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The Taxi Vehicle in the Ideal Taxi System

From: Design Trust for Public Space, Designing the Taxi, Nov. 2005.

By Bruce Schaller

From the passenger perspective, the ideal taxi system would provide a fast, comfortable and safe ride with a minimum of hassle or worry.1 In this ideal world, cabs are easy to hail from the street or find at a taxi stand. Drivers are courteous, helpful with bags, and knowledgeable about city geography. Seating is comfortable and spacious. The total passenger experience makes riders feel like valued customers.

How does reality measure up to these expectations? In many ways, New Yorkers are quite satisfied with cab service. Many passengers describe taking a cab as "simple" and "easy," at least for trips in Midtown and other parts of the Manhattan grid.2 Steps ranging from vehicle age limits to the City's 311 system for complaints have improved the taxi-user experience in recent years.

But taxi service also falls short of expectations in important ways. Hailing a cab during rush hour can be a time-consuming and anxiety-producing experience. Cabs are not designed to accommodate wheelchair users or parents traveling with babies. Once in the cab, passengers feel the ride is "jerky" and often dangerous. For trips outside the familiar Manhattan grid, passengers worry about whether the driver knows the way.3 Customer satisfaction ratings are below par for cab availability, safety from accidents, driver understanding directions, driver courtesy, and driver knowledge of the route.4

This is an opportune time to both reinforce the strengths of New York's taxi service and address shortcomings. The taxi business is thriving, with revenue and ridership at or near all-time peaks. Both the City and the taxi industry have smart, capable leaders who are committed to improving the industry. The Design Trust's current efforts have brought new blood and increased focus on key issues. Technological advancements to be implemented in 2006 will give customers the option of paying by credit or debit card and will put Global Positioning System (GPS) devices in all cabs, opening a panorama of possibilities to enhance service.

So what are the keys to bringing taxi service to the next level? What will make the ubiquitous yellow cab an icon of the best that New York has to offer? Answering this question requires recognizing not only the strengths and accomplishments of the industry and regulators, but also frankly identifying and finding ways to rectify the weaknesses.

In the positive and collaborative spirit of the Design Trust's Designing the Taxi program, I will outline four important questions relating to weaknesses in the current taxi system, and I will touch on possible improvements in each area. My objective is to contribute a few new ingredients to this simmering discussion, while trusting that others will point out if I've tossed in any lemons.

Does One Size Fit All?

The presumption that "one size fits all" is perhaps the biggest deficiency in the current regulatory framework. It has two main dimensions. First, there is a presumption that one vehicle fits all customers - big and small passengers, able-bodied and disabled, long and short trips, multi-passenger groups and single riders, parents and businesspeople..

One possible solution is to offer different vehicles to serve different needs. As you'll see in later sections of this book, a proposal from Hybrid Product Design and Development suggests there be three versions of a taxi: Mini (like a refined rickshaw), Maxi, and Mogul. Or there could be two versions: a two-seater primarily for short jaunts and a larger vehicle for bigger groups and longer trips. At least some, if not all, of the vehicles should be wheelchair accessible and should carry amenities such as baby car seats.

Another dimension to "one size fits all" is the presumption that one way to get a cab fits all. Since two-way radios were banned from taxis in the early 1980s, medallion cabs have been available only by street hail and at a few taxi stands, primarily at major transportation centers. To get a vehicle to come to your doorstep, you must telephone a black car or neighborhood car service base - huge industries by themselves, with 35,000 radio-equipped cars citywide, nearly one-half of which primarily serve the Manhattan market.

This two-tiered system, although created by history and circumstance, has considerable logic. Outer-borough riders, whose needs are not met by medallion cabs, have ready access to car services. In Manhattan, however, this system means that empty radio cars clog streets and avenues in the central business district, waiting for calls, even while it can be difficult or impossible to hail a yellow cab.

There is a great opportunity in the fact that demand for medallion cabs peaks during the evening rush while black cars, which serve a business clientele, do not become busy until 7 p.m. Why not - using dispatch technology discussed below -- set up a system where radio cars could help meet the peak rush hour taxi demand? This strategy could be part of introducing different vehicle designs, since radio cars are generally Lincoln Town cars, as opposed to the Ford Crown Victoria that comprises 92% of the yellow taxi fleet.

Can Customers and Cabs be Matched More Efficiently?

The current "cruising" system is not necessarily the most efficient way to match customers and yellow cabs, and any differentiation among different cab types would increase the importance of helping customers find the vehicle they want. Technology can go a long way toward addressing this need. With the Taxi and Limousine Commission mandating the installation of vehicle-positioning technology (GPS) in cabs, a system could be designed to allow passengers to request a cab via a cell-phone text message and then be alerted when a cab arrives - perhaps at a marked taxi stand. The technical capability for this system has been proven in London. It would provide convenience to passengers and would guide drivers to the nearest customer.

Customer/vehicle matching could also be improved by expanding the number of cab stands. Stands currently work well at major trip generators, such as airports and train stations. Although attempts to reduce cruising through the establishment of a network of Midtown cab stands have not succeeded in the past, they might succeed in a situation in which customers could choose among different vehicle types or among drivers with different qualifications (as discussed below).

