From Carriages to Uber: The History of the Taxi

Are taxi services dying? This is a common question today. Arguably, they are simply changing to suit the needs of today. Taxi apps like Uber and Lyft are simply the latest big milestone in a long history. It is impossible to discuss automotive history without taking a moment to reflect on the importance of the taxi.

From the early days of horse-carriages for hire in London to fleets of Crown Victorias weaving about New York throughout the 20th century, the history is a rich and interesting topic. Today, the industry continues to rapidly evolve, through taxi apps. Read on for a detailed history of the taxi, and an analysis of where the industry is headed in the future.

In the Beginning

Hackney Carriage
Hackney Carriage

The concept of the taxicab existed far before the 20th century. As early as 1605, horse-drawn carriages in London known as hackney carriages offered rides to pedestrians in densely populated areas. Within the next few decades, the practice become more popular. This idea caught on in other European countries as well during the 17th century. In 1635, regulations were established for hackney carriages. Legislation became increasingly restrictive over the century. By 1662, coachmen required a license in order to provide this service.

The next big innovation in hailing services was called the hansom cab in 1834. This vehicle was a much smaller carriage that was capable of moving more quickly, and only required one horse in order to function. These conveniences led to a quickly rising demand of vehicles-for-hire across the globe. By the late 1800’s, metropolitan areas in the U.S. such as New York embraced hansom cabs.

20th Century Taxis

Near the turn of the century, the first battery powered taxicabs arrived in London. These early vehicles were somewhat noisy contraptions; their constant humming earned them the nickname “hummingbirds”. With the new motor came some additional upgrades as well. Taximeters were introduced with this generation of vehicles. In fact, the word “taxi” is derived from the word taximeter.

Companies that made their bread and butter with hansom cabs began introducing these modern taxicabs into their fleets. New York saw the first wave of hummingbirds in 1898, though they were quickly replaced by gas-powered engines in 1907.

Another major innovation in technology for the taxi was the two-way radio, introduced in 1948. For businesses, these were invaluable tools. They permitted fleets to effectively communicate and organize in order to best serve customers in metropolitan areas.

As vehicles become more advanced and efficient over the next few decades, successful taxi companies remained competitive by constantly upgrading and replacing their cabs. Some companies were stingy on upgrading their fleet, leading to some negative stigmas about taxis in major cities.

The iconic shade of yellow that we associate with taxis was started in 1967, when New York mandated that all taxis should be a uniform color to make them more easy to identify. Though companies today manage fleets of a wide range of colors, many taxi companies maintain yellow vehicles in honor of this tradition.

Crown Victoria Taxi
Crown Victoria Taxi

The most iconic car model for taxis in the past has been the Ford Crown Victoria. However, these cabs are a rare find in New York today. Several factors have contributed to the downfall of the Crown Victoria. For one, Ford discontinued the model in 2011. Secondly, hybrid vehicles have been steadily gaining popularity in the Big Apple (some legislators are even exploring methods of improving emissions by banning gas guzzlers in favor of hybrids and electrics). The final nail in the coffin for the model was Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed the final fleet of Crown Victorias in New York in 2013.

Regulations over the years have had a negative impact on the taxi industry. When the sectors of politics and business become overly entwined, as is often the case with regulations, corruption inevitably occurs. Corruption has impacted taxi services in densely populated cities, such as Boston and New York. As a result, taxi drivers have been forced to pay high fees to continue to operate, and customers have had to shell out much more cash. Bitter citizens referred to key taxi companies as “cartels” and “mafias” — and trust in this system was fundamentally destroyed as a result.

Taxis Today: Uber

This brings us to the state of the industry today. Perhaps as a reaction to problems in the industry, tech companies like Uber have completely changed the game. Considering that the average cost of a new car is $33,453, it is no wonder that many people are turning towards taxi app companies like Uber as an alternative. The rising popularity of Uber can be attributed to tourist needs, as well as simple budgetary concerns. Taxi app companies have led to what some analysts are calling the “end of taxi history”.

UberThe aforementioned “mafias” entrenched in major cities have not been happy with this change. Lobbyists are constantly working on behalf of taxi companies to limit the number of Uber or Lyft drivers on the road at any given time.

This could an effect on specific municipalities, but no such regulations have been successfully implemented so far. Nevertheless, with the rise of Uber come some legal considerations.

 Liability during accidents with Uber vehicles remains a contentious issue.

Customer service is now the name of the game. Never before has the taxi industry been so customer focused. Because the relationship between Uber drivers and the company is not as cemented as traditional taxi jobs, Uber drivers depend on positive customer reviews to stay employed.

Looking Ahead

In the future, the industry will continue to evolve in radical ways. While taxis have gradually changed over the last century, recent years have seen dramatic technological developments.

While taxi apps have shaken the taxi world in unprecedented ways, the biggest innovation that will morph the industry is the introduction of autonomous cars. Companies are experimenting with these advanced vehicles in select cities (with drivers present), but it will be several years before driverless taxis are normalized.

Our expectations of hailing services will change as a result of such developments. Will traditional taxis become history? Will future generations see these familiar vehicles swarming through metropolitan areas as they did in the past?

With each technological innovation, the answers to these questions become more certain. Traditional taxi companies will need to take drastic measures in order to stay competitive. Nevertheless, taxis have played an important part in automotive history.

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