Four distinct forms of 'taxicab' can be identified, by slightly differing terms in different countries: Hackney Carriage, also known as public hire, hailed or street taxis, available for hire and reward and for hailing on street; Private Hire Vehicles (PHVs), also known as minicabs; Private Hire Taxis, available by pre-booking, not (legally) available for hailing on street; Taxibuses, also known as Jitneys, operating on pre-set routes for hire and reward, typified by multiple stops and multiple; and Limousines, specialized vehicle licensed for operation by pre-booking.
Although types of vehicles and methods of regulation, hiring, dispatching, and negotiating payment differ significantly from country to country, many common characteristics exist.
In turn, taximeter is an adaptation of the French word taximètre, which is a derivation of the German word taxameter, coined from Medieval Latin taxa, which means tax/charge, together with meter from the Greek metron meaning measure.
Horse-drawn for-hire hackney carriage services began operating in both Paris and London in the early 17th century. The first documented service was started by a Nicolas Sauvage in Paris in 1640. His vehicles were known as fiacres, as the main vehicle depot apparently was opposite a shrine to Saint Fiacre. (The term fiacre is still used in French to describe a horse-drawn vehicle for hire.) In London the Hackney Carriage Act (1635) became the first legislated control in English on vehicles for hire. In the 19th century, Hansom cabs largely replaced the older designs because of their improved speed and safety.
Although battery-powered vehicles enjoyed a brief success in Paris, London, and New York in the 1890s, the 1891 invention by German Wilhelm Bruhn of the taximeter (the familiar mechanical and now often electronic device that calculates the fare in most taxicabs) ushered in the modern taxi. The first modern meter-equipped taxicab was the Daimler Victoria, built by Gottlieb Daimler in 1897. The first modern taxi company was opened by Friedrich Greiner and began operating in Stuttgart the same year.
Gasoline-powered taxicabs began operating in Paris in 1899, in London in 1903, and in New York in 1907. The New York taxicabs were imported from France by Harry N. Allen. Allen was the first person to paint his taxicabs yellow, after learning that yellow is the colour most easily seen from a distance.
Taxicabs proliferated around the world in the early 20th century. The first major innovation after the invention of the taximeter occurred in the late 1940s, when two-way radios first appeared in taxicabs. Radios enabled taxicabs and dispatch offices to communicate and serve customers more efficiently than previous methods, such as using callboxes. The next major innovation occurred in the 1980s, when computer assisted dispatching was first introduced.
There has generally been a legal struggle concerning the certification of motor vehicles to be taxicabs, which take much more wear than a private car does. In London, they were additionally required to meet stringent specifications (Metropolitan Conditions of Fitness - MCF), adopted in entirety by a number of other large UK cities (including Glasgow and Edinburgh), for example, as concerns turn radius, which resulted for a time in having only one make legally usable. In the US, in the 1930s, the cabs were often DeSotos or Packards. General Motors offered a specialized vehicle for a time, named the General. The firm Checker came into existence then, and stopped manufacturing cabs in the early 1980s. Its cars were specially built to carry "double dates." But now New York City requires that all taxicabs be ordinary cars. They are mainly long-wheelbase versions of the Ford Crown Victoria. Toyota Sienna minivans are the alternate vehicle of choice in New York's cab fleet. In the 1960s in Europe, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot offered diesel taxicabs. This form of engine is now the norm in Europe due to its superior fuel economy, torque and reliability.
Taxi service is typically provided by automobiles, but various human-powered vehicles, (such as the rickshaw) and animal-powered vehicles (such as the Hansom cab) or even boats (such as water taxis or gondolas) are also used or have been used historically. In Western Europe, Bissau, and to an extent, Australia, it is not uncommon for expensive cars such as Mercedes-Benz to be the taxicab of choice. Often this decision is based upon the perceived reliability of, and warranty offered with these vehicles. These taxi-service vehicles are often equipped with four-cylinder turbodiesel engines and relatively low levels of equipment, and are not considered luxury cars. This has changed though in countries, such as Denmark, where tax regulation make it profitable to sell the vehicles after a few years of service, which requires the cars to be well equipped and kept in good condition.
