th century. In 1636, the number of carriages was set at 50 - an early example of taxicab regulation. In the same year, the owner of four hackney carriages established the first taxicab stand in The Strand. In the early 19th century, cabriolets (cabs for short) replaced the heavier and more cumbersome hackney carriages. Battery-operated taxis appeared briefly at the end of the 19th century, but the modern taxicab service took off with the appearance of petrol-powered taxis in 1903. In 1907 meters were first introduced to calculate the fare and were set at 8d for the first mile. Today, taxicab service in London is provided by the famous black cabs (the distinctive FX4 depicted in the photo above) and by minicabs.
Chinese carmaker Geely Automobile has been in talks over the possibility of converting London’s black cabs into electric-powered cars. The company, which co-owns London taxi-maker Manganese Bronze, says it has held talks with UK government officials about the plan.
The taxicab driver is required to be able to decide routes immediately in response to a passenger's request or traffic conditions, rather than stopping to look at a map, rely on satellite navigation or ask a controller by radio. Consequently, the 'Knowledge of London' Examination System, informally known as 'The Knowledge', is the in depth study of a number of pre-set London street routes and places of interest that taxicab drivers in that city must complete to obtain a licence to operate a black cab. It was initiated in 1865, and has changed little since. The training involved ensures that London taxi drivers are experts on London, and have an intimacy with their city which no technology can achieve.
It is the world's most demanding training course for taxicab-drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve 'Appearances' (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination.
The 320 main (standard) routes, or 'runs', through central London of the Knowledge are contained within the 'Blue Book' (officially known as the 'Guide to Learning the Knowledge of London'), produced by the Public Carriage Office which regulates licensed taxis in London. In all some 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross are covered along with the major arterial routes through the rest of London.
A taxicab-driver must learn these routes, as well as the 'points of interest' along those routes including streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, restaurants and historic buildings.
The Knowledge includes such details as the order of theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, or the names and order of the side streets and traffic signals passed on a route.
There are separate shorter courses, for suburban London, with 30 to 50 'runs' depending on the sector.
During training would-be cabbies, known as Knowledge boys (or girls), usually follow these routes around London on a motor scooter, and can be identified by the clipboard fixed to the handlebars and showing details of the streets to be learned that day. Taxi-driver applicants must be 'of good character', meeting strict requirements regarding any criminal record, then first pass a written test which qualifies them to make an 'appearance'. At appearances, Knowledge boys must, without looking at a map, identify the quickest and most sensible route between any two points in metropolitan London that their examiner chooses. For each route, the applicants must recite the names of the roads used, when they cross junctions, use roundabouts, make turns, and what is 'alongside' them at each point.
A humorous 1979 film about this learning experience, called The Knowledge, was written by Jack Rosenthal for ITV, and was in 2000 voted number 83 in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes compiled by the British Film Institute.
In the Up Series documentary films, Tony Walker is seen on his motor scooter learning "The Knowledge" before becoming a cab driver.
In The Knowledge Miniseries, which was a spin off from the comic book Hellblazer, Chas Chandler's job as a taxi driver is the basis for various plot elements of the series.
Knowledge boys/girls and their online learning communities have recently been the subject of academic research, including a Ph.D. dissertation by Drew A. R. Ross at Oxford University.
The Public Carriage Office (PCO) is the body responsible for licensing taxicabs within Greater London. The PCO is part of Transport for London and is responsible for licensing the familiar London taxicab or "black cab" and also licenses private hire or minicab services. Since 30 March 2007 the actual processing of licences has been outsourced to a private company called SGS.
Since 1600 public carriages for hire have been a feature of London life. The discarded coaches of aristocratic families, complete with their coat of arms, were among the first hackney carriages to ply for hire. They were the forerunners of the French hackney carriage or cab (cabriolet) which first appeared in London around 1820.
The first horseless cab, the Bersey electric powered vehicle, appeared in 1897, followed by the first internal combustion engine cab in 1903. At that time London still had more than 11,000 horse drawn cabs. The last horse drawn cab was removed from service in 1947. There are now over 20,000 licensed vehicles on London's roads.
Regulation of the trade passed to the Metropolitan Police in 1850 and was undertaken by the Public Carriage Office, which was originally in an annex to New Scotland Yard in Whitehall called "the Bungalow". It moved to 109 Lambeth Road in 1919, remaining there until 1966, when it moved to its present home, 15 Penton Street, Islington.
On the formation of Transport for London on 3 July 2000, the licensing authority changed, however the day-to-day licensing function remained with the Public Carriage Office.
With the introduction of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 the role of the PCO has been expanded to include the licensing of private hire operators, drivers and vehicles, bringing the capital into line with the rest of England and Wales. The purpose of regulation is to give passengers confidence, when they use a licensed private-hire operator, that they are dealing with an honest, professional organisation with reliable drivers and safe vehicles.
In November 2005, in the report Where to, Guv?, the London Assembly's Transport Committee reported on a review of the Public Carriage Office and made some key recommendations.
In Portsmouth, hackney carriage taxis must be silver, with a 'Licensed Portsmouth City Council Taxi' signs on the bonnet and rear doors, plus a white hackney carriage plate on the back of the taxi. Private hire vehicles are barred from being silver, but may be any other colour.
On the Isle of Wight, hackney carriage taxis were previously not forced to be any particular colour, and designs of cab vary from cars to small 8-seater minibuses. The council has recently introduced licensing restrictions that mean all new vehicles licensed as hackney carriages must be silver and disabled accessible. These restrictions do not apply to previously granted licences however, which means many taxis remain unchanged.
In Bradford, hackney carriage taxicabs, but not private hire, are painted in white with a green diagonal stripe.
Halton Borough, which encompasses the towns of Runcorn and Widnes utilises strictly controls which types of vehicles can be used for Hackney Carriages and Private Hire, and the colour that they can be. Purpose built taxis, like LTIs and Metro cabs can be any colour – and can carry advertisement designs on the bodywork – while Hackney Carriages that use regular vehicles must be black, and clearly display a taxi sign on the roof of the car. Private hire can be any colour, but must clearly display yellow private hire logos on both sides of their vehicles: usually on the driver and front passenger doors.