Innovation Needn't Take a Back Seat

The extra-tall CABsule, designed by CityStreets, would transport standing passengers as well as seated riders, and have space for a wheelchair.
The extra-tall CABsule, designed by CityStreets, would transport standing passengers as well as seated riders, and have space for a wheelchair. (By Harris Silver -- Citystreets)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 12, 2005

Stepping into oncoming traffic to wave at speeding sedans is a dubious, if not outright dumb, way to hail a cab. Designers are on the case.

A project sponsored by the New York advocacy group Design Trust for Public Space in partnership with Parsons the New School for Design has engaged a dozen designers in a rethink of the urban taxi system, from vehicles to traffic flow to -- Washington, please note -- civic image as conveyed by a visitor's initial ride.

Designers brainstormed with drivers, fleet owners and regulatory officials. Their focus was New York's canary yellow armada. But making taxis safer, more enjoyable and less polluting makes sense wherever cabbies troll for fares.

Proposals went on view at Parsons last week, and will remain through Jan. 15. A bright yellow booklet called "Designing the Taxi" presents evidence that annoying little aspects of taxi travel -- like making change in the dark -- need not be tolerated. As for flagging a ride in the fast lane, why not link up cabs with the digital revolution so hopeful passengers can text-message drivers from a safe spot on the sidewalk?

All that's missing is the collective will to innovate, says Masamichi Udagawa of Antenna Design. And to figure out who would foot the bill.

The designers began with a basic premise that "a taxi is not a car," as Parsons Dean Paul Goldberger writes in the book. Unlike sedans, which were created to transport families long distances in comfort, city cabs make short runs, often with single fares entering and exiting rapidly while toting awkward luggage. "It may have four wheels and carry passengers, but the circumstances are completely different," Goldberger says.

Futuristic concepts would diversify the fleet. A novel MiniModal with hybrid engine and raised glass roof would be equipped with double doors and a sliding ramp for wheelchair access. An extra-tall CABsule, with maximum speed of 50 mph, would transport standing passengers, as well as seated riders, and have space for a wheelchair. The driver would sit in a "super-comfortable cockpit with great sight lines," according to designer Harris Silver of CityStreets. The entire cab would glow when vacant.

Taxi nirvana would be fashionable. Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck fantasize about drivers dressed in Calvin Klein T-shirts, sitting on Aeron-like mesh seats and clinging to Nike-designed ergonomic "12-hour" steering wheels. Birsel and Seck also contributed an ingenious common-sense design for retractable child seats.

Expanding the cashless payment system to accept transit cards as well as credit cards is a brilliant idea that would distinguish a progressive metropolis from the rest.

Antenna Design, which has redesigned subway cars for the New York Transit Authority and is creating a security kiosk for station platforms, dreamed up a passenger console for cabs with GPS navigation map, temperature and radio controls, a tip calculator, credit-card slot, cup holder and Wi-Fi connection.

"It's all possible," says Udagawa. "These are all available technologies."

The console was designed to retrofit vehicles such as the Ford Crown Victorias that make up 92 percent of New York's fleet. (Six hybrid Ford Escapes were added to the 12,000-vehicle fleet recently.) After three years on the road, New York cabs aredecommissioned and sold to other markets, which explains why so many of the sturdy but bland sedans are cruising District streets.

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