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The taxicabs of New York City, with their distinctive yellow paint, are a widely recognized icon of the city. There are more than 13,000 taxis operating in the city, not including over 40,000 other for-hire vehicles. Taxicabs are operated by private companies and licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), a New York City government agency. "Medallion taxis," the familiar yellow cabs, are the only vehicles in the city permitted to pick up passengers in response to a street hail.
The first taxicab company in New York was the New York Taxicab Company, which in 1907 imported 600 gasoline-powered cars from France. The cars were painted red and green. Within a decade several more companies opened business and taxicabs began to proliferate. The fare was 50 cents a mile, a rate only affordable to the relatively wealthy. Previous taxis, including the one that killed Henry Bliss in 1899, were electric.
By the 1920s industrialists recognized the potential of the taxicab market. Automobile manufacturers like General Motors and the Ford Motor Company began operating fleets. The most successful manufacturer, however, was the Checkered Cab Manufacturing Company. Founded by Morris Markin, Checker Cabs produced the large yellow and black taxis that became one of the most recognizable symbols of mid-20th century urban life. For many years Checker cabs were the most popular taxis in New York City.
By the 1930s the taxicab industry in the city was large and rife with corruption. Cabbies, many of whom at the time were Irish, Italian, or Jewish immigrants, were the frequent victims of unfair labor practices while passengers were often victims of price gouging. In 1934 more than 2,000 cabbies went on strike and occupied Times Square. In response, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia signed the Haas Act of 1937, which introduced official taxi licenses and the medallion system that remains in place today.
In the 1960s New York City experienced many of the problems of social unrest that engulfed other American cities. Crime rates increased along with racial tensions, and cabbies often illegally avoided neighborhoods of racial minorities. As a result, a quickly growing industry of private livery services emerged. Unofficial drivers were barred from picking up people on the street, but they readily found business in under-served neighborhoods. In 1967, New York City ordered all "medallion taxis" be painted yellow to help cut down on unofficial drivers and make official taxicabs more readily recognizable.
The yellow taxi had been popularized by John D. Hertz, who started the Yellow Cab Company in 1915 and which operated in a number of cities including New York. Hertz painted his cabs yellow after he read a study identifying yellow as the most visible color from long distances.
In the 1970s and 1980s both the unofficial livery services and the medallion taxicab companies began finding more and more of their drivers in the growing populations of Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern immigrants to the city as the previous generation of cabbies retired and moved out of the city. Crime in New York City had become severe at this point, and cabbies were often the victims of robberies and street crime. Bulletproof partitions between the rear passenger seat and the driver became common.
By the mid-1980s and into the 1990s the demographic changes among cabbies began to accelerate as new waves of immigrants arrived in New York. Today, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, of the 42,000 cabbies in New York 82% are foreign born: 23% are from the Caribbean (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and 20% from South Asia (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh).
The working conditions of cabbies have changed as crime in New York has plummeted, while the cost of medallions has increased and fewer cabbies own their taxicabs than in previous times.
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