As known by its frequent visitors, London’s public transport options are – in general – excellent. You have everything from Tube trains to public bicycles and buses to overground trains to choose from. In fact, there are so many options that some first-time visitors may become a little overwhelmed selecting which method for getting about, especially given it will, nowadays, likely involve downloading and using apps and tapping in and out with specialised payment cards.
There is a simple solution, though – and, no, it’s not walking! It’s using a private hire vehicle. The most well-known and, therefore, most romantic of which has to be the iconic London black taxi cab. Fancy giving one a go? Here’s all you need to know…
Black cabs and private hire – the differences
Traditionally referred to as ‘Hackney carriages’, London’s black cabs may be famous throughout the world for their colour and elegant old-fashioned chassis design but, essentially, they operate like and serve the same purpose as taxis anywhere else on the planet. Although, unlike private hire vehicles, you can only usually hail and catch a black cab from the curb, when one approaches you. Payment-wise, they run metered fares that are set and regulated by the city’s official public transport body, Transport for London (TfL), which is worth bearing in mind if you’re on a watch-the-pennies corporate stay in London and not an indulgent personal visit.
By contrast, private hire vehicles tend to cover a wider and, you might say, a bit of a freer range of road-going options (they don’t ‘run on a meter’). This includes the likes of Uber vehicles, chauffeur-driven and executive cars, ‘special event’ limos and, of course, minicabs.
Largely speaking, before the emergence of the hugely popular and safe Uber option, locals and visitors tended to rely on minicabs as much as if not more than black cabs, owing to the fact the latter could be booked for journeys and were cheaper; however, safety issues for female customers, in particular, saw Uber vehicles quicky eclipse minicabs in popularity. To clarify, nowadays, you can only call and book a journey with a minicab via a TfL-licensed private hire operator.
Further facts about black cabs
- All black cab drivers have to know the thousands of streets of London forwards, backwards, sideways and all over the shop; this knowledge is known as, yes, ‘The Knowledge’ and to prove they’ve gained it and be allowed to drive a TfL-approved black cab, drivers have to pass an arduous test of memory that covers up to 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross (the very centre of the city; not at all far from Park Grand Kensington accommodation, needless to say)
- Black cabs aren’t limited to London; you’ll find them scattered throughout the country, so much so that, in fact, because they’re made in the city of Coventry in the West Midlands, there tends to be a horde of them waiting for passengers outside Coventry train station
- Talking of their purpose-built manufacture, black cabs’ insides are particularly roomy, enabling seating for as many as five passengers
- Although still commonly painted black, ‘black’ cabs don’t have to that colour at all (many are maroon); they don’t necessarily have to feature the traditional chassis design, either.
- The reason black cabs are sometimes called ‘Hackney carriages’ or ‘Hackney coaches’ is because, back in the 17th Century, their predecessors really were horse-drawn carriages, being a business where London aristocrats would hire out the horses and carriages they owned to their fellow well-off in the city.
Paying for your journey
For some reason, many visitors tend to believe black cabs only accept cash. This isn’t true – it’s the 2020s, after all! All black cab drivers will take contactless credit and/ or debit card payments via a card payment device. Said device may be handheld – therefore, handed to you by the driver for you to use – or fixed for your use in the cab’s passenger compartment. You certainly shouldn’t have to pay a credit/ debit card surcharge on top of the metered fare, either.
It is worth noting, though, that you almost certainly will incur additional charges if you pick up a cab at a London airport and use it to travel all the way into the city and to, say, the entrance of the Park Grand London Kensington hotel. Or if you use a black cab on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve.
Hailing a cab
If you’ve ever hailed a taxi before, then doing so here in London is effectively the same thing – just stand on the curb, raise and hold out your arm towards a black cab that’s approaching and will pass you and wait for it to stop (you don’t have to whistle!). One difference, perhaps, is that a black cab, whether you’ve hailed it or not, will only stop if the ‘taxi’ sign above its windscreen is on (that’s to say, it’s lit up in yellow light). If this light isn’t on, the cab won’t stop because a driver will already have a customer inside; therefore, the driver will be mid-fare and not on the look-out for another. Alternatively, you can approach a black cab if it’s parked in a taxi rank (and the aforementioned light’s on) outside the likes of a mainline train, Tube or bus station.
How much will you be charged?
As noted above, black cabs are metered and tend to be pricier than other private hire options (i.e. Uber vehicles and minicabs), so just how much will a black cab journey set you back if, say, you use one to get you from your accommodation to that Park Grand restaurant for dinner? Well, it would be rather foolhardy to list (per mile) metered charges here, given those charges inevitably change over time.
Yet, it’s worth pointing that, especially if you’re travelling a long distance (beyond a journey through just Central London), you may be able to negotiate with the driver an agreed-on overall fare for the journey. Finally, what about tipping? It’s far from commonplace to tip black cab drivers but it’s certainly not unusual to round up the metered fare to the nearest pound. Happy travels!