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Yo, Taxi! It's Time to Roll Into the 21st Century

As its centennial nears, New York's yellow car could get a makeover. Owners, drivers, officials and artists join a dream team.

November 20, 2005|Kirsten Scharnberg | Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The scene is as iconic as Valentine's Day atop the Empire State Building, a goodbye kiss at Grand Central Station or an autumn day in Central Park: A person steps off the curb, raises an arm and screams above the city's din:

"TAXI!"

Nearly 100 years after the nation's first gasoline-powered taxi made its debut in New York, a group of fleet owners, cab drivers, city planners, designers and artists have been assembled to usher in the 2007 centennial with a potential overhaul of that famous yellow car.

Their mandate is simple and revolutionary -- to rethink every aspect of the New York City taxi, that quintessential mode of urban transport that has become indispensable in virtually every city in America.

The proposals unveiled in a public exhibition this month are consumer-friendly, futuristic and imaginative -- but, in many cases, so high-tech and high-dollar that they almost certainly will meet resistance and controversy both here and in every other city that attempts to follow New York's lead.

Imagine this:

* Redesigned taxis that resemble tiny, narrow individual buses and have glass roofs that do not obstruct a rider's view of the city. Doors slide open at ground level, making it possible for those in wheelchairs to roll right in, and the front passenger seats are reversed to add space to accommodate either luggage or additional passengers in the back.

* Wireless sensors on top of street lamps track the flow of passing taxis. People trying to catch a cab at night are directed to the most high-volume taxi areas by the brightness of streetlights.

* Cellphones have a "taxi" button. When pushed, a GPS signal is sent to nearby taxi drivers, telling them a person's location and desire for a cab. A text message is sent back when a car is on the way.

"People have been trying to get a better taxi for 40 years," said Deborah Marton, director of the Design Trust for Public Space, the nonprofit urban design group that spearheaded the project. "But it's not that easy because it's a quasi-public institution. Everyone has to get on board -- the city, the drivers, the fleet owners, the Taxi and Limousine Commission. But I think we've got a pretty amazing start to that process."

The defining premise of the initiative -- dubbed "Designing the Taxi" and currently on display at Parsons the New School for Design -- is that New York's cabs are far more than 13,000 individual vehicles darting up and down the streets and avenues. They are a complex part of New York's economic, environmental, aesthetic and social system.

"The taxi is not just a car," said Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York architecture critic and dean at Parsons. "What this project does is take the conceptual leap that taxis are a vibrant form of public space -- public space that moves, but that is public space nonetheless."

Rethinking the taxicab was a multi-step process that involved the drivers, owners and regulators of taxis as well as designers and artists -- most of whom are New Yorkers and thus riders as well. There has not been such a dramatic study of the taxi systems since 1976, when the Museum of Modern Art asked designers to come up with new taxi concepts. Virtually all of the designs that came out then were soundly rejected by drivers and fleet owners, who thought they had been cut out of the process.

"From the very outset we included them," Marton said. "I think they initially came to this with some deep suspicions. But by the end I think they recognized and appreciated that this was not the kind of process where designers from on high were going to be telling them how to make their taxis and their industry better."

The initiative's findings are myriad:

* There aren't enough taxi stands; for the most part, people have to rely on the old-fashioned "hail," a gamble that can be near impossible during morning and evening rushes or bad weather.

* Elderly riders have trouble getting into taxis, and parents are concerned by the lack of child safety seats.

* Riders unfamiliar with the city's taxi system report having no way to tell if a taxi is for hire. One woman from Germany said she thought that when the "off duty" sign was illuminated, it meant that taxes -- called "duties" in Europe -- were not applied at that hour.

* Worst of all, taxis often are seen as ineffective methods of travel because of Manhattan's frequent gridlock.

The redesign recommendations take many of these points into consideration.

New taxi stands would be placed throughout the city and have public bathrooms. Lights atop cabs would be simplified with messages such as "Nope," "Maybe" and "I'm Free" to demystify the code of availability for out-of-towners. New York could mimic Hong Kong -- which has far more taxis but far less gridlock -- by allowing taxis to stop only at well-marked pick-up points during rush hour to keep traffic flowing.

More controversial than changes to the taxi system will be changes to the taxi itself.

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