If you’ve ever been to New York City, you’ve probably seen or ridden in a taxi cab at some point. They’re almost impossible to miss. New York City’ taxicabs have been featured in television shows and movies for years. Their history dates back over 100 years. Taxi cabs first took to the streets of New York City in 1897. Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company opened for business in July of that year with a dozen electric hansom cabs. The company operated for a year, with up to 62 cabs in operation. In 1898, the company was transformed into the Electric Vehicle Company by its financial backers. The new company designed a new electric car known as the Electrobat. The Electric Vehicle Company operated 100 cabs in New York City in 1899.
By the early 1900s, up to 1,000 electric cabs transported residents and passengers around New York City daily. The company suffered a setback in 1907 when 300 of its cars were destroyed in a fire. That loss and the Panic of 1907 led the company to file for bankruptcy later that year.
Horse-drawn carriages returned to popularity in New York following the Electric Vehicle Company’s demise. However, things were soon about to change. Harry N. Allen didn’t like the fares that horse-drawn carriages charged, so he decided to start his own taxi service. Allen’s New York Taxicab Company started service in 1907 after Allen imported 65 red and green autos from France. He decided to paint his cars yellow so that they were more noticeable from a distance.
A year later, the New York Taxicab Company had 700 taxis offering service in the city. More and more companies entered the New York City taxi market over the next decade. The Ford Motor Company and General Motors were the first major car manufacturers to design and operate taxi fleets in the 1920s. A decade later, the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company created the familiar yellow and black taxicabs that many residents remember fondly. The New York “Hack Bureau” was formed in 1925 to regulate the city’s taxi industry.
There were as many as 300,000 taxi cabs in service in New York City during the 1930s. In most areas, there were more taxi drivers than passengers. Citizens started raising concerns about whether or not those taxis were being maintained regularly. This led to talk of a possible taxi monopoly in the city. However, such plans were scrapped after it was discovered that the city’s mayor, Jimmy Walker, was found guilty of accepting a bribe from the Parmelee Company, New York City’s largest taxicab company at the time.
New mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia signed the Haas Act in 1937, which implemented the taxi license and medallion systems that are still being used today. This law required the purchase of a medallion for taxicabs to operate. It also limited the number of taxis in the city to 16,900. That number eventually decreased to just under 12,000, where it has rarely fluctuated in the decades since.
Taxi services continued to prosper in New York City until the 1960’s when rural crime and racial conflicts affected the business. More and more private car services sprung up in smaller neighborhoods. The city government decided that all “medallion taxis” should be painted yellow to help reduce unauthorized private car services. The color was selected by the wife of the New Departure cab company owner for their company’s fleet of Rockwell taxis. These Rockwell Service cabs were later renamed Yellow Taxicabs.
In 1971, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission was formed to regulate the city’s taxicabs, and commuter limousines, livery vehicles, and paratransit cars and trucks. It replaced the Hack Bureau from the 1920s and operates under the jurisdiction of the New York City Police Department.
Unfortunately, crime continued to increase in the city over the next two decades. Taxi drivers found themselves at greater risk of being robbed, injured or even killed. Over 3,000 drivers were robbed and seven drivers were killed during the first half of 1970. Bulletproof window partitions and lock boxes were installed as a response to the rise in violence until officials realized that crooks were hijacking taxi cabs in response.
These conditions and the rising cost of medallion licenses resulted in a shortage of drivers during the 1970s and 1980s. The memorable Checker Taxi cabs were also being phased out slowly. More Chevy, Ford, and Toyota models took their place in the taxi industry along with former police cruisers. Other car and minivan makes and models would later be added to companies’ taxi fleets. Eventually, the number of taxi drivers in New York City increased due to an influx of immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s.
Focus on safety conditions and technology upgrades are some of the more notable taxicab upgrades in recent years. 1997’s Celebrity Talking Taxi program encouraged the use of seat belts for all taxi occupants. The program ran for six years even though it was primarily disliked by both riders and drivers. In 2008, Passenger Information Monitors were installed in the back seats of all taxicabs in the city. These systems provided live GPS information, and entertainment and gave passengers the option to swipe a credit card to pay for their ride. Other features have been added as newer vehicles and additional car manufacturers have entered the market over the last two decades.
Car services, also known as livery cabs or license-for-hire vehicles were allowed to operate in New York City beginning in 2012. Their green apple-colored vehicles are only allowed to pick up passengers who have contacted their particular service in advance. Both yellow cabs and car services have the same fare structure, but their service area differs. Yellow cabs can pick up passengers anywhere in the five boroughs of New York City. Car services can pick up passengers anywhere in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, Upper Manhattan, and Queens (except for JFK International Airport and LaGuardia Airport).
Although the number of yellow taxi cabs has declined somewhat over the last few years due to the increasing popularity of independent ride-sharing services like Uber, they are still an efficient, affordable way to get around the city. Drivers usually have a fair amount of wisdom to share with riders who are new to the area and with passengers who are lifelong residents. Yellow cabs are an important part of the city’s history, and they’re not going away any time soon.
History of New York’s Yellow Taxi Cab article published on ClassicNewYorkHistory.com ©2022
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