Sometime early this year, New York City’s taxi and limousine commission will announce the winner of its “Taxi of Tomorrow” competition. Or it won’t. The project was begun in 2007, and in December 2009 a “request for proposals” went out to automotive manufacturers and designers. The bar wasn’t set all that high: the Taxi of Tomorrow was meant to be “safe, fuel-efficient, accessible, durable, and comfortable.” A look at the three finalists announced in November 2010 confirms they are perhaps all of those things. They are also, well, dull. Boxy. Lacking in imagination. (Not that New York’s current cab, the Ford Crown Victoria, was one to inspire much.)
The winner stands to supply more than 13,000 medallion taxis for at least a decade, a deal that could be worth up to $1 billion. Imagine if, in turn, the yellow spots monopolizing New York’s streets could help transform the urban landscape, perhaps by being smaller and more streamlined, having less environmental impact, or providing more comfort, convenience and aesthetics to passengers. What if the “tomorrow” part manifested itself not just in the object (the car) but in new initiatives inspired by the broad national movement toward collaborative consumption, like a taxi-sharing app that could help facilitate carpooling from J.F.K. into the city?
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that “if [the taxi] doesn’t meet our needs, then we can start the process all over again, or say we just can’t find what we want and come back and visit this at another time in the future.” Well, only one of the three is wheelchair accessible, only one offers an electric option. So with the door still open, as it were, I had several conversations with the artist/inventor (and former R&D guy for Honda) Steven M. Johnson, a self-described conjurer of “ludicrous” ideas for decades. But sometimes the wildest ideas result in the best solutions. We discussed the taxi-related issues that seemed to have been inadequately addressed in the Taxi of Tomorrow competition.
There is traffic, as in the inability to do anything about it. Should there be a taxi lane? An elevated one, straight out of Rem Koolhaas’s “Delirious New York”? There’s availability — how to improve the odds of getting a cab when you need one — and also affordability: a cab-sharing program has been tried in the city already, but is there a way to improve it, or create a vehicle that allows for ride-sharing? And there’s reliability — how can you better the odds that your driver knows how to get where you want to go?
In addition, there are different and specific issues of comfort that need to be addressed for a car that hosts many passengers in the course of a day. The average taxi seems too hot, or too cold, or too loud; the upholstery sags, and cleanliness is relative. This affects the relationship between passenger and driver, and the corresponding civility (or lack thereof). Is the environment safe and secure? Are the temperature, noise level and air quality satisfactory? Should there be an enforceable dress code for drivers, as has been proposed by the city’s taxi and limousine commission?
After we talked, Johnson came up with nearly 60 different concepts, some pragmatic, some dystopic, others clearly silly. We winnowed it down to nine, tongues firmly in our cheeks. Click here to see a slide show of his ideas.
I commend the city for soliciting comments on the finalists, and the media, design and innovation firm Human Condition for creating the Taxi of Tomorrow crowd-sourcing site, which has been offering a forum for ideas and commentary since October. I hope the commission pays attention.