Taxi as Icon: News Clips and Selected Essays
by Paul Goldberger
Dean, Parsons The New School for Design
Courtesy of The Design Trust for Public Space
What is troubling about the New York City taxi is not that it is ubiquitous, but that it is so ill-suited to its job. There is something brightening to the cityscape in the constant flow of deep yellow vehicles along the city streets —but then you get into one of them, and you are reminded that it is hard to enter, hard to leave, uncomfortable to sit in, and awkward to carry luggage in. It is as likely as not to be dirty, and it may or may not have a functioning air conditioner. It is hard to communicate with the driver. And, although you are unlikely to realize this is as a passenger, the New York City taxi is no friend to the environment.

Almost all of the taxis that swarm across Manhattan are Ford Crown Victorias, as conventional a sedan as there is. Its very ordinariness makes it a kind of Everyman Vehicle, a conveyance that would seem suited to normal, routine trips. But as Londoners have known for years, a taxi is not a car. It may have four wheels and carry passengers, but the circumstances are completely different. A family car sits around much of the time, and when it goes somewhere, driver and passenger enter and leave together. A taxi moves all day, and exchanges passengers constantly. It stops, it starts, people enter, people exit, luggage comes in, luggage goes out. Through it all, the driver remains at the wheel, like a worker tethered to his desk.

Why, for this difficult and demanding and constantly changing purpose, do we use the same vehicle that we use as a family car? Is it possible to design a better one, and if so, can that design be manufactured and sold in a way that makes sense within the economics of a difficult and not particularly profitable industry? Can taxi owners and drivers be encouraged to support and participate in a program to improve the design and functioning of taxis? These are the questions that the Design Trust for Public Space set out to answer with its ambitious initiative to rethink the New York City taxi.

At the basis of the Design Trust’s effort was a recognition that New York City taxis, both collectively and singly, constitute a form of public space—public space that moves, but public space nonetheless. We at Parsons The New School for Design were honored that the Design Trust invited us to work as a partner in this effort.

Parsons has always been concerned with the connections between design theory and real life, particularly real life in New York City, and we were delighted to join with Deborah Marton and her colleagues at the Design Trust in what has turned out to be an exciting and stimulating ongoing project. The last significant effort within the design community to change the New York taxi was the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious exhibition in 1976, for which several prototypes of new taxis were created. They were exciting vehicles, and every one of them represented an improvement over the standard taxi. But the exhibition had little effect, largely because neither the taxi industry nor the major American automotive manufacturers played an active role. For the current initiative, the Design Trust sought to build a wide coalition of participants, and sought the active engagement of taxi drivers, representatives from the automotive industry, taxi regulators, and experts on the financing of the taxi industry. A premise from the outset was the recognition that this effort would not succeed if it consisted only of designers talking to other designers.

And so two important workshop sessions were held at Parsons, filled with a wide range of what might be called taxi stakeholders. No one — well, almost no one—defended the status quo, but at first there was little consensus about what viable alternatives there might be. As the project has moved forward, there has been, if not consensus, than at least a recognition of the complexity of the challenge, and of some broad parameters that will be necessary for real change. The Design Trust has convened an essential dialogue, and it will continue, with all parties recognizing that the design of a physical object is intimately connected to economics, politics, and culture. It’s not just the shape of the car, in other words. But it does, in the end, all come down to design, and to figuring out a way not only to conceive of a better object, but to making it happen.