In 1907, journalist Vance Thompson quipped in the New York Times, “the New Yorker is not a cabby person” (qtd. in Lupkin 50). In the year Thompson was writing, the first New York taxi company – aptly named the New York Taxicab Company – was busy importing 600 gasoline-powered vehicles from France that were painted red and green and put to work on city streets. The vehicles were called cabs after their predecessors, horse-drawn carriages called cabriolets. Within the next decade, several other cab companies had opened and the taxi business was strong. The fare, 50 cents per mile, was one that only the relatively wealthy could afford. A taximeter, invented in the 1890s, made the gauging of miles and time elapsed completely automatic.
The number of taxis and drivers in New York peaked around 1933. That year, there were 19,000 taxis and 75,000 drivers in the city. In 2000, there were 12,187 cabs and about 40,000 drivers. In 1999, 241 million people rode in New York taxis (“Taxi Dreams”).
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I usually take cabs in New York only to and from the airport. The airport in question is almost always LaGuardia, because it offers the cheapest cab fare from the Village and because LaGuardia offers once a day direct redeyes to Madison, Wisconsin. Because I know that I am on my way home, I find the ride to LaGuardia deeply comforting – even when the driver is a fan of racing and lurching and I’m afraid I’m going to lose my dinner.
I have never had a female cab driver in New York. The statistics say that currently less than 1% of New York City cab drivers are female (“Taxi Dreams”).
No matter which route we take, I like crossing over the river and seeing the water that I so often forget surrounds this island. I know I am more than halfway there when I see the billboard-sized graffiti decorating a brick building just off the highway in Queens that says “CONservative governMENt.”
People often complain about the odor inside cabs, and it’s true that sometimes one encounters a cab that offers a rather suffocating stench of stale B.O. More often, I enter a car whose driver clearly takes great pride in the cleanliness of his vehicle. The only smell is the faint leather odor of the seats. Otherwise, my senses are overwhelmed by the overload of the city. The distinct New York City sewage smell mingles with the eye-watering reek of the incense stands in the heavily pedestrian areas.
The lights, signs, storefronts and street scenes are usually a blur. Occasionally when stopped at a red light or caught in slow-moving traffic, I catch an urban vignette that delights or horrifies me. A stranger picks up someone’s dropped cell phone and runs after its owner to return it. A mother turns and smacks her whining child at point-blank range. The cab window is a unique fishbowl from which to view the city.
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The debate about taxi regulation in the first half of the twentieth century revealed competing opinions about the nature of public space. As Joshua Mark Lupkin explains,
To business leaders and civic groups, predictable circulation was the top priority. The owners of large commercial establishments, luxury hotels and other owners of center city real estate wanted their clients to be able to travel to and within the center city without being delayed or inoportuned [sic] by “incompatible uses.” For similar reasons, a second group of city planners and transportation economists advocated the transfer of taxicabs from a private enterprise to heavily regulated “public utility.” A third perspective was that of operators of large taxicab fleets, usually out-of-state corporations, who wholeheartedly embraced the notion of streets as generators of revenue but had little incentive to be publicly spirited: they worked aggressively, legally and otherwise, to eliminate competitors and to monopolize the curbs and cruising lanes. A fourth group of small-scale owners and drivers violently opposed unified controls or limitations, arguing that the streets should be inherently free and open to the public. Consumers of taxicab service, a fifth group, called for a system of predictably reasonable fares and accountable drivers. (2)
Taxis’ transience and mobility was especially troubling to those concerned about the instability of urban life. Women in particular were granted increased freedom and safety (by being kept away from the dangers of the sidewalks) by the presence of taxis, and this threatened established gender norms. Worries also abounded that cabs
contributed disproportionately to the city’s traffic woes, constituted a waste of resources, and lessened the value of real estate. … Relentless packs of cruising taxicabs represented a kind of ear-rattling and vulgar street selling that was inconsistent with the public image and street usage desired by merchants and other large owners of real estate. … Whether they aggressively followed potential passengers or forlornly loitered at illegal parking spaces, the taxicabs were an unwelcome reminder or the refined street culture of nearby Broadway. (Lupkin 134-138)
From this perspective, taxis were a threat to civilized public space as well as the safety of public streets. In response, New York City passed the Haas Act of 1937, which introduced regulated taxi licenses as well as the medallion system that remains in operation today. The result was a mixed bag for drivers, who were assured better wages but also saw more power fall to a small number of large fleet owners.
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The only other city where I have taken more than a handful of cab rides is Chicago. Once, I was riding with some friends in the heart of downtown. On an open stretch of a single-lane road, the driver suddenly floored the gas pedal and hit 80 miles per hour before slamming on his breaks for a red light. On a different trip to the Windy City, I was riding with my mom when our driver screeched through a red light and was promptly pulled over by the police. The driver insisted we stay in the car: “This is no problem. Just one minute.” We respectfully disagreed and took the opportunity to walk to our destination.
