New York State of Mind

Remembering the city’s iconic yellow taxicabs.

Image: cityandstateny.com

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licences and regulates black cabs(2) has strict rules about the condition of vehicles in service, requiring them to be withdrawn if they suffer any significant bodywork damage.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.

Image: hotcars.com

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.

Image: nytimes.com

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.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

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.

Image: nytimes.com

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.

Image: nytimes.com

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

20 thoughts on “New York State of Mind”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Like you I am very fond of New York. Due to some unfortunate circumstances I have only been able to visit it once.

    I arrived at Newark, took the train to Penn station and had a cab ride from there to my hotel on the upper west side. The cab was a Crown Victoria. Despite the very limited legroom I loved it. The boot is indeed enormous, making it hard to take out my trusted Rimowa once we arrived at the hotel as it had slid all the way to the back seat. There may be cars more suitable for the job, but I will surely miss these.

    I have no idea when I will visit NYC next. My first trip abroad will be to Tokyo once foreigners are allowed to travel to Japan again.

    1. Good morning Freerk. The size of the Crown Vic (as it’s colloquially known) and Caprice Classic’s trunk was epic! On one overnight business trip to New York, I only brought a small, black carry-on bag. When the taxicab pulled up at the airport for my return flight, the taxi driver, a Hispanic chap rather short in stature, had to climb into the trunk to retrieve it from the immense darkness!

  2. Good morning, Daniel. Is a taxi the best way to get from JFK into the city? I’ve never visited the US, much less New York, nor had any burning desire to do so, but I would jave thought there’d be a train or bus. Or is a taxi safer when one is burdened with luggage?
    (I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Lawrence Block’s books, which are set in New York. His burglar character Bernie Rhodenbarr in particular seems to get cabs everywhere, but I never know whether he’s going on long or short journeys!)

    1. Good morning Michael. There are also subway, commuter train and bus alternatives, but after a seven-hour flight, a taxicab is pretty stress-free, especially now with the fixed fare. The commuter train, a 35-minute journey for a fare of $15.50 is a good alternative, but for a couple travelling, the difference in cost between it and the taxicab is not that great, given that you might end up having to take a subway or taxicab in Manhattan from Penn Station (near Times Square) to your final destination anyway.

    2. Thanks, Daniel. I’m beginning to at least fantasise about travel again- whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen! Did women drive cabs in the war years? I know part of the setup for Bernstein’s “On the town” involved a female cabbie, but I guess that could have been a plot device…

    3. That’s a good question. The history I read made no mention of it. I don’t think that the draft had the same impact on traditional male jobs in the US as conscription did in Great Britain.

  3. You can take the subway all the way from JFK to central Manhattan for$2.50. It’s a slow journey and the views don’t match those from a cab but boy is it cost effective. I’ve done it many times .

    1. Absolutely, Barry, but I got into some bad habits when travelling on business expenses and haven’t managed to shake them off!

      Joking aside, the New York subway system is a remarkably clean, efficient and safe way to travel around the city these days, and we use it (or walk, the very best way to see the city) all the time when we are there.

      Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, the trains were famously crime-ridden, dirty and covered in graffiti. In 1985, there was an initiative immediately to withdraw from service any subway train daubed with graffiti, as it was f0und that graffiti ‘artists’ were much less inclined to be the first to deface the trains. It worked brilliantly and, together with tighter security, made the subway a much more pleasant way to travel.

  4. Being a passenger in a Checker Cab was – among other, well, considerably more decadent things – one of the items on my NYC-to-do-list back then. And in my inimitable arrogance, I can say: Being there, done that.

    The mass of Yellow Cabs was gigantic and every time you hailed a taxi you felt like an actor in the films you had seen at home in the cinema. Great memories.
    Thank you Daniel for bringing them back.

  5. Ah, New York, the big Apple… my cab memories, for what it’s worth: my last trip in a cab there was back to JFK in some gargantuan all-black hybrid SUV, that did some incomprehensible MPG according to the cabbie, I think it came down to “only” 4km/l…. I always wondered why the Crowns and Caprices were favoured so much, as they gave so little space to the passengers (where it counts at least) and took up so much square feet on the street: completely missing the point in these Continental city dweller eyes 😉
    My best memory is that of a Jewish cabbie in a Crown, who rambled on about the balancing act between his wife and his girlfriend. Unforgettable, and as if he was there to underscore the feeling of being on the set of a sitcom all the time. Man, how i miss travelling…
    Thanks for the great articles and conversations all, and wish you a very pleasant 2022!

