The front page of Crain’s New York Business carried a small item last week on a City Council bill that has the potential to have a huge transformitive impact on the New York cityscape:
The city’s sedan taxis could be replaced by wheelchair-accessible minivans as medallions expire in the coming years. City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Councilwoman Margarita Lopez have reached a compromise on Ms. Lopez’s bill for a 100% accessible fleet. The deal is likely to call for a slower phase-in than Ms. Lopez initially sought. Details could be announced this week. Opposition is expected from the taxi industry, which has stalled the bill for two years.
Since the mid 1990s, when Chevrolet discontinued the Caprice, the ubiquitous presence on New York streets has been the tangerine yellow Ford Crown Victoria, which is used for the vast majority of cabs. According to research on the taxi fleet prepared by Schaller Consulting:
Taxi owners use cars with body-on-frame construction to endure the city’s streets. Heavy duty suspensions and brakes and larger radiators further fortify the cars for taxi duty. Unibody cars have not been durable when tested by taxi fleets, although some owner-drivers have had success with minivans.
The minivan model I spotted most frequently used as a taxi is the Toyota Sienna.
I have mixed feelings about the potential transformation of the taxi fleet. The yellow cab is an icon of New York City, depicted in important visual roles in countless movies and television shows over the years and included in photographs in family scrapbooks across the world. It’s been through several transitions before, most recently from the checker cab to the square-cornered mid-1980s Caprice, to the late model rounded cars used now. Execpt for incremental annual changes, New York City’s buildings stay the same, but wholesale changes in the cab fleet define New York’s changing times more prominently. One look at a screen shot, and you can tell whether you’re looking at The Out-of-Towners, as originally made in 1970, or the 1999 remake, or whether you’re in New York during the rough-and-tumble 1980s, as seen in Crocodile Dundee.
The Crown Vic is a sleek sedan, elegantly aerodynamic, not at all overbearing and blimp-looking like the late model Caprices were. It helps shape New York’s image as a thorougly thrilling and classy city. Like the fashionable and svelt people who are shown slipping in and out of taxis, the car itself presents an attractive appearance. The Crown Vic is part of New York City’s image, which has helped to attract the tens of thousands of people who have moved here in recent years, and untold millions more who have visited.
On the other hand, the Toyota Sienna is frumpy and squat. It looks slow. It looks like it doesn’t care about its own appearance. It seems more suited to a quiet cul-de-sac driveway, waiting out front to ferry the kids off to soccer practice than setting the pace on the traffic clogged avenues of the capital of the world. It doesn’t seem to be a fitting vehicle for the U.N. diplomats and Masters of the Universe financiers to climb into every day.
As a New York City bicyclist, I’ll be sad to see the minivans take over because they are tall and harder to see over. The same applies for anyone who will continue to drive a sedan or station wagon, including the police. Between buses and vans and trucks and SUVs and a future fleet of minivans, people driving what were once regular sized cars will be hard pressed to see past the bumper in front of them. The change to minivans may be one more thing that encourages people to buy SUVs instead of regular cars.
But mobility for the disabled is a more important concern than aesthetics. Mobility for all people regardless of age or ability to drive is one of the great benefits of mass transit, and the thesis behind the book Access for All, listed at left as an inspiration for this website. So I guess Councilwoman Lopez’s legislation is a good thing for the city. But there is another reason to support it. Surprisingly, the minivan actually gets better gas mileage than the sedan! As you can see by their makers’ specs, the Crown Vic gets an abysmal “>18 to 19 miles per gallon. So paradoxically, changing to bigger vehicles will help us to marginally reduce harmful emissions. As I alluded to earlier this month, Toyota seems to be thwacking Detroit when it comes to fuel efficiency.
But leaving aside concerns for mobility and gas mileage, I’ll be sad to see the Crown Vics go.