Designing a taxi is an interesting project. Not only are there the hardware problems (an appropriate car and interior) but also software problems (organizing and ordering taxis). Both parts have a long and vexed history worldwide, from London’s black cabs to Bangkok’s Tuk Tuks, but the New York ‘Yellow Cab’ can best illustrate the current issues in western cities.
Yellow Cabs are synonymous with New York. Bouncing down Fifth Avenue in countless movies; jostling in the Saul Steinberg View from 9th Avenue cartoon; the basis of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. Yellow cabs ARE New York. The locals take them whenever they can, often in preference to the increasingly decrepit subways, and tourists are told that you haven’t seen New York unless it’s through a Yellow Cab window.
From 1980 to 2012 the car of choice for New York taxis was the Ford Crown Victoria (a Crown Vic), also used as a police car. These were standard retail (with rear wheel drive, a V8, and soft suspension) but had a longer wheelbase to give a bigger rear bench seat for either passengers or criminals. An acrylic screen separates the driver from the rear seat, which could take two or three, and luggage in the trunk.
Recently New York cabs moved away from long-bodied cars towards more environmentally friendly vehicles, responding to air quality concerns and rising fuel costs. Increasingly private owners of NY cabs have switched to mid-sized Toyota's, Nissans, and Mitsubishi's. You are squeezed into a rather grubby rear seat intended for children.
And the room for passengers becomes even more cramped, exacerbated by the part-broken shield, and its built-in electronic screens for adverts. No surprise here, after all you are riding in the home of Capitalism and Madison Ave.
Unlike the black cab of London there has never been a purpose designed taxi for New York. In 1976, MOMA in NY (Museum of Modern Art) held an exhibition called ‘The Taxi Project’ with some innovative designs including ones from AMF, SPS, Volvo, VW Kombi and Alfa Romeo. But none were adopted, and the Crown Vic was victorious.
In Australia the Ford Falcon (sadly never stretched as in the USA) has gone, but as in NY the hardware has never really changed; we continue to use regular cars, often with minor adaptations for driver's safety. The only innovation being a limited number in Australia are adapted to carry wheelchairs. But the dirty, cramped and uncomfortable interior continues.
Yellow Cabs rule no more in NY. Digital ride services have eaten into their business, and cab drivers are furious and fighting back, with older, tradition-favouring public on their side. Whilst Yellow Cab hardware has barely entered the 21st century, its software is positively antediluvian, which is why ride share has made such inroads.
I’ve visited New York over 15 times, often taking cabs. Some rides are memorable, if not enjoyable, because the drivers’ rudeness seemed to typify the old-style New York. On one trip to a meeting from downtown to midtown the driver objected to something I said and became increasingly vociferous and unpleasant and accused me of being a terrorist. Still took my money and demanded a tip.
Quite a contrast to the attitude of taxi drivers in other big cities, where service, pleasantness, and assistance to tourists seems to be the hallmark of the cabbie. Which explains why alternative ride systems in NY such as Uber, Lyft, Juno, and particularly Via have become so successful, and shown how important the software is.
How is it that a private car, ill-equipped to carry people in the rear, with a driver relying solely on a GPS, can outdo the great tradition of the Yellow Cab? Well, it all comes down to service: a booking system that allows you to see where the car is, get a guaranteed arrival, know who the driver is, have some recourse, and not have to wait in a cab in the middle of traffic, horns blaring at you, while you fumble for cash or a credit card trying to pay.
A recent experience highlights how old-fashioned New York taxis really are. One Saturday I got into a local cab and went for an eight-minute drive, arriving in a busy street in Soho, horns blaring as the traffic stopped. I jumped out of the cab as quickly as I could, and the cab sped off. Only then did I discover that the bag containing all the trip vitals was still in the cab. Distraught at losing everything I chased the cab, a useless task in New York.
I had paid cash, as you do in NY, and had a small docket as receipt that included a phone number for queries and lost luggage. The number, 311, had a series of automated messages - it is a general number for problems with municipal or state organizations. When I finally got through after five calls, the person took notes very slowly, and advised me that the Medallion number on the piece of paper was a private garage not a legal taxi provider.
The taxi’s ‘hack number’ was of no use whatsoever: it's not the driver's name nor phone number nor anyone that can be contacted. The driver was unregistered, the cab unregistered, it was a phony Yellow Cab. But the ‘Taxi and Limousine Commission’ (TLC) is closed until 8:30 on Monday morning. In today’s world how could the main regulating organization, for a 24/7 industry, be closed for more than 48 hours?
Not having any satisfaction with 311, I took a cab to see if another driver could help. Not at all. So, off to the nearest precinct police station, which is like stepping into a ‘Law and Order’ episode. Bong Bong. Courteous, well mannered, but way over stressed police kindly took my report and told me of the two precinct stations, one in the 17th and one in Central Park, that accept lost luggage. I went back into the street when a violent drug affected crazy disrupted the station.
Increasingly I was distraught at losing all of my vital documents, money, passports, driver’s license; all I had was a phone in my hand. I ordered an Uber to go back to the hotel and in some way try and recover. What a difference. It arrives, it's clean, the driver is courteous, he listens to my story, gives a commentary about how he has to be registered with the TLC, but they do nothing for him.
I realize that if I had left my luggage in the back of a ride share service, I would have the name and phone number for the driver and I could immediately ring and get my material returned. This is the difference. Cabs are still working on the basis of being regulated by a government organization in a country where government regulation is increasingly under attack, dilapidated and out of time, allowing cabs to be unregistered or unlicensed. No help to passengers.
Contrast that with the service from an automated and systematised arrangement for ride share. For the rest of my visit in New York, I took a variety of ride share services. My favourite is Via. It's cheaper, it does a lot of its rides by pooling and the drivers seem genuinely unusual New Yorkers and have lots of great commentary.
The coda to the story is that a very kind Brooklynite found my bag in the back of a taxi, and despite the entreaties of the driver to share a reward for the return of the bag, he rang me directly, and I was thrilled to take ride over to collect the bag intact. The bag was lost, if not for his kindness, telling me that the same thing had happened to him, leaving a phone in a cab in Berlin, and it had been returned. He paid it forward.
Otherwise, I would have spent fruitless days trying to get the TLC, the police, or anyone else to give me some assistance. I’ll not get into a Yellow Cab until they can raise their systems to match what is available in the 21st century. They need better designed hardware, with better software.
The great taxi design project still awaits someone innovative. If Elon Musk was more interested in getting to Marsfield than Mars, he might order a design for a useful all electric people mover for on-demand carpool – (the one environmental innovation from ‘ride-share’). Meanwhile, in New York, as here, we await a better taxi with a better on-demand system.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]