  6. My only experience of NYC was the bus from JFK to LaGuardia forty years ago, but I rode in a Checker in Cleveland around the same time ( still remember the rattle from something loose or broken in the suspension) and I’ve ridden in a Crown Vic in Chicago more recently – I remember the lack of legroom, and the odd location of the spare tyre.

    1. Hi Mervyn, yes, the spare wheel placement in the Crown Vic is weird:

      Removing it from that position looks like a recipe for a hernia. Why didn’t they place it upright on the side instead?

    2. I seem to recall that ‘my’ Crown Vic cab had a flat floor and not a spare wheel in sight. Were there faux floors in some of the cabs, with the spare wheel mounted below?

  7. My usual way of getting to NYC is to drive from home to the hotel in Jersey and take an NJ Transit bus or train in from there to the PABT or Penn Station (sadly not Grand Central) so I’ve used taxis very little and in NYC not at all.

    The Crown Vics have a couple of almost-only-in-New York oddities; for one thing, for several years in the late ’90s/early ’00s any fleet colors not in the standard retail color offerings would be delivered with bumpers painted black or silver (Taxi yellow cars had silver bumpers, Vermont State Police green cars had black ones, for example) and a couple years later (around the time Ford relented and started painting factory taxi bumpers yellow) a special long-wheelbase model was added to answer complaints about the relatively cramped back seats.

    The NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, almost alone in America, requires taxis to enter service as new cars. Elsewhere in the country the vast majority of cabs start out as used cars since it’s more cost-effective. I’m fairly sure this rule does not apply to the apple-green “Boro Taxis” which have a much cheaper medallion and regulations more like most other American cities than the usual relatively strict NYC ones in exchange for not being allowed to pick up passengers in Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Certainly a number of them are clearly semiretired from black-car service that they’re not spiffy enough for anymore but that could be through a loophole by the same operator.

    1. Also, full-size Fords had that spare placement going back to 1965. The point was to advertise a deeper trunk.

  8. Bonjour à tous, je vous souhaite une tres belle année 2022.
    Dans les années 80, Peugeot a vendu environ 1200 505 turbo-diesel à la ville de new-york pour être des taxi.
    C’était moins exotique pour nous européen… mais elles etaient jaune

    Google translate:
    Hello everyone, I wish you a very happy new year 2022 😀
    In the 1980s Peugeot sold around 1,200 505 turbo-diesel to New York City to be taxis.
    It was less exotic for us European… but they were yellow !

    ps:1000 thanks to you Daniel for your daily work which is so pleasant to read

    1. Bonsoir Alain et merci pour tes gentils mots, et ton explication pour la vue des taxis jaunes Peugeot 505 dans les rues de New York. Bonne année!

      Good evening Alain and thanks for your kind words, and your explanation for the sight of yellow Peugeot 505 taxicabs on the streets of New York. Happy New Year!

  9. Happy New Year! Very interesting post, Daniel. I remember the first time I went to NY as a grown up (I had been there before as a kid in the mid-70s) and the excitement I felt when I stepped out of the subway stairs and right into what I think was 5th Ave. I felt like in a film! And of course the swarms of rough, speeding, yellow Chevys and Fords were as quintessentially part of the NY vibe as the buildings and the people. I remember how they really flew along some of the less-travelled streets at what seemed like insane speeds; nowhere near the speed limit and porpoising violently up and down at the intersections. I remember thinking how tough those cars needed to be to survive such abuse every single day.

    Alas, I haven’t been back to NY in these post Crown Vic days, but I have a feeling I’d be disappointed at the current taxi scene there (probably lots of Toyota Camrys). Yes they’re vastly more efficient than the Crown Vic/ Caprice dinosaurs, but I guess something has been lost in the transition.

    Thanks Daniel for reviving some of these memories!

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