Now before I start my scribble I want to kill off any suggestions or mischievous claims that this is in any way intended to be derogatory. It’s a shame I have to say that but I need to be crystal clear.
Sydney taxi drivers. These three words are enough to provoke a barrage of almost spasmodic reactions from us humble consumers.
We’ve all heard the horror stories, the drivers that have no idea where they are going, the ones that do not speak any English or even acknowledge your presence. The ones where they just decide not to turn up even after pre-booking just because “it’s a Saturday”.
The ones that make you feel like you’re in the Monaco Grand Prix. The ones that refuse to take you on a journey because it yields them less than $20. The ones that after sensing you have had a few shandies charge $20 extra for miscellaneous tolls and fees that mysteriously are not there in the day (or when you are sober).
Six years of living permanently in Sydney has provided me with all of these rich experiences and more. One the most memorable has to be a Mosman to North Sydney trip that would normally take under 10 minutes.
On this occasion my driver hilariously informed me that the speed limit was 40 kilometres per hour. Nothing I said could make him believe otherwise so we awkwardly trundled along to my destination.
Just last week I felt a similar pain. After dinner with a friend and a doctor plus an unscheduled hospital visit (that’s another story you can read here), I hailed a taxi home on Macquarie Street near the CBD.
Winding down the window, the guy flashed a warm toothy smile that offset his bald but kind, moustachioed face. From a quick glance I would guess from his features he may have hailed from somewhere in North Africa.
I jump in and quickly realise this is another one of “those” journeys. I say the name of my well-known suburb on the Sydney North-Shore and his eyes are blank. A slight man, he fidgets in his seat that is far too low for him and probably set too far back.
“Sorry sir, where?” I repeat again quietly. “Sorry.” He fumbles and gestures at his GPS that is in the middle of the console. I instinctively decide to type in he suburb myself. “Use your nail”, he helpfully says as my large fingertip pads fail miserably to spell.
Finally we are off as the GPS plans the route to the door. However as we head north he doubts himself and mumbles. He questions whether we are near the Harbour Bridge. I can see the bloody great thing so I am not sure how he cannot see it or even know its vague direction.
Another painful sub-speed limit $50 ride later I am home. I give the guy a tip and can’t help but feel although amateur and clearly a newbie, he is so grateful, pleasant and smiley, I can’t knock the journey too much.
Maybe Australians are used to this standard of service. But having been raised in the UK, I feel slightly cheated. I’ve used hundreds of suburban taxis and never once had to direct a driver where to go, even on the more UK-prevalent small, winding roads.
Also having used a tonne of London “Black” Taxis in the city, the comparison with Sydney is shameful. On our honeymoon our driver didn’t even flinch when we said an obscure back street in Covent Garden. A bumpy drive later along cobbled back streets and within minutes we are at the door of our destination.
Coincidentally in the last couple of years my younger brother has taken on the legendary, gruelling process of “The Knowledge”, the seemingly never-ending quest to become a Black Taxi Driver in London.
As one great website, www.theknowledgetaxi.co.uk, explains, “…a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain”. The whole process can take up to five yeas, depending on the luxury of time, money and commitment you have.
I have nothing but admiration for my brother. With a five-year-old daughter and a four month-old baby he somehow manages to raise them to be beautiful, loving kids, simultaneously studying the wall-sized map of London’s roads nightly in his lounge.
This is in addition to working for a legendary London fruit and vegetable store that caters to the rich, famous and even some of the world’s royalty. Dropping deliveries (and chatting in their kitchen) to the likes of the Beckhams, Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson, has been a good training ground to learn the maze of streets.
As is his method of transport to work, a scooter with a huge plastic screen on the handlebars to hold maps. There is no shortage of people riding around London doing exactly the same. Look out for the plastic shield and their high-visibility vests whizzing around traffic.
What is even more impressive is the fact he admittedly is not academic. He and my older brother are men’s men, grafters, hard-working, thoughtful blokes that just get on with it. The sort of guys I would call on for any house-maintenance (when my equally capable wife is not available).
Now I would not want to suggest all Sydney taxi-drivers should undergo the same knowledge process. I have no idea about their current licence requirements. I have heard this week however they are being put increasingly under pressure for fees, insurance and registration.
Coupled with the advent of the controversial Uber taxi-app revolution, they are feeling the squeeze. This is not going to improve their already fractured reputation and despite my limited understanding I do feel some sympathy.
With increasing congestion, chaos and frustration on Sydney’s notoriously bad roadways the situation may only get worse. For a city that rightly claims it’s one of the greatest in the world, surely its people (and it’s taxi-drivers) deserve a system that compliments it.