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NEW YORK DIARY

Tips for a better taxi

Headshot of Simon Houpt

I've never thought that taking a New York taxi is a soul-crushing experience, but then I'm not Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of The New Yorker, dean of the Parsons School of Design and a guy who therefore thinks about these things for a living.

Last fall, Goldberger wrote an article for Metropolis magazine recalling a 1976 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called The Taxi Project: Realistic Solutions for Today that tried to stimulate a discussion about taxi design. The premise of the show was that there were no particularly compelling reasons that taxis should look like regular cars: They serve different purposes, and thoughtful design should embrace specific functions. Unfortunately, the exhibition was a dud. The major American car manufacturers refused to take part, the show was picketed by cabbies, and the brief discussion went nowhere.

Now, Goldberger is on the steering committee of an initiative called Designing the Taxi, which aims to fix something that most people don't consider broke, if only because most people don't consider it much at all. (This is when New Yorkers think about cabs: When they can't hail one within 30 seconds.) Last year, more than 240 million passengers rode in one of the city's 12,487 yellow taxicabs, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who was thrilled by the experience.

Though the New York taxi is an internationally recognized icon, it doesn't inspire passion the way those titanic taxis do in London, or the old Checker cabs that once roared through this city's streets like urban bruins.

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The mainstay of the city's fleet, the workhorse Ford Crown Victoria, has barely changed in more than 30 years. It features sagging seats that seem designed to prevent passengers from seeing the dashboard, and legroom that might be sufficient for four-year-olds. The partition between passengers and driver is ugly and dangerous. (Some of the city's plastic surgeons apparently specialize in partition injuries, for those passengers too cool to buckle up and too dumb to realize that smacking face first into bulletproof glass at 50 kilometres an hour might, you know, hurt.) Accessibility for the disabled isn't what it should be. Gas consumption is abysmal (average: 12 mpg, or 5.1 km/litre). Doors that open suddenly into traffic have a nasty tendency to injure cyclists.

With the 100th anniversary of the motorized New York City taxi looming in 2007, and a growing awareness among the public of the importance of friendly industrial design, the not-for-profit Design Trust for Public Space felt it would be a felicitous time to take a hard look at the role of the taxi as a public space.

They want to explore the possibility of creating a taxi-riding experience that people can love.

All ideas are welcome, except changing the colour from yellow.

After a preliminary workshop last month, the Design Trust brought together urban planners, cab owners and drivers, industrial designers, architects, government regulators and others to a series of panel discussions last Thursday, moderated by journalist Kurt Andersen. Goldberger introduced the first panel with a harsh declaration that the NYC taxi, "is neither beautiful, nor lovable, nor practical."

This prompted Matthew Daus, the chair of the city's powerful Taxi and Limousine Commission, to whine, "I don't know if they're that bad . . . we're selling them on 42nd Street as MatchBox cars, and tourists are buying 'em." But Goldberger didn't mean only to criticize; he wanted to suggest that a well-designed taxi could "ennoble" all who use it.

Antenna Design proposed a variation on the minivans that currently make up about 7 per cent of the cabs on the street, with smart and simple modifications to the interior, such as the addition of power outlets, passenger-operated climate controls, and an electronic city map showing the taxi's location. The Antenna exterior would feature a large roof display that looks like the radar unit on an AWAC plane, making it easier to tell when a taxi is vacant, and a warning light on the cab's rear that would flash when passengers are exiting.

Some designers offered solutions to obvious and pressing problems. Most parents of young children who take their kids in taxis do so without benefit of car seats, simply resorting to the power of prayer to protect their progeny. Ayse Birsel (of course a woman thought of this) presented an inspired design of a convertible centre seat that flipped down to convert into a child's car seat.

The most radical proposal came from Harris Silver of the advocacy group Citystreets, who envisioned a "cabsule," a tall, narrow vehicle that operates like a small airport shuttle bus, with seats that fold up, enabling people to either stand or sit.

It would provide room for six people and a capacious storage area for those New Yorkers trying to ferry home large shopping purchases, or musical instruments. Doors would slide open, as on a minivan, obviating the danger to passing cyclists. The engine would be an electric-gas hybrid.

When Silver wrapped up his brief presentation, the audience responded with a spontaneous burst of applause: Here were out-of-the-box designs that people could love, and love immediately.

Well, most people. A cabbie sitting next to me snorted once and muttered, almost under his breath, that the thing wouldn't last five days on the city's pothole-ridden streets.

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