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The year 2007 will mark the 100th anniversary of the New York City taxi. Last spring, a group of designers, urban planners, and city officials took the upcoming centennial as an excuse to rethink the cab for the next century. In a series of workshops organized by the Design Trust for Public Space, a group dedicated to improving private and public space in New York City, in cooperation with the Parsons School of Design, the group tackled the problems with today's taxis and proposed a range of solutions.
The Trust's ultimate goal is to produce a new taxi design in time for the centennial. In the meantime, the group's proposals form the basis of a book -- Designing the Taxi -- and a corresponding exhibition, which opens Nov. 2 at Parsons.
More than just an emblematic symbol of Manhattan, the taxi serves as a crucial form of transportation. Some 12,487 of these yellow medallion vehicles make an estimated 240 billion trips a year -- constituting a $1.4 billion industry, according to Bruce Schaller, transportation consultant and author of The New York City Taxicab Fact Book.
"NOT JUST A VEHICLE." But for years, the taxi has consisted of little more than a reconfigured Ford Crown Victoria passenger sedan. It's a one-size-fits-all offering that presumes able-bodied and disabled, parents and businesspeople, long trips and short trips can all be accommodated with a single vehicle. And improvements -- like the additional legroom and passenger-side air-conditioning -- have been incremental and slow in coming.
"The taxi is not just a vehicle but a system," says Deborah Marton, the Design Trust's executive director. "A system is a public-space issue. It profoundly influences the way the city moves."
Taking this larger view, the group asked how technology could improve the existing "cruising" system, where customers scan the streets looking for a cab to hail, and how taxis could be a more integral part of the city's transportation network. As writer Phil Patton notes in an essay in Designing the Taxi, innovations like cell-phone hailing, smart taxi stands, taxi lanes, a more energy-efficient fleet, and better traffic management would help maximize vehicle efficiency and minimize overhead costs, benefiting owners and users alike.
DIFFERENT NEEDS. The Designing the Taxi project brought together some 60 participants -- from architects to fleet owners -- to offer their input on every aspect of the taxi experience. The only variable that was off-limits: the color yellow.
"The taxi that we have now is just a car painted yellow and given a meter," says Paul Goldberger, dean of Parsons and architecture critic at The New Yorker. "The taxi is not a car. It has a different set of needs and functions in a very different way."