All Island Blog

Taxi Timeline: The History of Taxis in New York City

Posted by Trent Warner on May 6, 2014 11:41:00 AM

Taxis in New York City

A few weeks ago, we took a peek into the history of Taxis in New York City. Let’s continue our historical exploration this week, as we look further into how taxis evolved through the middle of the 20th century. This was a time where everything was changing rapidly, and it’s interesting to see how changes within society molded the way the automotive transportation industry grew.

As we’ve seen in our own lifetime, it takes a bit of time for our laws and regulations to catch up to emerging technology. Just as we have had to establish and enforce laws about cell phone use while driving, people living in the 1930s had to craft legislation to suit the taxi industry, because it presented scenarios that had never been an issue before. There were no labor practices in place specific to cabbies, which often led to their exploitation. Furthermore, with newness of taxi transportation, unsuspecting passengers easily fell victim to price gouging.

There was tremendous competition between taxi drivers during the Great Depression, because fares were few and far between. Both the police and the Taxi Commission were having difficulties curtailing the corruption and the tension amongst cab drivers. A dramatic reveal at the time was the Checker Cab Company’s bribery of the then Mayor, James J. Walker. In response, 2,000 taxi drivers protested in a tremendous strike in Times Square. The Haas Act of 1937 was subsequently signed by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, which instated the need for official taxi licenses and the medallion system that New York still enforces to date.

The medallion system is meant to limit the number of licensed taxis on the road, so that the government can better maintain the quantity and quality of cabs on the road in Manhattan. The medallions are small plates that attach to the hood of each taxi, and a limited number of them are available for sale every year, with a pretty hefty price tag. The exclusivity of the medallions is meant to ensure that the people who obtain them are truly invested in the industry, and are more likely to do their jobs well. However, while the intention was to improve wages for taxi drivers, the medallion system gave a tremendous amount of power to a number of large fleet owners, which didn’t always work out in the cabbies’ favors.

By the middle of the 20th century, there were nearly 12,000 taxis in service in Manhattan, making them an integral part of the day-to-day commute for many New Yorkers. Even though New York City had one of the earliest and best subway systems, in addition to busses, trains, and ferries, the taxi industry still thrived. In the ‘60s, it was decided that in order to limit the number of unofficial taxis in operation, they would paint all of the official taxis yellow so they stood out.

Check back with us for the conclusion of the history of taxis in New York City!

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