The Great New York City Taxi Caper

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | May 16, 2011

(Willem van de Kerkhof/Flickr)

When New York City launched a contest, "A Taxi of Tomorrow," in 2007, the predominant cab on its streets was the Ford Crown Victoria, a large, gas-slurping piece of retro-tech with roots dating back to the 1970s. Its limitations were many, but this familiar war horse's positives -- cheap to buy, cheap to run and even cheaper to fix, with ready supplies of parts, new, used and stolen -- resonated with the city's notoriously stingy fleet owners and those rare cabbies fortunate enough to own their own hacks and medallions.

Clearly, visitors to New York and the city's cab-riding public deserved something better -- something safer, more comfortable, more modern and more hospitable to handicapped riders, as well as something more efficient than the Crown Vic, which was not above drinking a gallon of unleaded regular every five miles in traffic. So it was earlier in the imperial three-term administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that the city -- known historically for rigid control of its taxi fleet, often in close consultation with the fleet owners -- began a refreshing experiment. Regulations were re-tooled and, suddenly, all sorts of taxicabs were permitted to enter service. This commendable outburst of open-mindedness has explained gratifying recent additions to the city's current fleet, including Ford Escape Hybrids, Toyota Siennas, Nissan Altima Hybrids, Chevy Malibu Hybrids, even Volkswagen Jetta turbo-diesels, 16 different makes and models, all painted that familiar NYC yellow that cries "Taxi!"

Perhaps this common-sense run of variety and this contest -- designed with the express purpose of moving forward the long-retarded, taxi-building art -- are why it seemed so strange last week when the future taxi challenge culminated with the awarding of a 10-year contract to design and construct ALL 13,200 licensed New York City taxicabs to Nissan. The deal, slated to begin in 2013, will have a serious psychological and aesthetic impact on the streets of New York, ultimately involving 25,000 cars, and adding a billion dollars or more to Nissan's coffers.

NYC Taxi of Tomorrow: Nissan NV200

I've got nothing against the winning model, Nissan's NV200 minivan, per se. But, like most New Yorkers, I've got an opinion on this (and most other subjects) and in this case, thank you for asking, I'm pissed off, for a variety of reasons.

Starting at the top, with aesthetics, let's not pull any punches. The winning design, the NV200, is as ungainly and off-puttingly hideous as the Crown Vic was cumbersome and off-puttingly inefficient.  As generations of London cabs have proven, and just as New Yorkers' beloved, bygone Checkers once espoused, taxis don't have to be butt ugly.  Can somebody remind me, what's wrong with cute?

London Taxi

Just as mysterious, New York's contest to re-imagine the taxi of tomorrow did not result in something all-new, or even mostly new, but rather a re-purposed minivan already sold in other parts of the world as an unexceptional minivan. Announcing the contest winner -- the two other finalists were Ford's recently introduced (and quite cute) Transit Connect Van and an appealing concept from Turkish automaker Karsan Otomotiv -- Bloomberg was quoted as saying, "The new taxis will be custom-designed to meet the specific demands of carrying 600,000 passengers a day in New York City traffic. The vehicle meets the top priorities identified by the public in our online survey."

"Will be" being the operative phrase: The actual customized version of the NV200, the one that won the Big Apple's competition, hasn't even been built yet -- job 1 is slated for some months out. We do know that the NV200, a four-cylindered vehicle based on the Versa platform, is reported to achieve 25 mpg in mixed-use driving, a marked improvement over the Vic (or Crown Vince as some of us in New York like to call it), though the NV200 has not been through the EPA test cycle, so it's hard to say whether it's more or less efficient than the Karsan design or the Connect, which in a curious quirk of fate is built in Turkey. America-firsters can go home now, because the Nissan taxi will be made in Mexico.

With regard to customization, selling points for the Nissan reportedly numbered its "low intensity" horn (which works in conjunction with blinking lights); room for four adults with a minivan's flat floor; stain-proof, eco-friendly upholstery and interior air filters, plus dual climate controls for the rear compartment; on-board wi-fi and charging ports; and transparent roofs for eying New York's impressive skyline. Of course, it bears mentioning that none of those custom features are all that "custom"; all of the NV200''s present features could have been included in the other vehicles' specifications at relatively low -- or no -- cost.

As further justification for the sweetheart deal, it was initially reported, Nissan would supply fleet owners and drivers at no cost with 100 electric vehicles to help explore the possibilities for electric taxis; this emolument was quickly downgraded in later reports to six. And strangely, Ford long ago announced plans for electric Transit Connects, while Karsan said they were prepared to offer such vehicles, too.

Notably, Boston has approved the right-sized Transit Connect for taxicab use, and its high-roofed design lends itself easily to accommodation of handicapped patrons. Currently, only 240 NYC taxis are wheelchair accessible and some advocates for the otherly-abled have complained that the low-roofed Nissan is not up to the task, a charge that appears to be borne out by the city's stated willingness to grant waivers to owners of special handicapped cab medallions to run other vehicles in 2013 and beyond, the one exception to the all-Nissans-all-the-time rule.

Ford's Transit Connect has been approved in Boston for taxicab use.

Stranger still, given Bloomberg's stated deference to an on-line survey in choosing what's meant to be New York's ONLY cab, the public and the city's fleet owners, when polled by the Daily News, all preferred other vehicles. Karsan's bid involved building a plant in Brooklyn, to be staffed by union labor and, it claimed, creating 2000 NYC jobs; Bloomberg doubted the company could get it together by 2013. "I don't think between now and two years from now we could site a new school, much less a new industrial plant."

Perhaps the mayor is right on this score, but his remark begs the question: What was the rush?

New York's Brooklyn Bridge. (Flickr/SJ Pinkney)

Some conspiracy theorists have sounded off in the blogs that it was New York's large Jewish population that thwarted the other entries; they'd never go for a Turkish built vehicle. Seems far-fetched to me. Yet while I applaud the mayor's willingness to run afoul of the taxi fleet owners generally -- they'd endorsed the Transit Connect in this competition -- none of the reasoning and philosophical underpinning for the city's decision or its one-cab-only policy makes sense.

Which is presumably why the city's public advocate, Bill de Blasio, wrote the city comptroller, John C. Liu, to review the taxi contest for possible conflicts of interest. Noting the Nissan's inhospitability to the handicapped, state assemblyman Mich Z. Kellner filed a complaint with the Justice Department asking it to explore the possibility that the city has violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

While it's hard to fathom precisely who's doing who's bidding here (and why), or how much will come of such activity, one is left with a bad taste. There's something un-American about limiting choice, as our mayor, a legendarily successful beneficiary of our capitalist system, ought to know. What, I wonder, would be wrong with letting all God's taxis slug it out on the streets of New York, and may the best cab win?

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