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From 1976: The Case for the Cab

Decades before Lyft and Uber, a scholar of transportation argued that the most efficient public transport system might be an army of less-regulated taxis.
October 20, 2015

“The urban traveler wants good door-to-door service which is free from waiting, walking, transferring, and crowding and which provides comfort, privacy, and convenience. And the urban traveler has made it clear that he will use a private automobile when he can afford it because it comes closer to providing what he wants than any other available mode of travel.

Private automobiles and taxicabs, quite simply, can provide attractive and convenient door-to-door service at a price that most travelers are willing and able to pay. The preference for the automobile and against transit is anything but a man-auto love affair; it is a choice for good but expensive service in contrast to poor but cheap service.

Given some reasoned tinkering with regulation, pricing, and operation, taxicabs might very well have a profound and lasting impact on transit patronage and lead to reduced automobile commuting. This question of regulation is important because the few studies conducted so far show that riders are more sensitive to the availability of taxis than they are to speeds or travel times. Restrictions also inevitably increase fare levels over those that would prevail without the artificially created ‘virtual monopoly.’ A taxicab license or medallion in New York, Boston, or Chicago, for example, has in recent years cost a new owner in the range of $6,000 to $35,000. This cost is passed on to the passenger; it reduces the numbers of people who can afford to take cabs, and that increases the fare for those who do and invariably lowers the available supply of taxicabs.

Except for a handful of cities, travelers are limited to just two transit options—bus and private automobile. A third choice—pervasive taxi service—could be easily added, and the most compelling argument for doing so can be made by asking what new transportation systems will best meet the needs of people who most need help.

With bus and rail patronage steadily declining, with affluence and the desire for decent service increasing, and with concern for the poor, handicapped and autoless growing, unleashing the taxicab is clearly the next move to improve public transportation in our cities.”

Excerpted from “Increasing the Taxi’s Role in Urban America,” by Martin Wohl, a professor of transportation system planning at Carnegie Mellon University, from the July/August 1976 issue of Technology Review.

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