The Checkered History of NYC Taxis

To honor the rides that give us designated drivers on demand, here’s a little history on NYC taxicabs.

NYC taxi

New York, New York.

In a city known for its skyscrapers, theater/nightlife, and that “love us or get lost” attitude, it’s hard to pick just one thing to represent the Big Apple. But when you talk about the city (especially driving there), it’s hard not to mention its iconic taxicabs.

To honor the rides that give us designated drivers on demand, here’s a little history on NYC taxicabs.

1800s – The horse-and-carriage-days

Before there were taxicabs, New Yorkers relied on horse-drawn carriages, known as cabriolets (or cabs for short), to get from here to there. While it may sound romantic and glamorous to travel the streets of New York like Cinderella, the reality was anything but a fairy tale.

Carriages were slow, causing congestion throughout the city. And the horses themselves, aside from smelling like horses, caused a huge amount of waste. (All that hay has to go somewhere, right?)

Clearly, the city needed alternative transportation.

1890s – Electric taxicabs and the first car accident

When the 1890s rolled around, electric (and steam-powered) cars were zooming down streets throughout the country, including in New York. And New Yorkers, ever enterprising, decided to use these electric cars to compete with the ole horse-drawn buggies — debuting the first electric hansom cabs in 1897.

Quieter, cleaner, and faster, the first electric cabs were immensely popular. But their arrival also brought (surprise, surprise) traffic accidents. On September 13, 1899, an electric taxicab struck Henry H. Bliss as he dismounted from a streetcar, making this traffic accident the first recorded in New York City history.

1907 – Gas-powered New York taxis enter the scene

Electric taxis were a vast improvement over the equine rides, but they weren’t completely ideal. Electric cars — while the height of technological innovation today — were impractical in their infancy. Batteries weighed around 800 pounds, making them slow. And let’s not forget that whole recharging thing.

So when gas-powered taxis appeared in France, American entrepreneur Harry N. Allen saw a great opportunity. He purchased the city’s first fleet — 65 shiny red Darracq cabs, fully loaded with fare meters — from France, where they were already in use.

(In case you’re wondering, the term “taxi” stems from the French “taximètre,” a combination of the words “taxe,” or tariff, and “metre,” or measure. Makes sense, huh?)

On October 1, 1907, the very first U.S. taxis traveled down 5th Avenue to the spanking-new Plaza Hotel on 59th Street. And the streets of New York haven’t been the same since.

1920s – Checker cabs make their debut

Taxi cabs in the early days came in all different colors, from red to green to yellow. But the iconic Checker cabs didn’t make their grand entrance until 1922 when Morris Markin founded the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corporation.

Though produced in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Checker cabs, distinguished by their black and white checker designs, were made famous in NYC. And they were hugely popular from the get-go. In fact, during the 1920s, more than 7,000 Checker cabs transported people to their destinations in the city that never sleeps.

1960s – NYC taxis turn yellow

By the second half of the 20th century, taxis were a vital part of life in New York. But with the proliferation of taxis came the proliferation of unlicensed, illegal taxicabs.

To standardize the industry and to help passengers distinguish between legal and illegal rides, lawmakers required all certified taxicabs to be painted yellow in 1967. To date, medallion yellow taxis remain the only cabs authorized to respond to street hails.

1990s – The last Checker cab checks out

As the decades changed, so did the appearance of the taxis (the color, of course, stayed the same). Over the years, Fords, Plymouths, Chevies, and of course, Checker all graced New York’s city streets.

But all good things come to an end. By the ’90s, it was the end of the road for Checker with only 2 cabs still chugging along. The last NYC Checker cab (#1N11) retired in June of ‘99.

If you’re interested in more facts about New York, our fact sheet on New York car insurance requirements and info for Empire State drivers has tons of useful insights.

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