Remembering the city’s iconic yellow taxicabs.
I love New York. Since my first visit over thirty years ago, the city has always entranced and beguiled me with its energy, ambition, self-confidence and irrepressible optimism. It is so much more than mere steel and stone: it is a living organism powered by human endeavour and entrepreneurship. Even though I am very familiar with the city, having visited on many occasions and worked there for a time, I am still irrationally excited on the ride in from JFK airport, waiting to catch my first glimpse of that unique and unmistakable skyline.
It is, however, something quite different that first excites me when we emerge from the airport terminal; the sight of a line of yellow taxicabs parked outside. When I first visited New York, this comprised almost entirely American iron. The famous Checker Cab, a fixture in the city for over three decades, had ended production some years earlier, but there were still many examples in service(1) alongside the newer Chevrolet Caprice Classic and Ford Crown Victoria sedans.
In London, the body that licences and regulates black cabs(2) has strict rules about the condition of vehicles in service, requiring them to be withdrawn if they suffer any significant bodywork damage. In New York, however, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has historically taken a rather more relaxed view on this matter. It was not unusual to see yellow taxicabs bravely bearing the scars of numerous close-quarter encounters with other vehicles(3). Many would also display signs of a hasty repair job utilising only a hefty hammer, drill, pop-rivet gun and a rattle spray can in a very approximately similar shade of yellow.
In London, black cab drivers have to pass an onerous navigation test known as The Knowledge. Introduced in 1865, the test requires candidates to describe from memory the route they would drive between any two points in the city. Acquiring the knowledge typically takes candidates between three and four years. In New York, however, navigation is considerably more straightforward. Manhattan Island is laid out in a pretty rigid grid pattern, with streets running from east to west and avenues from north to south. Almost all are numbered in sequence, starting with the eastmost avenue and southmost street.
New York taxi drivers expect you to describe your destination in terms of the relevant junction(s) between street and avenue. For example, the Empire State Building(4) is on Fifth Avenue between West 33rd and 34th Streets, so your instruction would be simply “Fifth, between West 33rd and 34th please”. Most of the streets are one-way, alternating in direction from one to the next, so your driver may have to go around a city block to get you to your precise destination. Giving directions by numbers is also helpful in that many taxi drivers might not have English as their first language.
The grid system breaks down, however, in the confines of Lower Manhattan, where historic street names have been retained and four short avenues to the east of First Avenue are named A, B, C and D rather than numbered. Logically enough, these are to be found in a neighbourhood known as Alphabet City.
There are currently around 13,500 yellow taxicabs plying their trade on the streets of New York. Because the cabs are operated around the clock in shifts, there are approximately 40,000 licenced taxi drivers in the city. It was an all-male profession until 1981, when the first female taxi drivers were granted licences, initially as a one-year experiment. Although they succeeded in the role and were made permanent, only around 1% of New York taxi drivers were female in 2020, making it one of the least diverse secular professions anywhere.
New York taxis are metered and the current rates are $2.50 initial charge for the first 1/5 mile, then 50 cents per 1/5 mile when traveling above 12mph, or per 60 seconds in slow traffic or when the vehicle is stopped. Bridge and tunnel tolls, taxes, and a $1.00 peak-time (4 to 8pm) supplement are all extra.
For some longer journeys beyond Manhattan Island, fixed-rate charges apply, for example $52.00 plus tolls from JFK airport to anywhere in Manhattan. A tip of between 10% and 20% of the fare is customary. Unlike in London, it is expected that you settle the fare before exiting the taxicab. New York taxi drivers have a reputation for abrasiveness, but I have never found them to be less than unfailingly polite – as long as you are too, of course.
Unlike the production cars adapted for the role, the Checker had been designed from the outset as a taxicab and was uniquely well suited to its purpose. The model which everyone recalls is the A8, launched in 1956 and remaining in production until 1982. Even with the mandatory security screen separating rear passengers from the driver, the Checker was pretty spacious in the back, although the ultra-practical non-breathable black vinyl upholstery was an uncomfortably sticky companion on humid summer days, despite the air-conditioning being cranked up to the maximum.
Later versions of the Checker had stout front and rear bumpers that stood inches clear of the bodywork and looked as though they had been fabricated from Armco barriers, perfect for those close-quarter battles mentioned earlier. Surprisingly, however, the smooth flanks were unadorned and unprotected.
The Checker was supplanted by the Chevrolet Caprice Classic and Ford Crown Victoria. Both were full-size rear-wheel-drive sedans that utilised traditional body-on-frame construction(5), so were suitable candidates to be modified for both police and taxi use. Notwithstanding their exterior size, both were noticeably short of rear legroom behind the security screen, but at least they had enormous luggage carrying space. These softly sprung land-yachts moved serenely over New York’s famously pot-holed streets, gently bobbing up and down as they did so.
While the Ford and Chevrolet were truly ubiquitous, if you were observant, you might occasionally spot something unusual in yellow taxicab guise. The Peugeot 505 was one such oddity I recall.
General Motor’s decision to end production of the Caprice Classic in 1996 left the field open for Ford, at least for a few years. However, the requirement for all cars in North America to be fitted with electronic stability control from 2012 brought production of the Crown Victoria to an end as it was not viable to modify the car accordingly. That left the New York taxi trade without a traditional RWD sedan and gave further impetus to a switch to newer, more economical and space-efficient vehicles. US and Japanese minivans began to appear alongside the traditional sedans.
In 2005, the city introduced incentives to try and persuade taxicab companies to switch to hybrid vehicles. This was initially resisted by the operators, on the grounds that increased maintenance costs outweighed the marginal savings in fuel. Gradually however, the proportion of hybrid vehicles in the fleet began to accelerate, reaching 33% in February 2011 and almost 60% by September 2012.
In 2011 the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission organised a competition to choose the Taxi of Tomorrow, a single model that would replace the entire fleet. This was won by a specially adapted version of the Nissan NV200 van, built in Mexico. Nissan was awarded an exclusive ten-year contract worth an estimated $1 billion.
The result of the competition, announced by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was a controversial one and was followed by years of pressure from the taxicab industry, citing the NV200’s cramped accommodation, poor ride quality, heavy fuel consumption and indifferent reliability. This campaign finally forced the Commission to renege in 2017. Instead of the NV200, taxicab operators could now choose from a list of around thirty different vehicles.
The NV200 remains the most popular single vehicle, accounting for around 20% of the New York taxicab fleet. It is perfectly acceptable in the role, even if still a bit van-like and cacophonous inside, but it lacks the bruised but unbowed patinated charm of its predecessors, which were, for me at least, the very essence of New York.
(1) The last Checker was finally retired from service in 1999 after twenty years and with nearly one million miles on the clock.
(2) Formerly the Hackney Carriage Office, now part of Transport for London.
(3) That seems to be less apparent in more recent times, however, possibly because the latest vehicles are smaller and more susceptible to cosmetic damage, so perhaps driven with more circumspection?
(4) In fairness, most taxi drivers would know the location of famous New York landmarks without this information.
(5) Body-on-frame vehicles were regarded as less likely to suffer from structural damage and easier to repair than monocoque vehicles, hence their popularity in these onerous roles.