Wanted: New Cabs

A look back at a classic MoMA show on taxi design reveals the sorry state of today’s fleet.

The proposal to add another 900 yellow taxis to New York’s fleet is probably a good idea, but the city would do a lot more for the quality of life if it did something about the 12,187 taxis it already has. They are awful vehicles. The overwhelming majority of them are Ford Crown Victoria sedans, which are unpleasant enough when used for their primary purpose, as four-door automobiles. But an urban taxi is not a conventional sedan. It has a different purpose from a car in which the driver and passengers come and go together. A taxi does not work like a private or a rental car—it is a conveyor of short-haul cargo.

In the same way the design of a fast-food restaurant is different from the design of a restaurant intended for leisurely meals, so a taxi should be different from a vehicle used for extended highway travel. In a taxi nothing is more important than getting people in easily, keeping them comfortable, and getting them out—the equivalent of a lunch counter giving you a cozy spot, serving a hamburger fast, and speeding you on your way.

There is no reason a taxi even has to look like a conventional sedan. After all, the London taxi doesn’t. It has a single front seat for the driver and a space for luggage or parcels that is much more accessible than the trunk. The rear passenger doors are wide for easy access; the space in front of the seat is deep, so there is plenty of room to stretch your feet; the roof is high enough that you can nearly stand up to step out at your destination.

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The newest Ford taxis have six inches of extra legroom in the back, something that has been hailed as an advance by the taxi industry (which shows how dreary cabs are). A bit more legroom is fine, thank you, but if we mistake that for real progress then we’re in big trouble. In New York the best you can do is end up in one of those Honda Odyssey minivans that, with those clunky but gloriously roomy Checkers now long gone, are virtually the only licensed cabs that are not Crown Victorias. They aren’t bad—compared to the banal Fords, they’re wonderful—and it is puzzling that there are so few of them. Of course, it’s the fleet owners and the taxi commission, not the riders, who decide what taxis we ride in. Unlike most industries, in which consumers have the right to exercise some degree of choice, the only alternative taxi riders have is not to take one at all. Once you decide to travel by cab, you grab the first one you see. After all, who ever stood on the street to hail a cab and had three different vehicles stop so that you could pick your aesthetic favorite?

This is not a new problem. Thirty years ago the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) started work on an ambitious design exhibition called The Taxi Project, organized by Emilio Ambasz. It was intended to stimulate the production of a better and more appropriate American urban taxicab. Ambasz embraced the museum’s record of working with furniture manufacturers and industrial designers to help establish good design in the marketplace; and he thought he saw a chance to extend that history by creating models for actual vehicles. The museum worked up a series of specifications for an ideal taxi based on Ambasz’s altogether reasonable view that “the standard six-passenger sedan…is unsatisfactory for taxi service in congested urban environments…. The aim was to achieve a realistically designed vehicle which could be produced at a reasonable price and which would better serve the needs of the taxi industry, the driver, and the passengers.”

In a bold, if uncharacteristic, gesture the museum eschewed designers and academics, and went right to manufacturers. Unfortunately Ford, American Motors, Chrysler, General Motors, Checker Motor, and Mack Trucks all said no, as did Westinghouse, General Electric, Grumman, and several other companies that made engines or farm vehicles. It took the offer of subsidies from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Urban Mass Transportation Administration to get two domestic companies, American Machine and Foundry and Steam Power Systems, to agree to design prototype taxis. Three European manufacturers participated in the museum’s project: Volvo, Volkswagen, and Alfa Romeo, which produced a slightly different design intended for the European rather than the New York market.

The five prototypes were ready in 1976, and the museum put them on view in a splashy exhibition that summer, with the vehicles arrayed around the outdoor sculpture garden. Looking back to them now, they have an amiable, slightly goofy quality. None of them were graceful or elegant, but every one seemed practical; and several of the taxis, particularly the Steam Power Systems and the American Machine and Foundry designs, were really proto-minivans. The Volvo was boxy and looked like a cross between a standard Volvo from the 1970s and a London taxi; the Volkswagen was essentially an upgraded Volkswagen Microbus. The Alfa Romeo was a slightly sleeker, lower minivan. All of the vehicles were designed to be accessible to travelers in wheelchairs, and every one of them had generous space for passengers.

Not a single one of these vehicles ever made it into production, and after three decades the exhibition has been largely forgotten. Ambasz’s ambitious agenda now seems, sadly, more a case of tilting at windmills. (Would MoMA even think of changing the direction of American industrial production today?) The saddest thing of all, I think, is to realize that since there were plenty of Checkers on the road when Ambasz conceived of the exhibition, you actually had better odds of hailing a decent cab then than now. Plenty of things about life in New York have improved in the last 30 years, but the state of taxis isn’t one of them.

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