Things may change pretty quick in New York City, but there’s no better way to trace its history than by looking at its taxi cab fleet. Focusing in on that seemingly endless sea of yellow, you can see the Checker Marathons of the ’60s and ’70s, the Chevy Caprices of the ’80s, and the Ford Crown-Victorias of the past 20 years or so. Each came to define the city in their own way, and each model conjures up a distinct time and a place to millions of long-time New Yorkers.
But since the discontinuation of the Crown-Vic (and the Lincoln Town Car) in 2012, it’s been a free for all for New York’s livery drivers. Like in the days before the purpose-built Checker became the cabbie’s ride of choice, today’s drivers can choose from no less than 47 vehicles approved for taxi use, running the gamut from the Ford Escape to the Toyota Avalon, with the occasional Volkswagen Jetta thrown into the mix. While it’s great for drivers, it’s a headache for taxi companies, who have long been used to maintaining and repairing just one model, and confusing for tourists trying to hail a cab, even if the bright yellow paint isn’t a dead giveaway.
In 2009, Seeking to offset the vacuum caused by the end of the Crown-Vic, the City of New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission held an open competition for the “Taxi of Tomorrow,” eventually awarding a 10 year $1 billion contract to Nissan for its NV200 vans in 2011. Looking for a seamless transition between old and new, the contest called for a instantly recognizable commercial-grade model that could be tailor-made to the city’s unforgivable driving conditions – something the TLC felt the NV200 was perfect for. But as soon as the city made its decision, it was beset with lawsuits seeking to block its implementation. As a result, the city’s taxi fleet has since become a confusing hodge-podge of cars, or exactly what the TLC sought to prevent.
But now, the last of the legal hurdles have been cleared, and the NV200 is officially the Taxi of Tomorrow. In her decision last month, New York Supreme Court Judge Leslie E. Stein wrote:
“The choice of the best possible vehicle for use as a taxi plainly fits within the purposes of the T.L.C. to develop and improve taxi service as part of the City’s overall public transportation system.”
Under a 2013 city law, all retiring taxis must be replaced by either the Nissan, or a hybrid from the city’s updated (and much smaller) list of approved cars. As a result, it’s expected that nearly 80% of the city’s 13,587 registered taxis will become NV200s within the next few years. It doesn’t have the recognizability of the old Crown-Vic yet, and it certainly isn’t easy on the eyes, but for millions of New Yorkers, the NV200 will soon become a part of the city’s landscape.
The New York-specific NV200 entered production in late 2013 at Nissan’s plant in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with a few entering the taxi fleet in 2014. Unlike the Crown-Vics, which were usually already tired police cars before they were put into taxi service, the NV200 comes from the Nissan factory ready to go, right down to the yellow paint and taxi graphics. It can seat four, has separately adjustable climate control, a transparent roof panel, charging station, sliding doors, flat floors, and perhaps most importantly, a carbon system designed to neutralize odors.
To a company like Nissan, 13,000 cars is a drop in the bucket. But as the years of lawsuits have proven, there’s a strange element of prestige to being New York’s taxi of choice. The NV200 is ugly right out of the box, and its service being abused and doing hundreds of thousands of city miles won’t make it any prettier. But it’ll soon be part of New York’s iconic landscape; on t-shirts and souvenirs, in movies and TV, and eventually it’ll be a part of the city that seems like it’s always been there. Who knows, maybe in 10 years’ time, we’ll think of it as fondly as we think of the Checker.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS