Jana Stroe leans out the window of her yellow Ford Crown Victoria taxicab in front of the Hilton hotel in midtown Manhattan. She loves her car. “I’ve driven a Crown Vic for 20 years,” she says. “This cab is specific to America, specific to New York.”
Along with the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, yellow taxis are an emblem of New York City. There are more than 13,000 taxis licensed in the city that transport 600,000 people each day. At some hours, half of the cars on the streets of Manhattan are taxis, says Deborah Marton of the Design Trust for Public Space, a non-profit group involved with improving the taxi system.
But taxis, unlike Lady Liberty, can change their shape and size. The Checker cabs of black-and-white movies gave way to the Crown Vic. In a few years, New York City taxis again will begin to look completely different.
This year, Ford announced that it will stop making the Crown Victoria, the mainstay of taxi and police fleets in New York and across the country. New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission has decided to find more than just a replacement for the Crown Vic. By 2014, it will begin replacing every taxi in the city — there are 16 varieties — with a single, ubiquitous model, the nature of which has yet to be decided.
Taxi of Tomorrow
To find the new cab, the Commission is holding a competition called “Taxi of Tomorrow.” Several automakers have submitted detailed proposals.
“We’ve received a number of proposals for electric, plug-in electric, battery-switch electric and compressed natural gas vehicles. We are looking very carefully at each of those technologies,” says New York City Taxi & Limousine Commissioner David Yassky. “It’s the culmination of a growing recognition that the Crown Victoria has rendered great service for New Yorkers and visitors, but we can do better.”
The commission plans to make a decision by the end of the year. Yassky says there are six factors: Comfort, durability, performance and safety, accessibility, fuel efficiency and design. “The goal would be for the new taxicab to complement the urban landscape, for people to say, ‘Yes, that new taxicab belongs in New York City,’ ” he says.
The demise of the Crown Vic does not mean Ford is out of the taxi market. The company will continue to pursue taxi fleet customers for its new model, the Transit Connect, a small, European-style van, says Anne Marie Gattari, a Ford spokeswoman. The Transit Connect has found customers from Southern California to Boston, she says. She declined to say whether Ford has submitted a design to New York.
Cities beyond New York are looking for innovative taxi designs. In Chicago, a city of 6,800 licensed taxis, the loss of the Crown Vic means replacing two-thirds of the fleet. “Taxis are such an important part of our transportation infrastructure,” says Norma Reyes, Chicago’s commissioner of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection. “Accessibility and greening: those two things alone are important.”
For many visitors to New York, their first view of the city is the inside of a cab.
“I think the first thing tourists will notice is (the new taxi’s) stronger design identity,” the Design Trust’s Marton says. “And hopefully the second thing they’ll notice is that it’s more comfortable.”
‘Reluctance to change’
Not all New Yorkers are excited about their city’s Taxi of Tomorrow.
“There is a reluctance to change,” says David Pollack, executive director of the Committee for Taxi Safety, a New York group that represents taxi drivers and owners. “Hopefully there’s no distribution or parts problem, and the (new) car holds up on New York City streets.”
Former New York City traffic commissioner Samuel Schwartz also has concerns. “In London, every taxi looks the same, and they’ve gotten by quite well,” he says. “But you can’t put all your eggs in one basket without expecting a few of them to break.”
For cab owners, the Taxi of Tomorrow is particularly worrisome. “The problem is, the perfect car for me is not the perfect car for my wife, who is 4 foot 11, or for a person who weighs 300 pounds, or for a person who’s in a wheelchair,” says Michael Levine, the owner of hundreds of cabs in Chicago and New York. “You’re forcing everyone to buy one car, and if it turns out to be a lemon, then you’re up the creek.”
No matter which design the commission chooses, taxis will retain their distinctive yellow color and historic function: swarming the streets, lining up at train stations, hotels and airports, carrying passengers uptown, downtown and crosstown in the city that never sleeps.
“I would prefer for the new cab to be a clean car, inside and out,” says Mike Ladson, 42, a security guard from Maplewood, N.J., who works in Manhattan and takes taxis to the Port Authority to catch his bus home. “I like the Crown Vic. I like the minivans. I’m paying for a cab, I want to be comfortable. But all I really want is to get where I’m going.”