Getting Around London

Nigel Holmes

A brief guide to getting around London by car—and how Uber and other taxi apps are changing the scene. 

Fare Play: Black Cabs vs. Uber

In London's car wars, the Knowledge is half the battle.

In the global spat between upstart Uber and the taxi establishment, London has proved a particularly heated flash point: One black-cab driver tweeted that he hoped Uber’s U.K. general manager would be run over by a Prius, while an Uber driver threatened to cut a passenger’s neck when she canceled a trip. At the heart of the conflict is the Knowledge, the grueling, years-long course of study requiring every taxi driver to essentially memorize London’s labyrinthine streets. Uber drivers, meanwhile, rely on GPS and can hit the road immediately.

Fifty-two-year-old Len Martin, chairman of United Cabbies Group, formed expressly to fight for the rights of London’s Knowledge-equipped drivers, believes workloads have diminished by between 30 and 50 percent since Uber’s arrival. Taxi drivers’ overheads are higher than Uber drivers’, too: Those picturesque black taxis (which actually come in a variety of colors) are hand-built in Coventry, and at $63,000 cost far more than a typical private driver’s vehicle.

Cab drivers might have found an unlikely ally in Mayor Boris Johnson, who recently announced that he was readying a test for private-hire drivers inspired by the famously fiendish black-cab qualification. “It is not fair that a black-taxi driver has to spend four years getting the Knowledge and somebody else can just cruise in and take up the trade without really knowing how London works,” he said, when discussing the scheme. Some observers worried that the Knowledge could be eased to make taxis more competitive with the American start-up. “In fact, London has increased in size, so it’s more difficult now,” says cabbie James Grant, proudly recalling the day he passed (April 2, 2012). 

An Urban Experiment: Black Cab vs. Uber

Same trip, same time, two different cars—putting a bitter London rivalry to the test.

Itinerary: from Covent Garden hotel to Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair, 7:50 p.m.

                    BLACK CAB                           UBER
Driver: Dave, 46 years on the job  Driver: Minil, 1 year on the job 
Wait time: 5 minutes  Wait time: 1 minute 
Trip time: 9 minutes, 50 seconds  Trip time: 10 minutes, 20 seconds 
Payment type: cash only Payment type: credit-card account 
Cost: $15 Cost: $9.45 
Memorable moment: He made a wrong turn and drove over the sidewalk, saying, “Don’t ever do what I’m about to do.” Memorable moment: Quiet, stress-free ride.
His thoughts on the controversy: “Right now the taxi trade is taking Uber to court. But we’ll never win. Because you know who owns Uber? Google. Yeah. And they’re worth billions.” (“Owner” is too strong. Google Ventures invested $258 million in Uber in 2013.) His thoughts on the controversy: “To be honest, I would be upset [about Uber], too, if I had studied for years to be a black-cab driver. On the other hand, it’s a free country. I didn’t grab you off the street and throw you in my car. People can do whatever they like.”

The Download: Taxi Apps

A comparative look at the city's three main digital driver services.

The app allows users to hail black cabs or six-seater vans and pay what’s on the meter with cash or by card via the app. There’s prebooking up to two weeks in advance and fixed prices to the major airports (15 minutes of free waiting time included). In July, Gett launched “Gett Clicquot,” which delivers $75 chilled Veuve Clicquot in 10 minutes.

Request one of Uber’s drivers’ own vehicles or a black cab (called Uber-TAXI in the app). Cars range from inexpensive midsize cars (UberX) to luxury S-class cars (UberEXEC and UberLUX). There are no fixed fares for airports and no prebooking. Fares are paid through the app by credit card—helpful since many cabs only take cash.

The London-based app founded by three black-cab drivers and three entrepreneurs can hail black taxis or luxury cars (called HailoExec in the app). Users can prebook one hour to one month ahead, and there are fixed fares to airports. At press time, Hailo and Gett had similar prices to Heath- row, but Hailo was cheaper to other airports.

Or...You Could Just Forgo Both

A private chauffer service has its perks.

Chauffeurs in London have become a highly commoditized product, which needed an injection of style, quality, and precision,” says Charlie Bowmont, cofounder of Capstar Chauffeurs, a two-year-old luxury car service employing ex–military personnel from the British Armed Forces. Drivers have government security clearances. Jaguar XJs, Range Rovers, and Mercedes MVPs make up Capstar’s fleet on land. Augusta 109 helicopters, flown by former military pilots, are used in the sky. Hourly rates from $90; 44-20/8568-7902;

For more on what to do in London, see our Ultimate City Guide »