Cabs in New York City are getting a major tech upgrade next year, in the form of video screens that will display movie listings and city maps to riders and let them pay for their trips with the swipe of a credit or debit card.
Equipped with global positioning satellite technology, the new high-tech cabs should be better equipped to help riders track down their cell phones or laptops if they are left behind in a New York cab.
Thanks to onboard text messaging tools, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission will be able to alert cabbies about lost property and traffic conditions, and even tip them off to crowds of potential riders.
If New York's project is successful, other cities might follow suit -- but the District probably would be about last in line for such an upgrade, according to an urban transportation expert and the District's own taxi commission chief.
While New York City's taxi system strictly controls the number of cabs on the streets, as is common practice in major U.S. cities, the District's system is set up so that practically anybody with a car can pick up work as a cabbie, said Causton A. Toney, interim chairman of the District's Taxicab Commission.
Because of that system, Toney said, there is no way he could compel the District's approximately 6,500 cabdrivers to put such high-tech equipment in their cars. In a city where cabs rely mainly on street hails, there is no point in D.C. drivers or companies trying to set themselves apart -- and any new piece of technology would cut into profit margins.
"There's no incentive built into the system for anybody to buy new equipment or anything close to it," he said.
Bruce Schaller, an urban transportation policy consultant based in Brooklyn, agreed that the District is one of the last major cities he would expect to see cabs get high-tech upgrades.
"You don't have the industry in a place where you're likely to see this voluntarily and the city wouldn't be able to mandate it," he said. "There's a long list of things that need to happen in Washington before you get to video screens in cabs."
Although taxis in Chicago, Boston and Las Vegas have installed video screens, they are designed solely to advertise local attractions and lack the other bells and whistles coming to New York City's 12,700 cabs next year.
New York's cab companies will bear the costs of the technology, though the price of the high-tech units has not been determined yet. To help pay for the technology, advertising messages will appear on the video screens, though passengers will have the option to shut off the messages.
Matthew W. Daus, head of New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission, said the city raised fares two years ago, partly to help cab companies take in enough revenue to afford the video-screen technology. The 26 percent fare increase was the largest in the city's history and has brought in an additional $350 million a year for the city's cab companies, he said.
"This is a very big project," he said. "It would never work unless the city had control over how this is implemented."
One D.C. cabdriver who declined to share his name because of a deep-seated distrust of government and the news media said on a recent evening that the District's system works just fine as it is. He dismissed New York's upcoming system as a result of "New Yorkers with bad ideas" and said the cash-only system works just fine, especially in downtown Washington.
"There are three ATMs on every block downtown," said the driver, who said he has driven a cab since 1962. "You can get a $20 bill in less than a minute."