In Spain, the most easily finding cars all around Spain are SEAT Toledo, Skoda Octavia, Peugeot 406, Volkswagen Jetta, etc. You can also find any kind of MPV like the Fiat Ulysse, the SEAT Altea XL or the Kia Carnival sometimes meant for being capabale of transporting wheelchair-using passengers.
In Norway, many taxicabs are Mercedes E-class (usually E-220 CDI) or Volvo V70. These cars are almost always equipped with diesel engines, automatic transmission, satellite navigation, and high quality trim levels.
In Australia, taxicabs are mainly Ford Falcons and less commonly, Holden Commodores. Kia Carnivals are becoming increasingly popular due to the low price of these vehicles. There are premium operators who mainly operate on Ford Fairlanes and Holden Statesmans. Almost all Australian taxicabs run on liquefied petroleum gas. There is also a Chrysler 300C Turbo Diesel Cab in the Victorian Fleet. There are also "Maxi Taxis" which are basically for hire minibuses. Toyota Hiace, Volkswagen Multivan and Mercedes Benz Vito are typically used.
In New Zealand, similarly to Australia, the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon have been the traditional taxicab of choice. In the last decade however, a move has been made towards large front wheel drive V6 models such as the Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Camry. At the other end of the scale, used examples of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 5 Series are becoming popular for more upmarket companies, along with the traditional "Corporate cabs": the Ford Fairlane and Holden Statesman.
In the United Kingdom a current debate exists as to the most appropriate vehicles to be licensed as taxis. Local authorities split between those which adopt the Metropolitan Conditions of Fitness, which are widely interpreted to require London style Black taxis, and those which allow a wider range of vehicles. The debate is informed, but not solved, by a desire to implement accessible taxis, defined and required under the Disability Discrimination Act (1985), but not enforced in all authority areas. UK devolved administrations (Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) have devolved responsibilities for taxi licensing law (but not for application, which is enforced at a local authority level). Scotland can, but chooses not to, determine a national vehicle standard. Northern Ireland, which operates as a single authority under the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, operates a four vehicle structure.
In Singapore, Toyota Comforts (rebadged as Crowns) and new Hyundai Sonatas are most common, while there are also Nissan Cedrics, Toyota Coronas, Volkswagen Golfs, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and brand new LPG Toyota Prius to conserve fuel.
Taxicabs in less developed places can be a completely different experience, such as the antique French cars typically found in Cairo. However starting March 2006, newer modern taxicabs entered the service operated by various private companies. Taxicabs differ in other ways as well: London's black cabs have a large compartment beside the driver for storing bags, while many fleets of regular taxis also include wheelchair accessible taxicabs among their numbers (see below). Although taxicabs have traditionally been sedans, minivan and even SUV taxicabs are becoming increasingly common. In many cities, limousines operate as well, usually in competition with taxicabs and at higher fares.
Recently, with growing concern for the environment, there have been solar powered taxicabs. On April 20, 2008, a "solar taxi tour" was launched that aimed to tour 15 countries in 18 months in a solar taxi that can reach speeds of 90 km/h with zero emission. The aim of the tour was to spread knowledge about environmental protection.
In recent years, some companies have been adding specially modified vehicles capable of transporting wheelchair-using passengers to their fleets. Such taxicabs are variously called accessible taxis, wheelchair- or wheelchair-accessible taxicabs, modified taxicabs, and so on.
Wheelchair taxicabs are most often vans or minivans which have undergone special modifications. Wheelchair-using passengers are loaded, with the help of the driver, via a lift or, more commonly, a ramp, at the rear of the vehicle. The wheelchair is secured using various systems, commonly including some type of belt and clip combination, or wheel locks. Most wheelchair taxicabs are capable of transporting only one wheelchair-using passenger at a time, and can usually accommodate up to four additional able-bodied passengers.
Wheelchair taxicabs are part of the regular fleet in most cases, and so are not reserved exclusively for the use of wheelchair users. They are often used by able-bodied people who need to transport luggage, small items of furniture, animals, and other items. Because of this, and since only a small percentage of the average fleet is modified, wheelchair users must often wait for significantly longer periods when calling for a cab, and flagging a modified taxicab on the street is much more difficult.
These particular taxicabs have developed their own special names such as, 'Maxicabs'.