Is the Street Optimized for Taxis?

Taxis are accorded significant recognition by the City's transportation authorities. Taxis with passengers can use certain bus lanes; taxi stands have been created and staffed at major transportation hubs; and taxi relief stands, to facilitate driver breaks, are scattered throughout the city. But while important, these steps only incompletely address the need to make taxicabs an integral part of the city's transportation network. One possible solution is to add taxi stands, as discussed above. Another possibility is to establish taxi lanes.

The City and Metropolitan Transportation Authority are currently evaluating a range of methods to speed up bus service, including additional bus-only lanes. Similar traffic-separated lanes could also be established for taxicabs. In certain circumstances, cabs and buses could share the same lanes. Since all cabs now have EZ-Pass cards, which allow for the automatic debiting of tolls, passengers wishing to take advantage of faster travel times could be charged a fee for using these lanes.

Can Drivers Gain Greater Respect?

Drivers want respect from passengers, the public, and the City. However, they recognize that they lack the recognition that is accorded to bus drivers and other City workers because of the failure by some drivers to provide courteous, knowledgeable, and safe service.5 Driver professionalism is thus a key to a better taxi system. If drivers consistently provided a professional service, they would earn the respect of passengers and the public. Passengers would feel treated as customers and, confident of their drivers' abilities, would be able to relax and enjoy the ride.

Important steps have been taken to professionalize the job. These steps include taxi driver training required for all new drivers; refresher courses for continuing drivers; the capping of lease fees; and the dedication of a large portion of the last fare increase to higher driver incomes. Additional actions to improve driver performance and the driver/customer relationship might include the following:

Make the partition optional. The partition, required for most cabs since 1994, was an important response to the crime wave of the early 1990s. However, crime in the city has plummeted over the past decade, and now the partition makes drivers feel they are "in a cage" and obstructs communications with passengers.6 Partitions are optional for owner-drivers who do not lease their cabs and who install a security camera. This program appears to have been successful. It could be expanded to lease drivers who own the vehicle but not a medallion.

Many other steps could be taken to improve the driver's work space. Drivers spend 8 to 12 hours a day sitting in the cab. They should have the most comfortable possible space, with firm back support, sufficient legroom, and other amenities. Improving the driver's space is one way to show drivers that they are valued and respected.

On a more ambitious scale, programs could be instituted to "brand" the best drivers. Why leave passengers in the dark as to whether their driver is a savvy veteran or a rookie still learning the city's streets? The Internet offers ratings of web merchants and Ebay sellers. Why not rate cab service as well? Driver ratings could be based on acing a challenging geography test (like the exam required for London cabbies, know as "The Knowledge"), having a clean driving record, and/or customer feedback. When the new passenger information screens go in the cabs, why not ask every passenger to "Rate this Driver" and "Rate this Cab" at the end of the trip? Results from any of these assessment mechanisms could be visible inside the cab and in a simplified form on the exterior, as well. That way, the best drivers would not be tarred by the actions of others. And when cabs are plentiful, passengers could opt for the highest-rated drivers and vehicles, providing a better trip to customers and strong incentives to drivers and vehicle owners.

Finally, if multiple vehicle types are introduced for cabs, the most popular vehicles could be assigned to the best drivers. The larger cabs - which would presumably be most likely to get lucrative long trips - could be reserved for drivers with the top ratings. Drivers would then have an incentive to work their way up through the ranks.


Improvements to the vehicles used as medallion cabs must be integrated with a vision of how the City and industry can achieve an ideal taxi system. The ideal system has many components, among them the vehicle itself, the way it functions in the street network, and driver professionalism. Even more broadly, the ideal taxi system may incorporate black cars and car services which, though legally and operationally separate from the taxi industry, provide overlapping types of services.

By thinking broadly and in an integrated fashion, we can find ways to improve the vehicle, take advantage of new technologies, provide identity and respect to drivers, and wring inefficiencies out of the current system. We may not attain the ideal, but at least we could move demonstrably closer to that worthy goal.


1. CTG Inc. and Schaller Consulting, "Passenger Focus Group Report," prepared for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, December 2004.

2. Ibid.

3. CTG Inc. and Schaller Consulting, "Passenger Focus Group Report."

4. Schaller Consulting, New York City Taxicab Fact Book, June 2004.

5. Schaller Consulting, "The Leasing of Taxicabs to Drivers as Independent Contractors," report prepared for Service Employees International Union Local 74, March 1999.

6. Sewell Chan, "Taxi Partitions, Born of Danger, May Be Set for a Makeover," New York Times, August 9, 2005.

Bruce Schaller consults on urban transportation issues for local governments, transit and airport authorities, university and non-profit organizations, for-profit companies, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Academy of Sciences. Prior to establishing Schaller Consulting in 1998, Mr. Schaller served as Director of Policy Development and Evaluation at the New York City Taxi and Livery Commission and as Deputy Director for Marketing Research and Analysis at New York City Transit.

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