Ever wonder about those yellow four-wheeled marvels of modern science that get us from point A to point B, quickly, simply and safely without undue physical or psychological duress while leaving enough cash in the wallet for a late-night slice? Ever gawk at the serendipitous beauty of a rain-slicked cab as it veers towards the sidewalk and up to your soaked, extended arm, as if it were invented just that minute to whisk you home? Ever have a cabbie flat-out refuse to take your sorry drunken ass out to East Bushwick or wherever it is you kids are living these days? Yes, yes, and most certainly. The yellow cabs in our great city are — if no longer curvaceous and Checkered Cab Company-built (in Kalamazoo, Michigan!); if hardly ever helmed at the wheel by a tough talkin’ native Brooklynite named Sal with a mouth like a bluefish; hell even if they never come when you need them — still embodiments of the mythic aura of the New York City Taxicab. Hush dear readers. Shortly, all your cabbie questions will be answered.
First and foremost: why are cabs yellow? The iconic color comes courtesy of John Hertz(if his surname sounds familiar, it should: this is the same gentleman who founded the rental car company of the same name), who founded in the Yellow Cab Company in Chicago in 1914. In an early example of color-branding, yellow was picked because it is the easiest color to spot in a crowded city.
All right: now, how many yellow cabs are there in the city? The Taxi and Limousine Commission (everyone needs a little TLC) — the city-owned regulating board that licenses medallion cabs (the yellow ones) for-hire vehicles (those ubiquitous black Lincoln Town Cars,) commuter vans (airport shuttles, et al,) ambulettes and certain luxury limos — noted that as of March 2006, this city has 12,779 yellow cabs on the streets. One year earlier, the TLC licensed 942,000 drivers — either new drivers or existing one reapplying for the yearly “hack” license — in order to legally operate a cab in the city.
Finally, but most interestingly, the most expensive thing on the cab isn’t the rooftop ad, nor the license plates, nor the gas, nor the driver (he’s generally the cheapest). It’s the tiny aluminum plate, half-semi-circle, stamped down on the hood of each and every taxicab. Those thin pieces of metal are called Medallions, and the price and resultant ownership of each and every Medallion in this city is a source of ire amongst cabbies.
Taxi and Limousine Medallions are the official license of cabs — they’re what allows drivers to stop and pickup passengers and charge them fares from point A to point B. No medallion, no fare meter, no cab. The medallions were created under the Hass Act of 1937 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (is there anything he didn’t do?) to impose regulation on an outrageous and highly unorganized system in the 1920s and 30s. Back then there was no licensing process, so not only were drivers taken advantage of by labor unions and Tammany Hall, but the passengers were also unfortunate victims of price gouging. Things had spiraled so out of control that Mayor Jimmy Walker was receiving plentiful payoffs from the Checkered Cab Co. to keep things in disarray.
Once The Little Flower got the medallions in place, the city could keep closer tabs on the limited number of cabs cruising around. In 1937, the maximum allotment of cabs was placed at 13,566. During the 1960s, due to great white flight and the mass exodus to the ‘burbs, Medallions were limited to 11,300. It doesn’t take a math whiz to calculate that within a timeframe of 70 years, the medallion fluctuation has only varied at most, 2,266 cabs. That’s not a lot of rides for a lot of people, especially as New York’s population has exploded again in this new millennium.
Because there are such a limited number of medallions, and since the TLC owns the majority of them and licenses them out on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to cabbies, the simple law of supply and demand keeps the sale price of the medallion so high: the average sale price of a medallion in 2007 was $414,000. Which doesn’t include the two-year license for the medallion ($1,100), or the two-year inspection fee ($300), or the price of that thin sheet of aluminum to stamp down on the hood ($10). That’s why most of the Medallions are in fact owned by the TLC, and rented out to drivers who can’t out-and-out purchase them. Say a cabbie hit the Lotto jackpot and wanted to keep driving out of a genuine love for the city — well, he’d be crazy. But he’d be able to purchase the Medallion, and purchase the cab, and from that point on, every cent he earned he’d keep. As it stands now, most of the cabbies only make a living from their tips — the rest goes to Medallion licensing and gas. So tip those cabbies well!