London taxis—the classic black vintage model—are famous throughout the world, and can be found in places such as New York City, Singapore, and Nairobi, Kenya. Called a hackney, with hacks as drivers, they comprise one of the most recognizable symbols of the city. The history of taxis in London begins with the Hackney Coachmen Regulation of 1654 (the hackneys were horse-drawn then) approved by Parliament to alleviate unchecked growth and inconsistencies in the vehicles. Today, London taxis adhere to some of the most stringent regulations for public conveyance, providing for safe, reliable, and predictable ridership with a minimum of the kind of rip-offs often reported by taxis in other major metropolitan areas frequented by tourists. Many of these specially constructed vehicles have a turning circle radius of a mere 25 feet, a feature developed to accommodate the small roundabout entrance of the famous Savoy Hotel on The Strand, the posh Westminster street that runs from Trafalgar Square to Fleet Street.
Unfortunately, the cost of taxis in London has increased along with everything else in the city, which has helped to increase ridership on other forms of public transportation. The city has an excellent and extensive network of buses, trains, and trams, as well as a subway (called the tube or underground) system that is almost as famous as the signature black taxis on the streets above.
UK regulations allow only licensed hackneys to prowl the streets, picking up passengers when flagged. The London minicab (which is what private-hire vehicles are called) can only pick up passengers who have pre-booked or who order a car by visiting the operator’s office. Pre-booking doesn’t necessarily mean far in advance. It can be as simple as picking up the phone and ordering one. This strict regulation is to prevent the risk of rip-offs (or worse) by unlicensed drivers and vehicles. Even if you see a London minicab in a queue or taxi rank in front of the pubs and clubs around the theater and nightlife spots, it is breaking the law. Minicabs began showing up in the 1960s, taking advantage of a loophole in the hackney regulations. Nonetheless, they also are strictly regulated today.
Booking a London minicab can be very practical for trips to and from the airport, especially if you have a lot of bags that can be a hassle on the airport shuttles and other public transportation. The vehicles are generally four-door cars with a capacity of four passengers, or an actual minivan holding as many as eight people and their luggage. This can also be a reassuring way for those on family holidays to keep track of children more easily than on a series of trains and buses.
In addition to the strict regulation about hackneys and minicabs, there is a rigorous test that all licensed drivers must pass called, rather ominously, “The Knowledge.” They are retested every year, and must immediately know the location of a number of obscure addresses, and the shortest route to them, without ever referring to a guide, map, or electronic device. This is the world’s most demanding and exacting training course for taxi drivers, and drivers average twelve attempts before passing it for the first time. There have been medical tests showing that the drivers of London taxis have developed a particularly large hippocampus—a central area of the brain that plays a key role in long-term memory and spatial navigation.
The strict regulations and rigorous training of drivers are two factors that cause the cost of taxis in London to be so high. Additionally, there is a hefty fee for bringing any vehicle into the city, meaning the cost of minicabs in Central London is also relatively high. You will find that the cost of taxis in London will be pointed out by the drivers themselves. Many lost and confused tourists who give up and flag a cab, are apt to be given simple walking directions, saving time and money. It also pays to plan out your day of sightseeing. Use your London Pass and its free guidebook to help you, and mark the times and areas where it might pay to flag a taxi.