Taxicabs of New York City

The taxicabs of New York City, with their distinctive yellow paint, are a widely recognized icon of the city. Taxicabs are operated by private companies and licensed by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. The Commission is a New York City government agency, within the New York City Department of Transportation, that is best known for its responsibility for the more than 13,087 taxis operating in the city. It also oversees over 40,000 other for-hire vehicles, including "black cars", commuter vans and ambulettes. Taxicabs are operated by private companies and licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. "Medallion taxis," the familiar yellow cabs, are the only vehicles in the city permitted to pick up passengers in response to a street hail.


Early 1900s - The Checker Cab

The first taxicab company in New York was the New York Taxicab Company, which in 1907 imported 600 gasoline-powered cars from France. The cars were painted red and green. Within a decade several more companies opened business and taxicabs began to proliferate. The fare was 50 cents a mile, a rate only affordable to the relatively wealthy. Previous taxis, including the one that killed Henry Bliss in 1899, were electric.

By the 1920s, industrialists recognized the potential of the taxicab market. Automobile manufacturers like General Motors and the Ford Motor Company began operating fleets. The most successful manufacturer, however, was the Checkered Cab Manufacturing Company. Founded by Morris Markin, Checker Cabs produced the large yellow and black taxis that became one of the most recognizable symbols of mid-20th century urban life. For many years Checker cabs were the most popular taxis in New York City.

1930s - Medallion System Introduced

During the Great Depression New York had as many as 30,000 cab drivers. With more cab drivers than passengers, cab drivers were working longer hours; additionally, there were concerns regarding the maintenance and mechanical integrity of the vehicles. In considering how to handle the situation, the city considered creating a taxi monopoly. The plan was abandoned after Mayor Jimmy Walker was accused of accepting a bribe from the Parmelee Company, the largest taxi company.

In 1937 Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia signed the Haas Act, which introduced official taxi licenses and the medallion system that remains in place today.

The law limited the number of licenses to 16,900, but the number dwindled to 11,787, a limit which continued until 1996 when the TLC added 133 cabs.. Since then more medallions have been added to the fleet and the city still only has around 13,000 medallions.

Because the medallion system artificially restricts the number of cabs, it has been criticized as a barrier to entry to the taxi market that somewhat paradoxically has created a market for illegal taxicab operation in areas underserved by medallion cabs. Because the cost of leasing a medallion is so high, the system may cut into the income of drivers and raise costs to passengers. On the other hand, some transportation analysts contend that cities with no barriers to entry to the taxi market end up with an abundance of poorly maintained taxis. They say that a medallion system helps the city to better regulate taxis and enables the city to raise the standards of all taxis.

The medallions which could not be sold for a simple $10 renewal fee during the 1930s are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with fleet medallions topping $600,000 in 2007 Over the years, many medallions once owned by individual drivers were sold to large taxi fleets. To preserve the possibility opportunity for individual drivers to own and drive their own taxi, certain medallions were designated for owner-operators. These cabs must be personally driven by the medallion owner for 210 nine hour shifts per year, after which they can, if the driver chooses, be leased out. Corporate medallions, on the other hand, cost more, and are required to be leased double shifts, 365 days a year. About 29% of all taxis are owner operated, the rest are leased.

1960s - Yellow Cabs

In the 1960s New York City experienced many of the problems of social unrest that engulfed other American cities. Crime rates increased along with racial tensions. As a result, a quickly growing industry of private livery services emerged. Unofficial drivers were barred from picking up people on the street, but they readily found business in under-served neighborhoods. In 1967, New York City ordered all "medallion taxis" be painted yellow to help cut down on unofficial drivers and make official taxicabs more readily recognizable.

The yellow taxi had been popularized by John D. Hertz, who started the Yellow Cab Company in 1915 and which operated in a number of cities including New York. Hertz painted his cabs yellow after he read a study identifying yellow as the most visible color from long distances.

