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Learning to be a black cabbie actually expands your brain

Research has shown that people who complete the Knowledge will see their Hippocampus grow by up to 25 per cent

The Knowledge is a hugely difficult exam that all black taxi cab drivers in London have to take – which, it turns out, actually makes you really goddamn smart. Introduced as a requirement for taxi drivers in London way back in 1865, it usually takes trainees three to four years to pass it – they learn more than 320 routes and 25,000 streets.

Although the Knowledge might seem outdated in the age of GPS and our best mate Uber, it's been brought back into the spotlight because as of today (September 30), Uber will no longer be licensed in London. Even thought it can continue to operate until all appeals are exhausted, the debate rages onwards – with Ubers often put in opposition of black cabs. 

Dazed spoke to Barclay Bram – a photographer who has been documenting the difficult but rewarding reality of studying towards the Knowledge in 2017.

What made you start this project?

Barclay Bram: I was in London for the summer for a course and I wanted to find something that was really tied into the city. I grew up in London but I’ve spent a lot of my adult life abroad, particularly in China. One of my best friends growing up, his dad is a cabbie – I think he was voted the second best cabbie in London one year – and I remembered him speaking about what it was like to study for the Knowledge so I thought I’d go check out one of the schools.

When I walked in I was pretty blown away; in every Knowledge School there are people sat in front of these huge A0 (47.6 x 38 inches) size maps of London drawing routes around the city. People sit in pairs calling out road names to each other and as an outsider it feels kind of like you’ve entered a monastic space, with these mantras and codes repeating and reverberating around you. The project is ongoing – I’m definitely still more of a writer, so I’m working on a long form essay about the Knowledge that I hope to finish in the next few months. However I think that this story needs to be told visually as well; these Knowledge schools are analogue spaces that are visually engaging because the map is completely omnipresent; in one of the schools I went into they even had a map built into the urinals.

What is the Knowledge?

Barclay Bram: It's an exam which tests a person’s knowledge of the city of London. The examinee has to name the fastest route between two points. Anyone studying for the Knowledge has to learn every street in London, the name, the direction it runs, any restrictions, and then any points along the way. Points are anything that a passenger may ask for – so restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels, embassies, hospitals, churches, meeting halls, synagogues, mosques, cafes, galleries, museums. Literally anything could be asked. One of the girls I interviewed had “an appearance”, which is what the exams are called, and told me that she was asked Ascot Apartments to Tokyo Sukiyaki Tei and then Zeigfeld Von Underbelly to Meat Liquor.

The Knowledge has also become exponentially more difficult because the city has never had more points to learn; we have more restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels etc than ever before. As people have been pushed from the city centre to the outskirts those residential areas have been replaced by commercial spaces.

What’s been the reaction of the people studying for the Knowledge to TFLs decision to cut Uber’s license?

Barclay Bram: Jubilation. I’d have given a lot to be in the Knowledge schools yesterday, they must have been absolutely buzzing. I did get a lot of texts from the people I’ve been photographing and they’re obviously really excited. However I think it’s important to make a few points here. First, I think we have a tendency to paint this grand picture of there being a war of Uber vs. black cabs, but that’s reductive. The night tube has actually been a huge issue for cabbies, as is the impending opening of Crossrail which will almost certainly eliminate the majority of fares going out to Heathrow. Then you have a number of people who have switched to cycling, with many roads being converted into cycle-friendly bike super-highways, which changes the contours of the city and makes studying for the Knowledge harder.

“Research done at UCL using MRI scans has shown that people who complete the Knowledge will see their Hippocampus grow by up to 25 per cent – it physically alters the chemistry and structure of the brain”

And I've read that studying for the Knowledge improves your brain capabilities?

Barclay Bram: Yeah, what I find so compelling about people studying the Knowledge is that they’re taking this ever changing city and they’re trying to fix it in their brains. Research done at UCL using MRI scans has shown that people who complete the Knowledge will see their Hippocampus grow by up to 25 per cent – it physically alters the chemistry and structure of the brain. There’s this interesting compatibility there; the dynamic city and the dynamic brain, those two entities in constant flux but for a time secured around the pursuit of the Knowledge.

