A Potted History of the New York City Cab

What the black hackney carriage is to London, the yellow and checked taxicab is to New York City. Licensed by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, the 13,237 cabs rolling around the city are the only public transport vehicles permitted to stop and pick up passengers in response to a street hail. In honour of this modern icon, we take a look at the history of the New York taxicab.

In July 1897, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company began running 12 electric cabs round the city. By the following year, it operated 62 cars, before its rebirth as the more modern-sounding Electric Vehicle Company. In 1899, the firm had 100 taxicabs running.

On May 20th that same year, the USA’s first ever speeding ticket was issued to one Jacob German, driving one of the Electric Vehicle Company’s taxicabs. Another national first occurred on 13 September, when Henry Bliss became the first victim of an auto accident, after being hit by a taxi. By the dawn of the next century, there were a thousand electric taxis on the city streets.

Following the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1907, and the loss of a huge portion of its fleet in a devastating fire, the Electric Vehicle Company collapsed. After such huge progress had been made, New York City was back to the horse and carriage. This was an expensive way to get around. Legend has it that, in 1907, Harry N Allen couldn’t believe the extravagant cost of a 0.75 mile journey, and decided to start a taxicab service that charged by the mile. He imported 65 gasoline-powered cars from France, and so began the New York Taxicab Company. Originally red and green, Allen repainted them all yellow so that they could be seen (and hailed) from a distance. In just a year, Allen had over 700 cabs in his fleet. The fare was 50 cents a mile – about a tenth of the cost paid by Allen on his mythical horse and carriage journey, but still well beyond the budget of most New Yorkers.

By the roaring twenties, industrialists began to recognize the huge potential of the taxicab market, with General Motors and the Ford Motor Company among those joining the ranks (ha!) of the New York Taxicab Company. The most successful of these new companies was the Checkered Cab Manufacturing Company, which produced the instantly recognizable, and hugely popular yellow and black taxis which became an integral part of 20th Century New York.

Following the depression, there was a glut of drivers on the market, and no passengers to fill the cabs. As a way of regulating the licensing, New York City brought in the medallion system, which is still in operation today. Around 29% of all taxis are owner-operated, with the rest leased by fleets.

The yellow taxicab is one of the many little bonuses you get when visiting New York which, along with hot dog stands and steaming vents, make you feel as though you are in a movie. To see for yourself, check out the Flight Centre website, where you’ll find flights to New York.