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The Everything Guide to Taxis

From outer-borough cabs to a radical new design, the taxi world is seeing historic changes. To mark the occasion, we hung out in the backseat of a couple of cabs on Saturday nights, picked experts’ brains to help you zip around town faster, and more.

Taxicabs are as elemental to New York as bagels and bodegas, and in the past few years, the city has seen the biggest changes in the taxi world since motors replaced horses in 1899. The Ford Crown Victoria, for a decade the alpha dog of the fleet, has been joined by a group of newcomers, including minivans, SUVs, and Priuses. Riders can pay by credit card, and generally like doing so (drivers, who had fought the swipe, came around when they discovered that the preset tip options have a way of making people more generous). TVs—those damn TVs—have appeared in backseats. And since 2008, whether or not you’re aware, every yellow cab has been outfitted with something called the Taxi Technology System—a sort of GPS-based Big Brother that allows the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission to review a cab’s meter clicks and monitor its routes. No longer can a crooked cabbie take tourists from La Guardia to midtown by way of Hoboken without being called on it.

None of that, however, compares to what’s coming. We’re not talking about the roughly 20 percent fare hike likely to arrive later this year. As big as it sounds, the bump will only bring fares to the same (inflation-adjusted) place they’ve more or less always been. No, the two seismic changes on the horizon are the Taxi of Tomorrow—our first purpose-built cab since the Checker Motors sedan arrived in 1956 and clocked its last fare in 1999—and the 18,000 new cabs that may soon be cruising the outer-boroughs and picking up street hails (legal ones) for the first time.

The Taxi of Tomorrow was the winner of a 2011 competition that pitted three prototypes against the harsh demands placed on a New York cab. Built by Nissan, the winner was previewed earlier this year, and it will officially hit the streets in 2013. It is a fender-to-fender original that looks vastly different from the retiring Crown Victoria—squarer and taller with bigger doors, plus a mechanically deployed step that makes it easier to get in and out—and gets roughly double the gas mileage. The partition will be factory standard, so the interior won’t have to be rebuilt later on, allowing for air bags in the back and much more legroom than in a Crown Vic. There’s no transmission hump in the floor, meaning that the middle seat will no longer require adults to curl up like cannonballing divers. There are charging plugs for cell phones, and lights down at foot level in case you drop something. The heat and air-­conditioning are reportedly much improved. (An early prototype had back windows that didn’t open, but drivers objected, citing the ­vomiting-drunks problem.) There’s an indicator light that flashes when the driver beeps his horn, intended to discourage gratuitous honking. Cabin air will be filtered, and the seats are going to be made of antibacterial plastics (if you don’t think that’s important, see “How Gross Is Your Taxi?”). Nissan says the car can be built with an all-electric power source, if we were ever to assemble the infrastructure to support such a creature. The whole thing will cost $29,700, a couple of thousand more than a fully kitted-out Crown Vic.

Critics, including New York’s Justin Davidson, have noted that the new cab is kind of blah to look at (see “New York’s ‘Taxi of Tomorrow’ Has a Strong Whiff of Suburbia,”). More significant, the vehicle can’t accommodate a wheelchair, an ongoing point of contention. Whatever you think of the new design, though, in five years it will almost completely dominate the streets. New York imposes an age limit—three years for fleet-owned cabs, five for individually owned ones—after which a taxi has to come off the road. (Those that are still drivable go to less picky cities, like Baltimore.) By 2018, with the exception of some wheelchair-enabled minivan conversions, the Taxi of Tomorrow will rule our roads.

Including those of the outer-boroughs. Earlier this year, the TLC proposed a new class of medallions—18,000 of them—that drivers could use to cruise outer-borough streets and pick up passengers. (The cars would be green rather than yellow.) The move is, in part, a Bloomberg-administration quality-of-life play, akin to the cordoning-off of Times Square and the bike-­sharing initiatives. In this case, the intent is twofold: It would make navigating the other four boroughs nearly as easy as getting around Manhattan, and it would regulate and replace the ad-hoc businesses, like gypsy cabs and dollar vans, that have thus far occupied the void. The plan is also, of course, a moneymaking idea: The city expects to raise $1 billion from the sale of the new ­medallions, and those cabs will also pay taxes.

Who could argue with such a thing? The fleet owners, who have a huge amount invested in the status quo. Thanks to reliable demand and all but fixed supply, the sales price of a cab medallion just topped $1 million. Adding 18,000 new ones, even if their street hailing is confined to the outer-boroughs, threatens to dilute the value of the current 13,000-plus. Three separate taxi-business groups have sued to get the law thrown out, and a decision is due later this summer. (Drivers’ opinions about the new offering are mixed. Those who own their cabs are concerned about medallion prices, but they, and drivers who work for hire, also know that an expansion of the fleet could mean additional business.) The TLC is also looking to sell 2,000 new yellow-cab medallions, although that is a tweak that the fleet owners seem to think is manageable, because the fare increase will offset its impact.

All of these changes (and more to come; the race to create an effective taxi-hailing app is on) inspired us to take a spin around the New York taxicab universe in 2012. On the pages that follow, you’ll find everything from insiders’ strategies for grabbing cabs to a chronicle of two Saturday nights’ worth of backseat carryings-on. Some of the folks who climbed into cabs with our writers on those nights were drunk. Others were hooking up or looking to. One couple received unsolicited marital advice from their driver. Not everything changes. — Christopher Bonanos