Originally, hackney carriage companies were distinguished from each other by their drivers' livery (uniforms) and by the colours of their carriages. For example, at the end of the 19th century in Paris, Compagnie Generale carriages were painted blue, while those of Abeille were painted green ("The Paris Cabman"). During the early years of the twentieth century, private cars were usually black because paints of other colours were not durable. Taxis were the exception, as they would be touched up or worn out. Around the world today, taxi companies are still distinguished by the way their cars are painted.
Some Canadian cities such as Toronto and Vancouver have taxis with their own custom colours, but Montreal-area taxis (mostly mid-size cars such as the Chevrolet Malibu and Toyota Camry) remain exactly the same car. Hybrid taxis are becoming more and more common in Canada, with all new taxis in British Columbia being hybrids, or other fuel efficient vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius or Toyota Corolla. In Honolulu Hawaii, most taxis are luxury cars such as Lincoln Town Cars and Lexus ES350s and GX470s. These cars are left stock colored.
In Orange County, Florida, many of the taxicabs are painted orange.
Mexico City's ubiquitous VW Type 1 (Beetle) cabs were green and white (being firstly yellow) by law until early 2003. However, the tiny cars had been displaced by bigger four-door sedans, the Nissan Tsuru, a Sentra MkIII (B13) based saloon and recognized for their red/white (or silver) body colour. No VW are coloured this way anymore. Matchbox released a scale model of the VW taxi in 2004, numbered 31.
In India, most taxicabs, especially those in Delhi and Mumbai, have distinctive black and yellow liveries with the bottom half painted black and upper half painted yellow. In Kolkatta, most taxis are painted yellow with a blue strip in the middle. Private companies operating taxis can have their own liveries but need to get them approved from the government. Taxis and all other commercial vehicles have a yellow number plate so charging taxes and toll in highways is easier for the officials
Taxicabs of Hong Kong have three colours based on service area: red with silver top for urban Hong Kong; green with white top for New Territories; and blue with white top for Lantau Island. The colours are to even out service between less densely populated areas and urban centres of the territory.
Most taxis in Hong Kong are Toyota Comfort (YXS10 series). This is a mid-size rear-wheel-drive model specially manufactured as commercial use 4-door sedan, and it is very durable. All taxis in Hong Kong are powered by LPG engines nowadays.
Recently, some taxi companies have selected Toyota Crown S170 and/or S180 as taxis because cars made for use as taxis (such as Comfort, Crew and Cedric) have very plain interiors.
In Germany, taxicabs are beige, a look that was officially stipulated by law as Elfenbein a light ivory-colour in 1971. In 2005 this legal restriction was lifted, but most taxicab drivers associations and companies still prefer the unified look and visibility of beige. Most taxicabs in Germany are Mercedes.
In Greece taxicabs have variable colours, according to the city they are registered. For example, in Athens they are yellow (see: ). In all rural areas, they are usually silver-coloured. In other cities except Athens they have particular colours, such as dark red (Patra) or blue (Thessaloniki). Cars used as taxis are only 4-door sedans with great luggage space. The cars used most as taxis are Mercedes E-class, VW Passat, Skoda Octavia and Toyota Avensis. Most of them in urban areas are equipped with GPS navigation systems.
In Spain, depending on which autonomous community you are in, taxicabs are colored in one way, or another. For example, in Madrid, taxicabs are white with a red diagonal stripe going through the front doors (at each side) from the up-front to the down-rear part of it, but in Barcelona, taxicabs are fully black excepting the doors, which are yellow. The most easily finding taxicabs all around Spain are SEAT Toledo, Škoda Octavia, Peugeot 406, Volkswagen Jetta, some Mercedes-Benz C-Class, etc.
In Scandinavia there is no particular colour for taxicabs. Various shades of black and silver are the most popular choices. The cars most use are Volvo S80/V70, Mercedes C- and E-class, Toyota Avensis, Škoda Octavia, VW Passat and VW Transporter/Caravelle bus and BMW 5 series. In Finland and Sweden taxis are equipped with GPS navigation and booking system.