1970s - New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was established in 1971 with jurisdiction over the city's medallion (yellow) taxicabs, livery cabs, "black cars", commuter vans, paratransit vehicles (ambulettes) and some luxury limousines. The TLC was founded to deal with the growing number of drivers and to address issues important to both the taxi and livery industries. Its predecessor was the New York City Hack Bureau, operated under the aegis of the New York City Police Department.

In the 1970s and 1980s both the unofficial livery services and the medallion taxicab companies began finding more and more of their drivers in the growing populations of Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern immigrants to the city as the previous generation of cabbies retired and moved out of the city. Crime in New York City had become severe at this point, and cabbies were often the victims of robberies and street crime. Bulletproof partitions between the rear passenger seat and the driver became common.

1980s - Demographic change in drivers

By the mid-1980s and into the 1990s the demographic changes among cabbies began to accelerate as new waves of immigrants arrived in New York. Today, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, of the 42,000 cabbies in New York 82% are foreign born: 23% are from the Caribbean (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and 20% from South Asia (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). The production of the famous Checker Cab had stopped, though there were still many in operation, Chevrolet Caprice became the industry top choice.

The working conditions of cabbies have changed as crime in New York has plummeted, while the cost of medallions has increased and fewer cabbies own their taxicabs than in previous times.

1990s - Changes in types of vehicles and Operation Refusal

After 1996, when Chevrolet stopped making the Caprice, the Ford Crown Victoria became the most widely used sedan for yellow cabs in New York. In addition, yellow cab operators also use the Honda Odyssey, Chevrolet Venture, Ford Freestar, and Toyota Sienna minivans which offer increased passenger room. The distinctive Checker cabs have, due to their durable construction, been phased out only recently, the last one being retired in July 1999, being over 20 years in service and nearly one million miles on its odometer. Laws since 1996 require taxis be replaced every 6 years regardless of condition.

In 1996 the TLC began Operation Refusal, an undercover sting operation created to address the phenomenon of service refusal. In 1998, the TLC enacted a package, inspired by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, of regulatory reforms that included a structured framework of enhanced driver standards. In 1999, actor Danny Glover filed a complaint with the TLC after he was allegedly refused service by New York cab drivers. This resulted in a highly publicized Operation Refusal crackdown on drivers who were allegedly discriminating against certain passengers for various bias-related reasons.

However, Giuliani's crackdowns led to a series of successful lawsuits against the city and the TLC. In 2000, a federal judge ruled that the NYPD had violated taxi drivers' First Amendment rights by refusing to let the drivers engage in a peaceful protest of new rules. The TLC also lost a series of cases in state courts for implementing rules without allowing for notice and comment. In 2000, another federal judge ruled that the Operation Refusal sting violated the cabbies' due process rights. In 2004, TLC inspectors were embarrassed when they handcuffed and arrested 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, charging him with disorderly conduct for simply questioning the treatment of his driver. In 2006, the city was forced to settle the remaining aspects of the Operation Refusal case. Under the settlement, the TLC agreed to pay a group of 500 taxi drivers $7 million.

2000s - New computer technologies and hybrid vehicles

In 2005, New York introduced incentives to replace its current yellow cabs with electric hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape Hybrid then in May 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, proposed a five-year plan to switch New York City's taxicabs to more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles as part of an agenda for New York City to reduce greenhouse gas emission. Approximately 90% of New York's 13,000 yellow cabs are Ford Crown Victoria. This proposal will help to reduce greenhouse gas emission equal to removing 32,000 private cars from the road.

From September to December 2007, many of the taxis participated in a voluntary public art project called Garden in Transit in which flower decals painted by children were affixed to the hoods of taxis.

The TLC has mandated that by the end of January 2008 all taxis should be equipped with a Passenger Information Monitor (PIM) that is a screen in the backseat that can provide entertainment, a live GPS map of location, and be used to pay for rides by swiping a credit card. The drivers will have an electronic Driver Information Monitor (DIM) in which messages can be sent to them informing them of traffic conditions and facilitating retrieving lost objects.

