Taxi of Tomorrow?

New York City has announced the three finalists in the Taxi of Tomorrow Project, a design initiative sponsored by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. Designs by Ford, Nissan and a Turkish manufacturer called Karsan have reached the final round of the competition, which aims to select a model to add to the list of approved taxis. Additionally, the manufacturer of the selected model will receive the exclusive contract to provide the taxi as the single approved new model for the next decade. The plan, according to the New York Times’ Wheels Blog, is to replace all current models with a new design that will eventually replace all 13,000 or so taxis in the city over the next 10 years. The winner is expected to be announced early next year, with new cabs rolling onto city streets as early as 2014. However, the City has not obligated itself to choose any of the designs presented during the competition process.

“The yellow cab is one of the most iconic symbols of New York City,” said Mayor Bloomberg, in a press release from the Mayor’s office yesterday. “Taxis have been an important part of our mass transit network for more than a century and we are going to create a new taxi for our City that is safer, greener and more comfortable than the ones we have today. While the City has long set the standards for our taxis – including working to make our vehicles more fuel efficient – the City has never before worked with the auto industry to design one taxicab specifically for New York City, until now.”

Transit and environmental policy musings aside, taxis are clearly here to stay. This redesign provides an alternative approach to Mayor Bloomberg’s thwarted plans to mandate greener transit through the use of hybrid vehicles in the City’s taxi fleets, a central part of the PlaNYC 2030 initiative. This summer, a federal Court of Appeals rejected the Mayor’s second attempt at creating a greener taxi fleet through City-wide regulation; in a suit brought by taxi fleet owners in 2009, it was held that any such mandate by the City would interfere with the federal government’s role in setting fuel and engine efficiency standards. The ruling reflected an earlier appeals decision from 2008 regarding another attempt at regulation. The initial plan called for all cabs operating in the city to meet tough fuel efficiency standards (30 miles per gallon), while the follow up focused on creating financial incentives to switch to hybrid vehicles.

Now that both the Crown Victoria and the Lincoln Town Car are being discontinued by Ford, the incentive is to create a greener solution by design, not mandate. These two cars are the predominant models for taxis and livery drivers in New York City, and, like the Checker Cab before them, will soon be found only in memories of an older New York, with Matchbox versions available for purchase at a souvenir shop near you.

For me one of the most exciting aspects of this competition is the opportunity for the city to choose something truly iconic. “These cars are a facet of people’s everyday experience,” taxi commissioner David Yassky told the  New York Times in a recent article. “Whatever takes their place will have a real and tangible influence on the city’s aesthetic.” And that aesthetic plays out in images all over the world; everyday experience in New York City is the subject of fantasy for the people who move and travel here from places far and wide. I remember my first ride in a New York City cab rather distinctly–it involved a late 80s Crown Vic with bench seats and that green pebble vinyl interior, traveling north on Broadway at breakneck speeds literally leaping curbs to avoid traffic, and the fact that it went down in family lore as”The Ride From Hell” only solidified its status as a rite of passage.

[Images: NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission's Taxi of Tomorrow]

For all their amenities, efficiency and ease of access, I’m not convinced that any of the three finalists have much to offer in the way of iconic design revolution. While the Karsan model has the somewhat futuristic effect of a supersized Smart Car, in fact all three look slightly less like an icon, slightly more like an ambulette. While the emergency transport vehicle image might not be too far off in terms of function, are any of these designs what New Yorkers really want to be looking at, exclusively, for the next 10 years? Or, as long as the experience remains the same, either for everyday riders or first time thrill seekers, does the design even matter?

By offering your two cents online at the Taxi of Tomorrow website set up by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, you can not only be satisfied by the act of public participation–you might also win a year of free taxi rides.

One Response to “Taxi of Tomorrow?”

  1. lividlunch November 16, 2010 at 6:40 PM #

    free cab rides? good incentive. too bad i don’t live in the city! i agree with you on those designs. karsan is the least ugly, not the most beautiful.

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