Did you know that government needs to select the car model that will be used for taxicabs? Neither did I, but apparently the New York City government thinks so. And not just any off-the-rack car model, but a new vehicle designed specifically for the purpose of being an NYC taxicab. From the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission:
The Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), on behalf of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, is undertaking a major initiative, herein referred to as the Taxi of Tomorrow Project. New York City seeks upgrades to its existing taxi fleet and is proactively exploring vehicle possibilities that more appropriately reflect the needs of its diverse stakeholders – passengers, drivers, owners and NYC residents. As part of this Project, the TLC is seeking a highly qualified Original Equipment Manufacturer (“OEM”), or a team that includes an OEM, to provide an innovative vehicle developed or modified for use in a highly visible taxi market located within one of the paramount marketing centers of the world.
This Request For Proposal (RFP) seeks to bring a new taxi to the streets of New York City. Among the qualities envisioned for the Taxi of Tomorrow are:
• Highest safety standards
• Superior passenger experience
• Superior driver comfort and amenities
• Appropriate purchase price and on-going maintenance and repair costs
• Sustainability (minimized environmental impact throughout the vehicle’s
• Minimal physical footprint (with more useable interior room)
• Universal accessibility for all users with a goal of meeting ADA guidelines
• Iconic design that will identify the new taxi with New York City
Who would have thought that New York, one of the country’s most diverse cities, would have such a fear of diversity that it sought to ensure a rigid homogeneity among its taxicabs?
Now if NYC actually was the taxi service provider (which would itself be a silly policy) this might make sense. But taxi service in NYC is provided by private firms. So the city will be telling these firms not just that they have to provide a taxi that is safe, which is a legitimate regulatory concern (I’ve driven a cab, and in all truth I occasionally took one from the shop that gave me such safety concerns that I took it back and demanded another). The city is not just telling the firms that they have to meet a certain set of passenger experience goals, which is less certainly legitimate as a regulatory concern than safety, but at least plausibly legitimate given that taxi service is often a one-off service, where the suppliers don’t have to worry about repeat customers.* Appropriate purchase price and on-going maintenance costs, though, are solely private concerns for the provider–if they want to pay more for a taxi and pay more for maintenance, say by providing a fleet of Rolls Royce taxis, why is that of concern to the City? And the very fact that the City is requiring a purpose-designed vehicle undermines this goal–an off-the-rack vehicle with all off-the-rack parts is going to be less expensive due to simple economies of scale. There are approximately 13,000 taxis in NYC (that in itself is the consequence of a foolish policy that limits the number of cabs, causing a shifting of wealth from passengers to drivers and taxi firms), whereas Ford has sold between 100,000 and 200,000 Windstar vans per year. Even though they may have to be specially retrofitted to withstand the abuse cabs take, that is presumably still cheaper than a purpose-built vehicle, or we would expect that a firm would already have produced a purpose-built cab to sell to taxi firms all around the country. And as to “iconic” design, that is a wholly superfluous and narcissistic goal, especially for a city that is itself as iconic as NYC. If the City wants to reinforce it’s iconic status, it should take that responsibility on itself, and not require private firms to bear the costs.
The three finalists for the “taxi of tomorrow” can be seen here.
Meanwhile I was in Chicago earlier this week, where I saw a variety of taxicab styles, from sedans to vans to SUVs to whatever this is. They all seemed to meet customers’ needs, I certainly had no trouble recognizing any of them as cabs, and Chicago doesn’t lack for iconic images (perhaps as a city it doesn’t suffer from NYC’s apparent insecurity issues?).
This is the type of policy that is ripe for the marginal libertarian’s critique, a case in which a government bureaucracy that faces no competition or profit-motivation decides it can make better decisions for the market than those firms that are actually competing in that market. That the public basically accepts this as normal, perhaps even desirable, is a pity. It’s not in itself an issue of great importance, like the growing national security state, but it is the same faith in government that underlies our acceptance of the TSA’s assurances that “enhanced pat downs” are vital to our national security.
* A relevant scholarly work here is Enquist and Leimar’s “The Evolution of Cooperation in Mobile Organisms,” Animal Behaviour 45: 747-757. 1993.