New York's Taxi of Tomorrow a thing of the past

New York city officials have decided to allow taxi drivers to continue driving traditional yellow cabs rather than forcing them to switch to the supposed "Taxi of Tomorrow".
New York city officials have decided to allow taxi drivers to continue driving traditional yellow cabs rather than forcing them to switch to the supposed "Taxi of Tomorrow".PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • It was not a decision widely hailed. In 2011, after a lengthy competition among carmakers, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the Nissan NV200 would become the "Taxi of Tomorrow", with most yellow taxi owners required to purchase the boxy, bright yellow van.

Eventually, the vehicle was expected to make up 80 per cent of New York City's fleet of more than 13,000 taxis.

At the time, city officials touted the NV200's increased leg room, USB charging ports and sunroof as amenities that would be attractive to riders who had long complained about cramped travel in less-than-spotless back seats.

But it turns out that tomorrow lasted only seven years.

Last week, the Taxi and Limousine Commission reversed the requirement, expanding drivers' options beyond the Nissan NV200 to more than 30 vehicles, including popular, fuel-efficient models such as the Toyota Camry.

Many drivers praised the decision, complaining, for instance, about the NV200's small interior that fits a maximum of only four passengers.

While a spokesman for the commission said the main purpose of the rule change was to give drivers more choices, the decision comes at a time when the yellow taxi industry is in financial free fall, decimated by the rise of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft.

"The 'Taxi of Tomorrow' was problematic from the start," said Mr Michael Woloz, a lobbyist who represents the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade.

"I think the fears that many people have about one company monopolising the whole industry have come true in a lot of ways."

Mr Bloomberg granted Nissan an exclusive 10-year contract worth an estimated US$1 billion. That deal is expected to remain though its ultimate value will likely be far less, given the rule change.

Today, there are 2,671 NV200 taxis on the streets. Each costs about US$39,000 (S$52,500), a figure that rises to more than US$50,000 to make it wheelchair-accessible.

While it has drawn criticism, the Nissan does have its fans.

Mr Malik Sarman, 23, a college student who has driven a rented taxi for nearly five years, said he appreciated the modern touches the Nissan offers.

"It's a great car. It's comfortable, especially for tall people. You got more leg room and stuff, plus they have the intercom system.

"The driver could be listening to his own music in the front and the passenger could be listening to his music in the back," he added.

But there are drivers like Mr Sergio Cabrera, 60, who owns his vehicle and said the NV200 has given him headaches.

"It's not easy for older people to get into," he said.

He complained that owning the Nissan has been expensive, in part because of regulations that he and other taxi drivers said subject them to more maintenance rules than drivers for ride-sharing apps.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission requires yellow taxis to undergo a 200-point inspection every four months.

Each time his Nissan has been evaluated, Mr Cabrera said he has had to spend at least US$1,500 in repairs to pass the test.

By comparison, the commission requires the same 200-point inspection for ride-hailing apps and other for-hire services once every two years.

The differences in how the industries are regulated have become the subject of intense debate as the yellow taxi industry has seen the value of medallions - which give the right to own taxis - crater, pushing many drivers into financial dire straits.

Several drivers have committed suicide in recent months.

Nowhere is the crisis more dire than in New York, which has the largest taxi fleet in the country.

Medallions now fetch a fraction of the record US$1.3 million price in 2014.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2018, with the headline 'New York's Taxi of Tomorrow a thing of the past'. Print Edition | Subscribe