You studied for years to take the SAT. You worked even harder to get into medical school. But all that work has absolutely nothing – and I mean nothing – on London's test for taxi drivers, AKA The Knowledge. And just watching a guy recite just one little route is mind-bending.
In order to achieve the high distinction of being one of London's traditional black cab drivers, one must be able to navigate a route from any two points in London without consulting a map, calling a dispatcher, or feebly asking you to just read out the directions from Google Maps on your own phone.
And doing that is much, much harder than it sounds. Unlike many cities like New York, London's streets don't entirely follow a numbered grid pattern. Navigating from Wembley Stadium to Tower Bridge is a different affair from getting someplace like 57th Street and 11th Avenue to 7th Street and 2nd Avenue.
The T: The New York Times Style Magazine followed a prospective London cabbie as he studied for The Knowledge, and it's not as simple as sitting down and hitting the books for a few hours a day:
McCabe had spent the last three years of his life thinking about London's roads and landmarks, and how to navigate between them. In the process, he had logged more than 50,000 miles on motorbike and on foot, the equivalent of two circumnavigations of the Earth, nearly all within inner London's dozen boroughs and the City of London financial district.
Even with all that, the average student needs about 12 attempts to pass the final test.
And it's not just the streets that you need to know, either. It's everything else a traveler could want, too:
To achieve the required standard to be licensed as an ''All London'' taxi driver you will need a thorough knowledge, primarily, of the area within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. You will need to know: all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner's courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.
If anything, this description understates the case. The six-mile radius from Charing Cross, the putative center-point of London marked by an equestrian statue of King Charles I, takes in some 25,000 streets. London cabbies need to know all of those streets, and how to drive them — the direction they run, which are one-way, which are dead ends, where to enter and exit traffic circles, and so on. But cabbies also need to know everything on the streets. Examiners may ask a would-be cabbie to identify the location of any restaurant in London. Any pub, any shop, any landmark, no matter how small or obscure — all are fair game. Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese. It's on the facade of a building in Philpot Lane, on the corner of Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge.
So, in traditional British understatement, you could say it's difficult.
The Times took the liberty of filming a prospective cabbie attempting a small part of the oral exam, and even though it's just a short journey between two addresses, it'll amaze you as to what the human mind is capable of.
Watch the whole thing here.
Photo credit: Angelo Amboldi