Taxi vs Uber vs sat-nav

Can an ex­pert cab­bie’s in­ti­mate knowl­edge of Lon­don’s streets out­wit a less-qual­i­fied Uber driver or a state-of-the-art sat-nav sys­tem? John Evans puts them to the test


Lon­don trans­port bat­tle

It’s well known that to be al­lowed to drive a Lon­don taxi, a cab­bie must do the Knowl­edge, a feat of mem­ory that re­quires a brain ca­pac­ity to ri­val a su­per­com­puter. But we also know that, thanks to Fred Housego, who won TV’S Mas­ter­mind in 1980, cab­bies pos­sess a level of gen­eral knowl­edge even quiz­mas­ter John Humphrys would find in­tim­i­dat­ing.

So we’ve es­tab­lished a Lon­don taxi driver is 99% brain. The trou­ble is, there’s an­other thing with a big brain that does a sim­i­lar job – a sat­nav. The best de­vices can not only cal­cu­late the fastest route across Lon­don (or any­where else for that mat­ter), but they can also re­act to un­seen congestion by re-rout­ing to avoid it. For­tu­nately, a taxi driver has a sixth sense for congestion and can cal­cu­late a dev­il­ishly clever route to cir­cum­vent it too.

How, we won­dered, would these two vast brains fare in a time trial on a typ­i­cal week day in the cap­i­tal? And then we had an even brighter idea: how about throw­ing an Uber cab into the mix? The com­pany is fight­ing to keep its Lon­don li­cence but, while it’s ap­peal­ing, it’s al­lowed to op­er­ate.

Rich­mond sta­tion to Water­loo sta­tion seemed like good start and fin­ish points since we (the pho­tog­ra­pher JB and I) could quickly re­turn by train for the next ‘race’. We knew that, be­ing al­lowed to use bus lanes, the taxi had an un­fair ad­van­tage but reck­oned that by tak­ing one at the tail-end of rush hour, any gains would be lost by de­lays else­where along the route. Ac­cord­ingly, at 09.10 one Wed­nes­day morn­ing, we pre­sented our­selves at Rich­mond sta­tion taxi rank.

By 09.11, we were on our way. Within min­utes, we were be­ing in­tro­duced to the de­lights of the taxi’s leaf-spring sus­pen­sion as we plunged head­long over the sleep­ing po­lice­men that plague the side roads around Rich­mond Park. Our driver had spot­ted rush-hour traf­fic mass­ing on the A305 Up­per Rich­mond Road and, to a cry of “Just avoid­ing the traf­fic!”, had peeled off right.

Af­ter some min­utes of this we emerged onto the A205 – and into a queue. On we crawled un­til, at 09.40, we made the in­ter­sec­tion with the A3. I ex­pected to hit dense traf­fic when we joined the A217 and ap­proached Wandsworth Bridge, but it was clear. By 09.59, we were at Lam­beth Palace, and in a bus lane, from where it was a short hop past St Thomas’ Hos­pi­tal,

around the round­about at the Park Plaza ho­tel and left up Sta­tion Ap­proach into Water­loo.

Back we went by train for round two (the jour­ney took 16, com­fort­able, min­utes), this time by Uber. A few yards down from Rich­mond sta­tion, I tapped a re­quest for a cab into the Uber app on my iphone. A map showed driver Daahir’s lo­ca­tion and within six min­utes we were climb­ing into his Vaux­hall Zafira, and by 10.47 on our way. Of course, un­like the taxi driver, Daahir re­lied on his sat-nav.

It took a dif­fer­ent route from the taxi, guid­ing us along the A316 to the A4, over the Ham­mer­smith fly­over, through heavy traf­fic at the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum and on­wards to Knights­bridge. And then, hav­ing been alerted to traf­fic far­ther along the planned route, at 11.17 guided us right, down Beauchamp Place, around Sloane Square and even­tu­ally to Grosvenor Road be­side the Thames at 11.27. Daahir couldn’t use the bus lanes but, even so, we even­tu­ally crossed Lam­beth Bridge, dived around the Park Plaza and made Water­loo sta­tion in good time.

Back to Rich­mond, where we piled into my 2006-reg Vaux­hall As­tra equipped with state-of-theart Garmin Drives­mart 61 Europe LMT-D sat-nav com­plete with life­time map up­dates for the UK and Europe, dig­i­tal traf­fic alerts, live park­ing in­for­ma­tion and built-in wi-fi (price: £249.95).

I tapped the des­ti­na­tion post­code into the beau­ti­fully clear 6.95in screen and, at 13.04, headed in the di­rec­tion of the A316, as in­di­cated. It was a re-run of Daahir’s ap­proach but as I drove, the Garmin in­vited me to se­lect faster routes as it iden­ti­fied congestion. Thus it was that, at 13.36, we found our­selves curl­ing around Hyde Park Cor­ner and down Con­sti­tu­tion Hill into what we feared would be the tourist trap of Bird­cage Walk, Par­lia­ment Square and West­min­ster Bridge. But the Garmin was right and, by 13.51, we were slip­ping past the Park Plaza.

The re­sults panel be­low ex­plains which mode was the quick­est but the taxi driver’s abil­ity to make good time, given the hour and the scarcity not only of bus lanes but clear ones too, was im­pres­sive.

The Garmin sat-nav ben­e­fited from a clearer run into Lon­don and, once in the cap­i­tal, demon­strated an im­pres­sive abil­ity to spot trou­ble and re-route around it.

The Uber ex­pe­ri­ence was smooth and great value for money. Which has the big­gest brain? Pass…

For­tu­nately, taxi driv­ers have a sixth sense for congestion

Train took the strain back to Rich­mond

re­ports of traf­fic Sat-nav re­acted swiftly to

John used his trusty As­tra for leg three

Rich­mond, John hailed an Uber via the app At

n paid £48 for his cab to Water­loo sta­tion

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