One of your photos shows a stack of magazines with a cover that says “Uber rapist jailed for 12 years”. Sexual assaults have been one of the touchstone issues in this debate with people divided over whether or not Uber or black cabs pose more of a threat. Where do you stand on that?

Barclay Bram: Trade publications are the physical representation of the narratives and discourses that bind a group together. It’s pretty telling that in all the Knowledge schools that I went to they had these kinds of magazines piled up and that all of them were filled with articles about Uber drivers sexually assaulting women.

Personally, I’m aware of my position here as a man and that I don’t have a solid stack of figures here to give a definitive answer either way. I would say though that logically, having seen the amount of work and the intense personal strain that goes into passing the Knowledge, that were you someone with ill intentions there are obviously easier ways to get yourself alone in a vehicle with a woman than learning every street in London, paying tens of thousands of pounds to buy a cab, and then sitting on the other side of a glass partition.

Having said that, women are the ones at risk and they are the best judges of what is safest for them. I completely buy the argument that Uber is safer than the nightbus and that the fact you get a picture of the driver and the ability to track the route puts people at ease. I think TFL would miss a trick if they didn’t create a similar system for black cabs in the wake of this.

“Studying for the Knowledge is to believe that there is a value to knowing the streets of London over just relying on a device to tell you the way”

Given what you’ve said about the challenges facing black cabbies, why are people still taking this exam?

Barclay Bram: Every person studying for the Knowledge has their own reasons. A lot of people speak about flexibility, the joy of being your own boss and obviously the fact that it’s pretty highly paid. Most people studying for the Knowledge do not come from wealthy backgrounds and haven’t gone to uni – this is in some sense their first taste of higher education. A lot are day labourers, contractors, postmen. I think the argument about flexibility and being your own boss is somewhat moot though; Uber does the same but doesn’t require a four year commitment to learn every street in London.

But this is the difference between learning a craft or just having a job. The gig economy is a job, whereas being a black cabbie means having a trade – the idea being that the latter is somehow more permanent and less transient. As we are seeing with the immediate backlash against TFL’s decision, 40,000 people may become unemployed overnight. Worse is that they will have nothing to show for their time as Uber drivers. By doing the Knowledge at the very least you gain an intimate understanding of the city. You have something that can’t be taken away from you with the stroke of a pen by some faceless bureaucrat. A lot of people who pass the Knowledge go on to take the Red Badge, which is the exam to become a licensed London tour guide – they’ve spent so long intimately learning about the city that they then become interested in the history, and how the city came to be the way it is. I think that’s pretty poignant.

“Maybe in a few decades we won’t need black cabs anymore, and they’ll take on new life”

Do you think more people will now take the Knowledge, given that Uber might be on the way out?

Barclay Bram: Personally I think you’re more likely to see five Uber alternatives within a short space of time than a noticeable uptick in people studying for the Knowledge. Uber will die, but ride-sharing is here to stay, and in the not too distant future the real question will be driverless cars.

I don’t hold a romantic attachment to the Knowledge: black cabs generally are solutions to the gordian knot of the city. The city is always changing though, and with it the knot gets tighter and the tools needed to unravel it inevitably change. These same people who are studying for the Knowledge also live in London and I would hazard a guess that none of them want to see the city suddenly become inert and static; they benefit just as much from its dynamism as the rest of us. That it may one day cost their livelihoods is unfortunately the nature of the beast. I don’t think the city really has to protect them as some monument and I think it really cheapens and patronises black cabbies to make the argument that they should be reduced merely to some tourist attraction that needs government preservation.

I think that the greatest value of the Knowledge is to the people who study it themselves. The Knowledge is a metaphor for all knowledge in the digital age. I think that’s what is the most important thing at work here. We could all be out of a job in the next few decades; it’s hard to name any job that can’t soon be done by a computer or that will not be fundamentally altered by them in the coming years. There’s something very fundamental about learning and the way in which the pursuit of knowledge, whether the Knowledge or anything else that we set our minds to, is so integral to our humanity. Studying for the Knowledge is to believe that there is a value to knowing the streets of London over just relying on a device to tell you the way.