Diversity? Not if New York City Can Help It.

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
life cycle)
• Minimal physical footprint (with more useable interior room)
• Universal accessibility for all users with a goal of meeting ADA guidelines
(wheelchair accessible)
• 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.

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* A relevant scholarly work here is Enquist and Leimar’s “The Evolution of Cooperation in Mobile Organisms,” Animal Behaviour 45: 747-757. 1993.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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2 Responses to Diversity? Not if New York City Can Help It.

  1. Michael Heath says:

    I used to travel between 50,000 to 200,000 miles a year; therefore I was a heavy user of taxis. From my perspective, most city taxis serve out-of-towners or locals headed to public transportation, which I’m aware is not true in some densely populated cities like NYC. From this perspective out-of-towners often judge one of the components of the quality of the city by its taxis. Which is also one of those subjects road warriors swap tips and war stories about.

    My favorite city outside of Germany for catching a cab was London, which were all the black hackneys. Solid, lots of room for baggage, clean, accesible. A lot of German cities used BMWs or Mercedes-Benz so that was always nice though some were better than London while others weren’t.

    The worst for me were most American cities where you wondered if the cab would make it to your destination before it rattled itself into non-existence. I think cities need to consider their strategic interests in being attractive to business, lack of standards on cabs is a highly visible means of portraying your hospitality – especially since it’s the city that gets the rep, not the hacks.

    Another factor which really hurts Detroit is the condition of their roads from the airport to where business is conducted, especially if you need to go into Detroit or north of Detroit which has you going west on I-94. We often made it a point to hire a limo for people we wanted to do business in the Detroit area to insure they got driven north to our place of business in a manner that had them avoiding I-94 or we’d use our own plane/jet to fly them into Oakland-Pontiac Airport to avoid them encountering the mess between Detroit Metro and Detroit.

  2. DensityDuck says:

    This sounds like the classic example of “why everything the government does takes longer and costs more”.

    See, I’m sure this was sold as “we’ll let private industry provide the solution, because competition makes private industry solutions cheaper, faster, and better!”

    Except that the government just couldn’t leave that alone. Since they wanted to GUARANTEE a level of performance, they decided that they would do the design themselves; except that they’d call it “writing requirements”, because “design” is something that the private contractor does, right?

    So they end up completely defining the design before anyone from industry even gets to see it; only they usually wind up doing it wrong, over-defining some parts and under-defining others, because if they knew how to design the solution they’d be out in the industry actually doing it.

    This is why “use private industry to get a better solution more quickly for less money” always turns out to be none of those three…

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