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TAXI: A History of the New York Taxi Cab

PODCAST The history of the New York City taxicab, from the handsome hansoms of old to the modern issues facing the modern taxi fleet today.

In this episode, we recount almost 175 years of getting around New York in a private ride. The hansom, the romantic rendition of the horse and carriage, took New Yorkers around during the Gilded Age. But unregulated conduct by — nighthawks — and the messy conditions of streets due to horses demanded a solution.

At first it seemed the electric car would save the day but the technology proved inadequate. In 1907 came the first gas-propelled automobile cabs to New York, officially — taxis — due to a French invention installed in the front seat.

By the 1930s the streets were filled with thousands of taxicabs. During the Great Depression, cab drivers fought against plunging fare and even waged a strike in Times Square. In 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia debuted the medallion system as a way to keep the streets regulated.

By the 1970s many cabdrivers faced an upswing of crime that made picking up passengers even more dangerous than bad traffic. Drivers began ignoring certain fares — mainly from African-Americans — which gave rise to the neighborhood livery cab system.

Today New York taxicab fleets face a different threat — Uber and the rise of private app-based transportation services. Will the taxi industry rise to the challenge in time for the debut of their taxi of tomorrow.

Listen Today: The Story of the Yellow Taxi Cab


Albert Fenn/Office of War Information, cleaned up image courtesy Shorpy 

A snugly dressed cabbie awaiting some fares at the Battery Park elevated train station — 1895. Note that the poor horse too is swaddled up for a bad winter.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New  York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A hack from 1896.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

A hansom cab from 1906. This was still the dominant cab ride in New York during the period despite the introduction of the ‘horseless carriage’ onto the city streets.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A fleet of electric cars in 1896, and a couple Electrobats in action outside the Metropolitan Opera House 1898. Compare these with the picture of the hansom above.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst

A taxicab waiting outside Alwyn Court (West 58th Street/7th Avenue)

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

A cab waiting passengers at West 150th Street.

Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A view of the bustling street life of Herald Square, 1935. The horses are off the street but there are many other kinds of transportation options joining the taxicab.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Grabbing a Checker Cab on Park Avenue 1944

Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images
Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images

A row of Checker Taxis, sitting idle during a taxicab strike in 1940.

: Keystone/Getty Images)
: Keystone/Getty Images)

Some vivid 1960s photography by Ernst Haas capturing the mystery and allure of the New York taxi.

Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images
Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images
Ernst Haas (9)

Some scenes from the 1970s…

Courtesy City Noise
Courtesy City Noise
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12 replies on “TAXI: A History of the New York Taxi Cab”

Totally unreal and so professional. I drove a cab in 1970 since I couldn’t get a job as a college grad due to draft status. Best experience ever! Picked up Otto Preminger who I met while he gave a speech at my college. I mentioned when he entered how I met him a year or so ago and he said: “that’s your problem just drive the cab!” Still love that guy!

Great article Brian – loved the photos and didn’t realise that it was in 1907 that the first gas-propelled automobile cabs came to New York, i thought it was later than that – you learn something new every day!

This is an awesome article
I drove a taxicab in 1994.
Today the taxi industry is hurt by the flooding of inexperienced drivers from Uber and Lyft.
Even the chauffeur car business is hurt from this new gig economy.

My Daddy drove & dispatched for Central Brown (yellow checker) & Public Taxi (black & white) in the 60s, 70s, 80s & occasionally for the railroad… in Schenectady N.Y., they say he was “THE BEST” & i agree!!!

I am researching my family background on MyHertiage.com. A NY 1930 census document lists my grandfather as a taxi driver. What type of car or cars might he have driven? Thank you!

Lots of memories. My dad drove a cab for M&L Taxi in the 50’s and 60’s. They were based in Queens somewhere around Kew Gardens, I think. Then they moved to Fulton Street in Cypress Hills/ENY. He drove a Checker cab for a long while. In 1960, he got a new Ford. He retired in 1964 after an accident forced him to retire. A Checker hit his Ford which caused him to cross into an oncoming lane of traffic and then into a telephone pole. If only he would have been driving that Checker “tank” instead of the Ford!

I also remember my dad keeping his money from fares in a cigar box on the front seat! That would NEVER happen today! My dad was around 6’-5” and went about 345 lbs. He only ever got ATTEMPTED to be robbed 1 time. The passenger reached around and held a knife at his throat and demanded the cigar box of money. My dad said here it is and when the guy moved the knife away to get the box, my dad grabbed his arm and literally pulled him over the front seat and THROUGH the windshield! When the cops arrived they asked him what happened and he said he had to hit the brakes hard and the guy just flew over the seat! This all happened about two blocks from our house so the cops knew my dad from the neighborhood. All in all a good outcome, except for the crook.

I owned and drove a yellow cab from 1974-1984. I still own a medallion today. When I first started, the two way radios were in the yellow cabs. In 1984, the TLC said that Yellow Cabs should only be available for street hails! That was the beginning of “Black Car” industry.

Hi, I just did a clean out of an old home in Connecticut and found a couple of hack licenses and two photos titled ” gang of first yellow taxi cabs of N.Y.C. and 1 st taxi cab Co. Of N. Y. Dated 1909.

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