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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)

As a National Design Awards finalist in 2003, Udagawa traveled to Washington for lunch at the White House. He still recalls hopping off the spiffy Acela fast train and into a D.C. cab.

"I wasn't too impressed," he says.

Silver-gray Washington Flyers whisk Dulles arrivals into the District. From there, it's a free-for-all of 80-plus companies and independent drivers in vehicles of varying ages and conditions. Air conditioning is a recent innovation. They could all benefit from Fox & Fowle's proposal to turn cabs into "roving air filters" that collect particulates.

A visit to the Diamond lot on Rhode Island Avenue NW revealed several aging Ford Crown Victorias, a Ford Police Interceptor and a Chevy Caprice Classic wagon.

Driver Ted Tennien was just starting his day in a Mercury Grand Marquis customized with a padded steering wheel, trash bag on the driver's door, blue-and-white Playmate mini-cooler and signs advising "No Smoking Don't Slam the Door ." A metal bar, which Tennien referred to as a "shoehorn," was stashed within reach "to help change my tire." He had installed "Call 911" lights on the roof.

"That doesn't work," said Herbie Best, another Diamond driver.

But the light is cheaper than a partition or the digital camera Best installed in his Lincoln. It's not OnStar. Images go only as far as the car trunk.

Best dreams of a fold-down ramp for wheelchair accessibility. He imagines the back seat folding away into the trunk to "let the passenger wheel around." Drivers would no longer have to lift anyone onto the seat, or heave a wheelchair into the trunk.

Taxicab innovations have not come easily. In 1976, the Museum of Modern Art's design curator, Emilio Ambasz, tried to spark interest in a new urban cab through an initiative called the Taxi Project. American car companies declined to participate, as Goldberger recalled in his column for Metropolis magazine. Volvo, Volkswagen and Alfa Romeo jumped at the chance. But it took federal subsidies to persuade the American Machine and Foundry, and Steam Power Systems to produce prototypes.

In the end, five model cabs were exhibited in the sculpture garden and quickly forgotten. Deborah Marton, executive director of the design trust, pointed out this week that they foreshadowed the minivan.

Marton has moved on to Phase 2. The Crown Victoria's days are numbered as an urban people mover, she believes. "It has come to the limits of its flexibility to be upgraded," she says, "and it's a gas guzzler. There's no reason that vehicles on the road 24/7 should be polluters."

She hopes to develop a modern taxi prototype for display at the New York International Automobile Show in 2007, which is the centennial of gasoline-powered taxis in New York. (The first, a Daimler Victoria, was invented in 1897 and put to work in Stuttgart, Germany. New York got them in 1907.)

In the meantime, tourists will have to live with New York's mystifying on- and off-duty lighting signals, while dreaming of the clarity designers can impart. LED rooftop lights envisioned by the architectural firm of Weisz + Yoes would flash availability in plain English: "Maybe," "Nope" and "I'm Free."

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