109 years ago on August 13th, one of the cornerstones of New York City life, the first metered taxicab, rolled into the city’s streets. The metered fare idea was born, fittingly, in 1907 when Harry N. Allen was smacked with a five dollar fare ($126.98 in today’s dollars) for being driven a quarter of a mile in a horse-drawn hansom cab. Allen imported 65 gas-powered cars from France, painted them red and green, and started the New York Taxicab Company. The elven hues were replaced by the iconic yellow shortly thereafter so they could be seen from a distance, and a year later 700 cabs were nowhere to be found when you wanted one.
The idea of replacing the hansom cab wasn’t a new one: A small fleet of electric cabs had cruised the streets at the end of the previous century, but the panic of 1907 short-circuited the business, sending the city briefly back to the horse-drawn era.
Allen started the venture with a loan from his stockbroker dad and a handful of powerful backers (William Randolph Hearst among them); the French autos were considered to be superior to the American versions. The original fare was 50 cents a mile–an amount affordable only to the relatively wealthy. Within a decade several more cab companies opened business. The fare was 50 cents a mile, a rate only affordable to the relatively wealthy.
The first drivers sported uniforms designed to look like a West Point cadet’s, and they had orders from Allen to be courteous to passengers. Despite the cars’ early “uncertain safety,” the business a was a huge success, and the rest (including the part about being courteous) is history, which is covered nicely in the 2007 book, “Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver,” by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, a former cabbie-turned-history professor.
The following decades saw the colorful life of the New York City cabbie unfold through labor disputes, the dark and dangerous 1970s and ‘80s and many more challenges that don’t show any signs of abating anytime soon, though the iconic yellow taxis are still inseparable from the daily cityscape.
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