What the Car Saw: London Taxi Version (People on Phones)

November 16, 2019

What the Car Saw: London Taxi Version (People on Phones)


This issue of What the Car Saw is the result of my observations from a taxi window in London last week. Hop in with me and share the journey of a sad discovery.

London Taxi Drivers Have “The Knowledge”

When I’m not using the Underground (“the Tube”), taking taxis in London just makes sense. The drivers study for years to memorize the city, or “get The Knowledge,” as they call it. The Knowledge is what’s required to pass an exacting set of exams in which they have to demonstrate just how well they know a six-mile radius of London, with all of its all of its side streets, hotels, restaurants, points of interest, parks, cemeteries and squares, to get their taxi license. The test for The Knowledge has been called the hardest test in the world (see this article from the New York Times).

In short: the taxi drivers really know London. I love to chat with them about their lives and their work, and the shortest time I’ve heard any of them gaining “the knowledge” is three years. One of them told me it took him seven years. After all that studying, I’d always rather take a licensed London taxi with a certifiably knowledgeable driver than a ride-sharing service with someone who’s just using online maps, isn’t licensed and might not know any more about London than I do.

They Can Hold a Great Conversation

London cabbies are de facto tour guides and great conversationalists, with finely-honed stories they’ve told a time (or ten) and firmly held opinions that guarantee a provocative and stimulating dialogue. It’s wonderful entertaining to chat with a London cabbie while speeding through the city streets and taking in the mix of stately old architecture, shiny new behemoth buildings, historic landmarks, chip shops, parks and Indian take-away (in my humble opinion, the best Indian food in the world is in London – I but digress). 

There’s an Alarming Trend

I had the good fortune to converse with several London cabbies this week, but I learned of an alarming trend: almost no one talks with them any more. Everyone just stares at their mobile phone, remaining silent for the duration of the taxi ride. Several cabbies mentioned this to me this week during rousing conversations about politics, history and how big America is; they were glad I was open to discussing the events of the day, or having any kind of conversation.

The first cabbie to mention this no-speaking trend was my driver from Paddington Railway Station to my hotel. As he was lamenting the lack of chatty passengers because of their fascination with their cell phones, I was looking out the window (while listening intently, I promise), and I noticed another alarming and related trend: people walking while staring down at their phones, or walking distractedly while talking on the phone. Lots of them. It became a thing in our conversation, and it was really quite startling. Several times when the cab was stopped at a light, every person who passed on foot was on their phone. Every person. I snapped a few photos…come along with me on this journey and you’ll see what we saw (the cabbie, the taxi and me).

I know this phenomenon isn’t unique to London, I just noticed it there because I was in a taxi in a great walking city, looking out the window. And there they were, all those walkers, either with their heads bent, looking at their devices, or talking. Even folks who were walking with one or more other people were on their phones. It seems we can’t just be in public any more without a device stuck to our face or in our hands.

It Wasn’t Just Digital Natives

Here’s something worth noting from the photos above – it wasn’t just digital natives; all generations were fascinated by the smart phone instead of looking where they were going.

Is This Who We Are Now?

This makes me sad for our society. Are we losing our curiosity? Is everything worth knowing to be found in a mobile device? Doesn’t anyone want to be in the moment any more, with other people or in our physical surroundings? What ever happened to using our five senses to perceive the world, or people-watching? Do these distracted walkers realize how unsafe it is to walk while texting, emailing, Googling or playing Candy Crush Soda Saga or Angry Birds 2?

What about the Cabbies?

This “the world is in my smart phone” trend also makes me sad for London cabbies. Their jobs just aren’t as fun if we won’t engage with them, if we stare at our phones while we’re in their chariots. They might all go become baristas, or tour guides. That would be our loss.

Digital Responsibility

Well friends, that’s what the taxi saw, and what my own mobile phone captured (I know, I know, it’s a little ironic that I used a cell phone to document a rant about cell phones). It’s true that personal digital technology is a fabulous enabler of many things that make our lives better. But here’s a question for you: how can we ensure that we don’t let it become our lives?

Related Rants

This is not the first post of this kind; see below from the Glover Gardens archives.

8 thoughts on “What the Car Saw: London Taxi Version (People on Phones)”

  • Yes, indeed. Keeping my eyes open this is what I at least have also observed everywhere I go.
    I first laughed hard about this comic:
    Than I realised that this might actually be true for some people already when I heard kids online and screen times lately.
    I hope we get to healthier average screen times again, because this also makes us highly vulnerable to manipulation of any kind.

  • Even though I talk about this too, we’ve been using our iPads for just about everything.We only use the big machines when we are working on big productions, photography and music. At least when we travel this saves a lot of weight. OTH, we don’t walk gazing at our phones because as a friend mine once said about keeping his eyes on the road when driving, “I want to see what I’m going to hit.” 😳

    • Your last line made me laugh, thanks for that! Nothing wrong with tech and iPads are great. I still travel heavy because of the work/personal life tech needs – on my last trip, I had my work computer, my personal computer (to create blog posts on the plane), my iPad (for reading books and news), my work phone, my personal phone and my Apple watch. I’ve gotten to be a pro at unloading all that in airport security quickly. But none of my tech is more fascinating than the sights and sounds of the place. And also, “I want to see what’s going to hit ME.”

      • I process large files on my iPad. I also post Storyteller on it. Musical Miss writes songs on it. In theory, and according to Steve Jobs, only portables would be needed for most work. I think the future is now.

        She was also given an Apple Watch. It lives in the digital junk draw. She hated it.

        Of course, we travel much heavier than you when she is working. Usually one or two semis to carry everything.

        My theory is simple. I’d rather be out and about than working in my room.

        • Yes (out and about)! How do you do the large files on your iPad? Do you have a keyboard, and can you link to external hard drives, or do you do everything wirelessly? I am way behind you in terms of personal tech savvy.

          • It’s a lot more simple than all of that. Apple sells an adapter for $30 that plugs into the charging socket. An SD card fits into that. Every picture will show on the screen. I only select the ones I want to use because you risk using all the iPad storage. Download the selects and use editing software.

            You can also use either Bluetooth or a wireless connection. My Sony and Leica cameras are pretty good at that. In fact, I can download directly to social media sites.

            I don’t backup SD cards in the field. SD cards are very secure.

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