Welcome back to In Plain Sight, where we're doing something a little different this week. Pop quiz, hotshot - how many taxi cabs are there in New York City? If you guessed a shit-ton, well, read on to claim your prize (hint: it's KNOWLEDGE).
There are few cars and places so inextricably linked as New York City and the yellow taxi. For decades, massive sedans sporting that iconic paint job and a little numbered light bolted to the roof have flooded the streets, ferrying tourists and New Yorkers alike. You hear complaints all the time – they’re dirty, the drivers are rude/slow/smelly/on a cell phone, traffic is a bitch, and let’s not even talk about Taxi TV – but really, this wouldn’t be New York without those 13,000+ yellow cabs.
The history of taxis in this city can be traced directly to the summer of 1897, when the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company began running 12 electric hansom cabs - a small fleet that was soon expanded to over 100 (Yes, horse-drawn cabs existed long before that, but this isn’t horselopnik). These crude, unwieldy contraptions are responsible for both the first speeding ticket AND the first motor vehicle accident death in the United States. History made here!
Thankfully, a garage fire in 1907 destroyed hundreds of the damn things and put the company out of business, ending the scourge of electric cabs before they could fully take over. Gas-powered cars were introduced, and as automobile manufacturing took off in this country, so too did the number of cabs on the streets. By the 1930s, the number of taxis on the streets rose to as many as 30,000 as more people tried to make a living driving a cab during the Great Depression. In response to this rapid growth, then-Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia (of airport fame) introduced the medallion system, which restricted the number of licenses that were required to legally operate a taxi in the city to around 16,000.
But with the market artificially constricted like that, illegal taxi services started to crop up. This really took off during the social unrest of the 1960s, when urban decay and rising crime made many official drivers unwilling to drive into poor and troubled neighborhoods, creating even more demand for the bootleg cabs. In response to the growing competition, the city ordered that all official cabs with medallions should be painted yellow so they’d be more recognizable. Why yellow? It had become the industry standard across the country since John Hertz (of Hertz rent-a-car) founded the Yellow Cab Company back in 1915 after reading a study that suggested yellow-red was the most visible color from a distance.
Of course, the Checker Taxi/Marathon A1 is the most recognizable of the yellow cabs, but in reality many different vehicles have donned that noble coat and been thrashed to death in a few short years over the last half century. More recently, and especially since the end of the Chevy Caprice in the mid-90s, the Ford Crown Victoria has become the iconic taxi. In reality though, the taxi ecosystem is surprisingly diverse. The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) actually has a list of specific makes and models that fleet owners are legally allowed to paint that magic yellow and convert into a taxi – 23 models total, spanning three years (taxis are forced into retirement after a set number of years unless the fleet owner can prove it can’t afford to replace it). There are a few surprises on there that will never hit the streets, while others actually have, as you’ll find out over the next few days (What? Read on, friendo!).
But with the continual rise in fuel prices and production of the Crown Victoria ceasing more than a year ago, change is coming, and change is not good, at least to people like us who like interesting cars. Mayor Michael Nanny Bloomberg decreed a few years ago this craziness must end, that there can only be one cab – ironically, not the Highlander. The city held a battle royale between multiple manufacturers, narrowing it down to three – the Nissan SoccerMom, the Ford Transit Connect, and the Karsan V1 – and allowed the public to voice their opinions through online polls. Of course, everyone wanted the Karsan, but sudden “concerns” over the company’s ability to carry out the plan made Bloomberg regret giving the people a voice, and he decided we’d be better off with a god damn minivan. The whole thing was very shady.
And though certain advocates have tried to stop the impending taxipocalypse by arguing the Nissan’s lack of total wheelchair accessibility and a hybrid option violates certain city and state laws, the day when the streets are flooded by slope-faced toasters draws near. It’s a melancholy time in the Big Apple, let me tell you.
But we can’t just let this era peter out, fade slowly into the rising tide of identical vans. We must celebrate it! And while there’s no shortage of flickr albums of all the different taxi models, I’ve yet to find anything in writing about how each one performs its duties and represents the history of yellow cabs here.
So over the next couple days I’ll be bringing you a two-part guide to all the cars currently in service on these mean streets. Consider it a primer to the Wild West of New York City’s taxis; which, like the real West, will end sooner than we can even imagine.