The iconic yellow cabs of NYC have been an everlasting icon of the city since the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company began rolling them down NYC streets in the early 1920’s. The NYC taxis have gone through many changes, but what has never changed in the minds of New Yorker’s and tourists, is its iconic color: the very visible yellow that only NYC taxis seem to have.
A brief History of NYC taxicabs
The first taxicab company in New York City was the Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company (E.C.W.C.), which began running 12 electric hansom cabs in July 1897. Licensed by the city, many of the early taxi drivers were African Americans or Irish immigrants, eking out a living as small entrepreneurs. They quickly became symbols of a glamorous urban landscape.
Cab companies began to innovate in the late 19th century, introducing gas power and even steam-powered automobiles. But they failed to win over consumers until the introduction of the electric hansom cab. The Electric Carriage and Wagon Company was largely responsible for introducing these cabs into the city to compete directly with horse-drawn carriages. By 1899, the company had a fleet of 100 in the streets.
But these newfangled cabs had major drawbacks: daily mileage averaged about 11 miles per cab, and the costs of maintaining them were such that they were considered a money loser. While some electric cabs continued to be used around Central Park well into the early 1900s, the experiment had largely failed. In January 1907, a fire destroyed 300 of these vehicles which, in conjunction with the Panic of 1907 caused the company to collapse.
Introduction of iconic Yellow Cabs
In 1907, following the collapse of the Electric Vehicle Company, horse-drawn cabs once again became a primary means of transport around New York City. The same year, Harry N. Allen imported 65 gasoline-powered cars from France and began the New York Taxicab Company. The cabs were originally painted red and green, but Allen repainted them all yellow to be visible from a distance. By 1908 the New York Taxicab Company was running 700 taxicabs.
Within a decade several more companies opened business and taxicabs began to proliferate. The fare was 50 cents a mile, a rate only affordable to the relatively wealthy. Automobile manufacturers like General Motors and the Ford Motor Company began operating fleets. After a few years, two big cab companies decided that yellow was the way to go, with both ultimately contributing to the tradition of yellow cabs in New York City.
The Yellow Cab Company, founded by John Hertz, came to dominate taxi business in the city by the early 1920s by the sheer size of its iconic yellow fleet. Hertz read a University of Chicago study finding that yellow was the most prominent color seen from a distance. Understanding yellow would stand out the most to pedestrians seeking cabs in busy streets, he painted his cabs accordingly. The company also introduced automatic windshield wipers and telephone-dispatched taxis.
The most successful manufacturer, however, was the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company. Founded by Morris Markin, Checker Cabs produced the large yellow and black taxis that became one of the most recognisable symbols of mid-20th century urban life. The Yellow Cab Company was eventually acquired by Checker Cab Manufacturing Co., which would become a behemoth in the taxi industry for decades to come.
Yellow it is!
During the Great Depression, New York had as many as 30,000 cab drivers. With more drivers than passengers, cab drivers were working longer hours which led to growing public concern over the maintenance and mechanical integrity of taxi vehicles. To resolve these issues, the city considered creating a taxi monopoly, but the plan was abandoned after New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker was accused of accepting a bribe from the Parmelee Company, the largest taxi company.
In 1937 Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia signed the Haas Act, which introduced official taxi licenses and the medallion system that remains in place today. The law limited the number of licenses to 16,900. The logic of visual standardization became fully entrenched with a 1967 ruling that all “official” New York taxicabs be painted yellow—specifically “Dupont M6284 or its equivalent,” according to Allan Fromberg of the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission. Any visual swerve therefore indicates either an unlicensed vehicle or an alternate taxicab system.
Wait! What about black and green cabs?
The yellow cab may be as synonymous with New York as pizza, Broadway and the Empire State Building, but more and more it is no longer the ride of choice. But yellow cabs — which now number just 13,587 — have lost significant ground to a growing fleet of black cars summoned by ride-hailing apps with short, catchy names and loyal followings: Uber, Lyft, Via, Juno, Gett.
Today, more than 60,000 black cars are for hire in the city. More than 46,000 are connected with Uber, though they may also work for other services too. Many yellow-cab owners and drivers are struggling in a city with more transportation options than ever.
After decades when medallion taxis were painted yellow, a new color was introduced to the palette of cab driving in 2013: green.
The city had created a new class of medallion taxis to serve the outer-boroughs, and made the decision to go with a color that would make sure anyone trying to hail one would know the difference.
The decision to introduce the green taxis meant greater service in the outer-boroughs, where taxis had been limited and black livery cabs had long been dominant. The black cars could only be hailed by phone call; the green cabs could be hailed on the street like a yellow cab.
In 2007, city officials outlined a project to replace existing Ford Crown Victoria taxis – which were discontinued in 2011 – and other taxis by 2014. In mid-2011, the TLC was to award an exclusive contract to sell and service taxicabs in New York City for 10 years. Karsan, Nissan, and Ford’s bids were the three finalists, and all of their designs were based on small vans rather than sedans. The Karsan design was later rejected due to doubts whether the company could “execute the project”. In the end, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the Nissan NV200 design as the winner to replace the city’s 13,000 yellow cabs, to be phased in over five years starting in 2013. From Sept. 1, 2015 all New York City taxi drivers must upgrade to the Taxi of Tomorrow when their old cars die. Exceptions can be made, however, if the driver wants to invest in one of a select few hybrid or handicap-accessible vehicles.
Design features include room for four passengers, a transparent roof panel, independently controlled rear air conditioning, active carbon-lined headliner to help neutralize interior odors, along with antimicrobial easy-to-clean seat fabric, overhead reading lights, floor lighting, a mobile charging station, including a 12-volt electrical outlet and two USB ports, a flat passenger floor, a “low-annoyance” horn with exterior lights that indicate honking, hearing loop system, intercom and exterior lights that signal when door is opening.
Despite this evolution, it looks like the classic, bright yellow taxis will remain a fixture of New York City streets, as well as an enduring symbol.
Also published on Medium.