PRINT October 1976

MoMA Hails the Cab

IF THE PEOPLE AT THE Museum of Modern Art were really serious about “The Taxi Project: Realistic Solutions for Today,” they would have put a nice shiny new Checker in the corner to compare with the five nice shiny new models they commissioned. Instead they have in the corner London’s Austin taxi, famed for its roominess and elegant but discreet styling. Such a standard may account for why the new taxis are so luxurious. It may also account for the fact that they are so impractical.

The Austin was extensively tested in New York in the ’60s, and found to fall victim to the potholes of New York’s streets. So much, then, for the keynote struck in the show’s subtitle: the new designs are all slung extremely low to meet the museum’s standards for wheelchair and passenger access, and so run the same danger, among others. For after going all the way across the Atlantic to find a benchmark, it was clear from the beginning that the museum had failed to heed the closest, best source of advice—the people who drive the taxis.

The press opening for the show was instructive. The museum’s guests climbed all over, around, and through the beautiful yellow machines. All agreed that they were gorgeous. They read the features and specification lists shimmering across the screens of “Alpha-numerical self-scan electronic display systems” planted in front of each model. They noted how similar all the cars looked, even though they had been built by companies as diverse as Volvo, Volkswagen, Steam Power Systems, American Machine and Foundry, and Alfa Romeo. And some of them—representatives of the taxi drivers’ associations—asked how much the production models would cost. “About $12,000,” came the response from industry representatives. That was between two and three times the cost of the present taxis. No one, they growled, would think of building such things without a subsidy from the Federal government. Their commentary attracted the attention of museum officials, who denied ever having invited the drivers—as the drivers clutched their invitations. One driver got in a noisy argument with the head of the museum’s design department. One was asked to leave. The museum later told the newspapers that the taxi officials had been “gatecrashers.”

The drivers had spoiled the party, which only confirmed what the museum suspected in advance: that all taxi drivers are Travis Bickles, noisy and vaguely dangerous men from whom little can be learned. The neat little refrigerator in the front of the Volvo taxi, which is the only design concession made to the driver’s comfort, is surely intended for his beer. And when Ada Louise Huxtable wrote her rave the next Sunday for the New York Times she made the point outright: the taxis are marvelous, she concluded her article; now if there could only be a project to design a new taxi driver.

But the drivers could have helped. If the museum and the designers had really listened to the drivers’ associations they claim to have consulted, then the cars might not have the problems they do. They might not have been so high as to interfere with other drivers’ vision and be vulnerable to strong winds on bridges, like the SPS model. They might have had effective bumpers all the way around, as only the Alfa Romeo does. Their electric sliding doors might have worked correctly. (At the press opening, for instance, it turned out that on one of the cars the door will not close automatically if the passenger has left the manual opener in the wrong position. And the tracks of such doors are vulnerable to ice or impact.)

The museum’s premises are sound enough. Taxis carry more passengers than any other mode of public transportation in the U.S. today. They are the most flexible mode of public transportation. Their use could beneficially be extended to areas not now adequately served by public transportation, and their performance could be improved in order to cut down on pollution and congestion in cities and to lower fuel consumption. But the conclusions do not necessarily follow: commissioning four or five fancy-dan new taxi models will not solve the biggest taxi problems. It is only a fraction of one “realistic solution.” And the real need for realism comes in the rest of the solution.

The biggest impediment to improving or extending the application of taxis is high fares. Improved gas mileage and steam or electric engines can help only if the new models are not radically more expensive than the present ones. And these are—despite the museum’s failure to include the price figures in the red flashing array of entrance heights and wheel-bases zipping across the information screens. Right now the taxi fleets and individual owners are all having a hard time of it. Their equipment is in terrible shape and banks have started refusing them financing for new cars unless they extend the car’s lifetime by a third—which means more bad equipment on the streets. Inspection by cities is often inadequate. It is the political and business structure behind the taxis which is more at fault than the design of the cars themselves, however imperfect the vehicle.

In any case, the museum has promulgated specifications for the taxis which are so specific and naive as to constitute squinting at gnats on the nose of the problem. For instance it is required of the builders that “theft-proof, easy-to-clean ashtrays must be included. They must not be installed in the front seat back rest however.” Well, this hardly seems like an essential design parameter to begin with, and it has resulted in ashtrays hidden so cleverly that it would take a thorough police search to locate them amid the plush upholstery. In a cab designed for electric or steam power or nonpolluting internal combustion why shouldn’t it be against the law to smoke at all, as it is in buses or subway cars or—some places—in elevators? Changing the placement of the ashtray isn’t going to help with the big problems—or even the medium-sized ones.

But the museum is more interested in such questions than in how local governments could regulate and properly encourage taxis. Limits on medallions, for instance, establish the taxi as, in effect, a public utility and therefore subject to basic political decisions. The museum has at last given the taxi charisma, just as the ’60s glow surrounding “mass transit” seems to be fading out. But to give the taxi real importance in improving urban transportation takes more than glamor. Even a taxi driver can tell you that.

Phil Patton is on the staff of Esquire magazine.