On another Chicago ride, our driver was a chatty and well spoken man who explained that he was a respected doctor in India, but had moved to the U.S. with his family to give his children better opportunities. His medical degree wasn’t recognized in the States. He was driving a cab until he could afford to go back to school in the U.S. and get another medical license. He said that despite it all, he was glad to be in America, but sometimes he missed his home.
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It was John D. Hertz of the Yellow Cab Company, founded in 1915, who first painted his cabs yellow. He chose the color after reading a study that found yellow to be the most visible color from long distances. New York City instituted a law requiring all taxis to be painted yellow in 1967, in an effort to cut down on unlicensed drivers and to make cabs more easily recognizable (“Taxi Dreams”).
Not everyone welcomed the ubiquitous yellow creatures, however. A Times feature from 1923 described the proliferation of cabs in recent years as “yellow peril”:
Within the last few months, there has descended upon the defenseless walking public an invading host, a veritable yellow horde – bright yellow, dirty yellow, chrome and lemon, now and then a touch of canary, and then, again, just plain yellow. One can tell the mixed breed by the variety of raucous and ear-splitting blasts as they honk and screech through the city’s traffic on their seemingly endless way. One can sense little else in the face of this onslaught of yellow. The rest of the city and whatever else the streets have to offer fade into insignificance. The thought persists that there are altogether too many taxicabs. (qtd. in Lupkin 141)
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According to the 2000 U.S. Census, of the over 40,000 cab drivers in New York, 82% are foreign born. This includes 23% of drivers who are from the Carribean and 20% from South Asia.
Early on, there were concerns that taxi drivers were menaces to society. Drivers were accused of everything from criminal behavior to uncleanliness. In 1923, the Times published an opinion demanding that taxis “be made sanitary”:
The streets of New York City are crowded to congestion with a variety of taxicabs, the physical and sanitary condition of which is a menace to the safety and health of the community. Many drivers cannot even speak our language, are unfamiliar with localities, and are dressed in such a filthy and unkempt manner as to cast discredit upon the grand name of our city. (qtd. in Lupkin 140)
Complaints that drivers did not speak English well enough were extremely common in the early part of the twentieth century. In 2000, there were 13,000 complaints logged against New York yellow cab drivers for various reasons. This number is quite low considering that over one million people ride in New York cabs every day (“Taxi Dreams”).
It is illegal for a cab driver to refuse a passenger based on race, disability, or requested destination (“Passenger FAQ”). The practice of ride refusal was still widespread in the 1990s when Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) began “Operation Refusal,” an undercover operation to root out discriminatory practices and a series of regulatory reforms to enhance driver standards (Bumiller). However, TLC lost a series of lawsuits over the “Operation Refusal” practices. Offenses ranged from violations of drivers’ First Amendment rights – by refusing to let them protest the new rules – to implementing the policy changes without giving due notice or allowing for comment (Lueck).
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At the sight of my outstretched arm, the driver pulled halfway to the curb, rolled down the passenger side window, and looked at me expectantly.
“LaGuardia?” I hate the way I say this, because studies have shown it is a distinctly female, approval-seeking act to end direct statements with the upward tilt of a question. But I know he is gauging whether he wants to take this fare, so I say it as a question to respect his (illegal) option to choose.
The driver nods and pops the trunk. I heave my suitcase inside, slam the hood, and jump in the back on the passenger side.
“Airline?” It is the first word he speaks to me.
“Northwest,” I reply, careful to enunciate, lest I repeat the Northwest/Midwest debacle of 2005 that literally read like a bad “Who’s on First?” routine.
The driver nods again and I settle into the familiar leather settee as he jets into traffic in one slick motion. It is only a moment before he speaks for the second time. With his thick accent and halting English delivery, it takes me a moment to register what he says.
“I hope you’re going home.”
His comment takes me aback. How did he know? What gave it away? Is it that painfully obvious I’m not a New Yorker? It hits me then that the moment isn’t about me, it’s about the universality of the concept of home. I want to ask him whether he has lived in New York all his life or if he, like me, is a transplant from elsewhere. I want to ask if he plans to stay in the city or if he, like me, considers his residency in New York to be temporary. I want to ask where home is for him, whether it’s where he lays his head every night or not, whether he gets to visit frequently or sometimes or not at all. I don’t want to bombard him with my musings on the nature of home, though, so I keep it simple.
“Yes I am,” I reply emphatically.
“There’s no place like home,” he says, and glances in his rearview mirror to see me smile and nod in agreement. We drive in the silence of understanding all the way to Queens.
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Bumiller, Elisabeth. "Cabbies Who Bypass Blacks Will Lose Cars, Giuliani Says." New York Times. 11 Nov. 1999.
Lueck, Thomas J. "New York City to Pay Settlement to Taxi Drivers Accused of Bias." New York Times. 8 Mar. 2006.
Lupkin, Joshua Mark. “Constructing ‘The Poor Man’s Automobile’: Space and the Response to the Taxicab in New York and Chicago.” New York: Columbia University, 2001.
“Passenger Frequently Asked Questions.” 2008. City of New York Taxi and Limousine Commission. 1 Mar. 2008.
“Taxi Dreams.” 2001. Thirteen/WNET New York/Public Broadcasting System. 1 Mar. 2008.