Several taxicab drivers objecting to the cost of the devices (estimated at between $3,000 and $5,000 each) staged voluntary strikes on September 5th and 6th and October 22 in 2007. The city implemented a “zone pricing” structure during the days and the strikes had minimal impact on the city according to officials.

Medallion taxicabs and livery taxicabs

Only "medallion taxicabs," those painted in distinctive yellow paint and regulated by the TLC, are permitted to pick up passengers in response to a street hail. The TLC also regulates and licenses for-hire vehicles, known as “car services” or “livery cabs”, which are prohibited from picking up street hails (although this is less often enforced in outer boroughs) and are supposed to pick up only those customers who have called the car service's dispatcher and requested a car.

While medallion taxicabs in New York are always yellow, car service vehicles may be any color but yellow, and are usually black. For this reason, these taxi operators are sometimes called “black car” services. Despite the de jure prohibition on picking up passengers who hail on the street, some livery cabs nevertheless do so anyway, often to make extra money. When a livery cab engages in street pick-ups, it becomes known as a "gypsy cab." They are often found in areas not routinely visited by medallion cabs, and authorities tend to turn a blind eye to the practice rather than leave sections of the city without cab service. The use of gypsy cabs is strictly at the rider’s risk, and it is recommended that passengers negotiate a fare with the driver before entering, as the cabs are not equipped with meters, and fares are not regulated by the TLC. The driver also is taking a risk that the passenger will leave without paying.

Medallion taxicabs are named for the official medallion issued by the TLC and attached to a taxi’s hood. The medallion may be purchased from the City at infrequent auctions, or from another medallion owner. Because of their high prices, medallions (and most cabs) are owned by investment companies and are leased to drivers ("hacks"). An auction was held in 2006 where 308 new medallions were sold. In the 2006 auction all medallions were designated as either hybrids (254) or handicap accessible (54) taxis.

Hailing a medallion taxicab

Yellow cabs are concentrated in the borough of Manhattan, but patrol throughout the five boroughs of New York City and may be hailed with a raised hand or by standing at a taxi stand. A cab's availability is indicated by the lights on the top of the car. When just the center light showing the medallion number is lit, the cab is empty and available. When the OFF DUTY inscriptions to either side of the medallion number are lit, the cab is off duty and not accepting passengers. When no lights are lit, the cab is occupied by passengers. There is an additional round amber light mounted on the left side of the trunk, as well as an amber light at the front of the cab, usually hidden from view behind the grille. When activated by the driver, these "trouble lights" blink to summon the police.

A maximum of four passengers may be carried in most cabs, although larger minivans may accommodate five passengers, and one child under seven can sit on an adult’s lap in the back seat if the maximum has been reached. Drivers are required to pick up the first or closest passenger they see, and may not refuse a trip to a destination anywhere within the five boroughs, neighboring Westchester and Nassau Counties, or to Newark Liberty International Airport. The TLC operates undercover anti-discrimination stings to ensure cabbies do not engage in racial profiling or otherwise discriminate against passengers hailing cabs from the street.


As of June 2006, fares begin at $2.50 ($3.00 after 8:00 p.m., and $3.50 during the peak weekday hours of 4:00–8:00 p.m.) and increase based on the distance traveled and time spent in slow traffic (40 cents for each one-fifth of a mile or 60 seconds of no motion or motion under 12 miles an hour). The passenger also has to pay the fare whenever a cab is driven through a toll. The taxi must have an E-ZPass tag, and passengers pay the discounted E-ZPass toll rates. Taxi drivers are not permitted to use cell phones while transporting passengers, even if they use a hands-free headset.

241 million passengers rode in New York taxis in 1999. The average cab fare in 2000 was $6; over $1 billion in fares were paid that year in total.


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