Taxicabs are regulated throughout the United Kingdom, but the regulation of taxicabs in London is especially rigorous both with regard to mechanical integrity and driver knowledge. An official report observed that: "Little however is known about the regulation by anyone outside the trade. The Public Carriage Office, who regulate and license taxis and private hire (commonly known as minicabs) was transferred from the Metropolitan Police to become part of Transport for London in 2000."
In the UK, the term minicab is used to refer to a private hire car; that is a car with a driver available for hire only on a pre-booked basis. They began operating in the 1960s in competition to Taxis after a loophole in the law was spotted. A minicab must be pre-booked, for example, by telephone, internet, or fax; or in person at the registered minicab office. You can book at the time that you need the minicab but only with the company registered to accept bookings and not directly with the driver.
Since 2001, minicabs have been regulated in London and most other local authorities. London minicabs are now licensed by the Public Carriage Office, the same body that regulates London black taxicabs. All vehicles available for hire by London minicab drivers must also hold a Public Carriage Office licence showing that they are fit for purpose. This is updated twice a year after an inspection at a licensed garage.
It is the world's most demanding training course for taxicab-drivers, and applicants will usually need at least 12 'Appearances' (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination.
A taxicab-driver must learn these, as well as the 'points of interest' along those routes including streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, restaurants and historic buildings.
The Knowledge includes such details as the order of theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, or the names and order of the side streets and traffic signals passed on a route.
There are separate shorter courses, for suburban London, with 30 to 50 'runs' depending on the sector.
During training would-be cabbies, known as Knowledge boys (or girls), usually follow these routes around London on a motor scooter, and can be identified by the clipboard fixed to the handlebars and showing details of the streets to be learned that day. In order to pass the Knowledge, applicants must have a clean driving licence and no criminal record, then first pass a written test, which qualifies them to make an 'appearance'. At appearances, Knowledge boys must, without looking at a map, identify the quickest and most sensible route between any two points in metropolitan London that their examiner chooses. For each route, the applicants must recite the names of the roads used, when they cross junctions, use roundabouts, make turns, and what is 'alongside' them at each point.
In the Up Series documentary films, Tony Walker is seen on his motor scooter learning "The Knowledge" before becoming a cab driver.
Knowledge boys/girls and their online learning communities have recently been the subject of academic research, including a Ph.D. dissertation by Drew A. R. Ross at Oxford University.
The Knowledge, its "Runs", and to a certain extent the role of the PCO, form the basis for a future religion in the author Will Self's The Book of Dave.
Since 1600 public carriages for hire have been a feature of London life. The discarded coaches of aristocratic families, complete with their coat of arms, were among the first hackney carriages to ply for hire. They were the forerunners of the French hackney carriage or cab (cabriolet) which first appeared in London around 1820.
The first horseless cab, the Bersey electric powered vehicle, appeared in 1897, followed by the first internal combustion engine cab in 1903. At that time London still had more than 11,000 horse drawn cabs. The last horse drawn cab was removed from service in 1947. There are now over 20,000 licensed vehicles on London's roads.
Regulation of the trade passed to the Metropolitan Police in 1850 and was undertaken by the Public Carriage Office, which was originally located in an annex to New Scotland Yard in Whitehall called "the Bungalow". It moved to 109 Lambeth Road in 1919, remaining there until 1966, when it moved to its present home, 15 Penton Street, Islington.
With the introduction of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 the role of the PCO has extended to include the licensing of private hire operators, drivers and vehicles, bringing the capital in line with the rest of England and Wales. The purpose of regulation is to give passengers confidence, when they use a licensed private hire operator, that they are dealing with an honest, professional organisation with reliable drivers and safe vehicles.
Implementation of the legislation has been phased, with operator licensing near completion and driver licensing at the end of a consultation process. Over 2,000 operators have applied and It is estimated that there are about 40,000 drivers and a similar number of vehicles.
To cope with the additional volume a new integrated taxicab and private hire information technology system (TAPITS) has been developed. Alongside this, are plans to develop a computer-based Knowledge of London testing system that will interface with the proposed integrated system.
In November 2005, in the report Where to, Guv’?, the London Assembly's Transport Committee reported on a review of the Public Carriage Office and made some key recommendations.