In Australia, livery is determined by state legislation. In Victoria, an all-yellow scheme is adopted. In contrast, in Queensland, livery is dependent on which company is operating the dispatch system the taxi uses. In Queensland, there are two dispatch companies only. In South Australia, most taxis are white. Taxis in Australia are most often Ford Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Vitos (as Maxicabs), other less common types of taxis in Australia are Holden Commodore, Holden Statesman, Toyota Avalon (Australian built model), Toyota Hiace and Toyota Prius. Most private taxi companies use Holden Caprice's, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series and the discontinued BA and BF Ford Fairlane.
In Papua New Guinea, taxis are usually white vans marked minimally.
Taxis are often "hailed" or "flagged" on the street, either by a passenger as a taxi is driving by, or at a taxi stand (sometimes also called a "cab stand" or "hack stand," also "taxi rank" or "cab rank"). Taxi stands are usually located at airports, railway stations, and hotels, as well as at other places where large numbers of passengers are likely to be found. In some places—Japan, for example—taxi stands are arranged according to the size of the taxis, so that large- and small-capacity cabs line up separately. The taxi at the front of the line, due (barring unusual circumstances) for the next fare, is referred to in America as being " on the nut ".
Passengers also commonly call a central dispatch office for taxis. In some jurisdictions private hire vehicles can only be hired from the dispatch office, and must be assigned each fare by the office by radio or phone. Picking up passengers off the street in these areas can lead to suspension or revocation of the driver's taxi license, or even prosecution.
Other areas may have a mix of the two systems, where drivers may respond to radio calls and also pick up street fares.
When a customer calls for a taxi, a trip is dispatched by either radio or computer, via an in-vehicle mobile data terminal, to the most suitable cab. The most suitable cab may either be the one closest to the pick-up address (often determined by GPS coordinates nowadays) or the one that was the first to book in to the "zone" surrounding the pickup address. Cabs are sometimes dispatched from their taxi stands; a call to "Top of the 2" means that the first cab in line at stand #2 is supposed to pick someone up.
In offices using radio dispatch, taxi locations are often tracked using magnetic pegs on a "board"—a metal sheet with an engraved map of taxi zones. In computerized dispatch, the status of taxis is tracked by the computer system.
Taxi frequencies are generally licensed in duplex pairs. One frequency is used for the dispatcher to talk to the cabs, and a second frequency is used to the cabs to talk back. This means that the drivers generally cannot talk to each other. Some cabs have a CB radio in addition to the company radio so they can speak to each other.
In the United States, there is a Taxicab Radio Service with pairs assigned for this purpose. A taxi company can also be licensed in the Business Radio Service. Business frequencies in the UHF range are also licensed in pairs to allow for repeaters, though taxi companies usually use the pair for duplex communications.
Some companies don't operate their own radio system and instead subscribe to an Specialized Mobile Radio system. The conventional radios are most suited to companies that operate within the local area and have a high volume of radio traffic. The SMR is more commonly used by black car services that cover a wider area, and smaller companies who use less airtime and don't want to run their own radio systems. With the advent of Public Data Networks in the 1990s, operators are beginning to use PDAs and advanced mobile phones for dispatching and tracking functions in lieu of the traditional radio. Some small car services don't use a dispatcher at all. Instead the customers' calls are forwarded to the cell phones of whichever drivers are on duty at the time.
Most experienced taxi drivers who have been working in the same city or region for a while would be expected to know the most important streets and places where their customers might want to go. However, to aid the process of manual navigation and the taxi driver's memory (and the customer's as well at times) a cab driver is usually equipped with a detailed roadmap of the area in which they work. There is also an increasing use of GPS driven navigational systems in the more wealthy countries around the world.
In London, despite the complex and haphazard road layout, such aids have only recently been employed by a small number of 'black cab' taxi (as opposed to minicab) drivers. Instead, they are required to undergo a demanding process of learning and testing called The Knowledge. This typically takes around three years and equips them with a detailed command of 25,000 streets within central London, major routes outside this area, and all buildings and other destinations to which passengers may ask to be taken.
The results, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment in January 2006, showed that the level of pollution that people are exposed to differs according to the mode of transport that they use. The most risky method of transport was the back seat of a taxicab, followed by travelling by bus, cycling, walking, with a private car exposing people to the lowest amount of pollution.