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Taxi! Service Design for New York’s Yellow Cabs

In the last five years, communications technology for taxis has become a focus of the agency that regulates New York’s yellow cabs—the Taxi and Limousine Commission. We’ll affectionately abbreviate them to “TLC” here.

Some of their tech-mediated innovations are passenger-facing, while others are driver-side. The 13,000-strong cab fleet is now tracked by GPS; a screen installed on the driver/passenger partition tells riders where they are, operates as a point-of-sale for credit card payment in cabs, and broadcasts network television.

In late 2007, in partnership with the TLC, The Design Trust for Public Space (a New York-based non-profit organization) published Taxi07: Roads Forward, a strategy report to mark the hundredth anniversary of the city’s gas-powered yellow cabs.

Inspired by that and other public remit design work, the meter is still running on cab- and technology-related research. From 311, New York’s single municipal phone line, to brownfield regeneration, user-centered designers are already collaborating with city policy-makers to invent and improve many kinds of public services. Likewise, assessing and planning taxi technology, they can improve what’s currently installed and explore new possibilities for cab communications, with implications beyond mass transit for service design in other areas of public space.

Service Design as an Organizing Framework

Several hundred dollars of research-related cab receipts later, some key observations are emerging. Taxis can be conceived not just as plain old point-to-point mass transit, but as mobile devices and dynamic media interfaces; they appear as cursors on Manhattan’s street-grid. The vocabulary of service design (as discussed in Dan Saffer’s Designing for Interaction and defined at provides a robust framework for assessing and planning the next generation of taxi technology through seven service design stages.

1. Understanding the Environment

As we observed from Taxi07, every cab operates in the geographical context of streets, bridges, and tunnels of the city. It also exists in a communication and regulatory context, in an “information landscape” around each ride. This horizon of data, information, and knowledge is the stuff of traffic updates, trip sheets, vehicle inspections, rides and routes, and local lore about reliable places to catch or call for service.

2. Identifying the Stakeholders

All this data, information, and knowledge has a social life as transactions among stakeholders in the industry. Communication flows variously among drivers, riders, fleet owners, city officials, law enforcers, and advertisers. They create, store, access, display, interpret, and exchange communication visually and verbally, over distance and over time.

According to role, people transact through meter readings, trip sheets, inspection reports, licenses, calls to 311, 1010WINS (news radio) travel headlines, website listings, text messages, relief stand hearsay, neighborly advice, car service calling cards, pay slips, receipts, bank statements, public service announcement decals, maps, and commercials.

In turn, every transaction is mediated somehow, in print or electronically, face-to-face, by radio or cell phone, over a fixed or wireless network, on a PC, a handheld or point-of-sale terminal, a billboard or roof light, a file cabinet or database, and on clipboards or LED screens. Digital media serve some communications well; traditional media persist for others.

3. Recognizing Public Perceptions and Framing Brand Identity

Taxi cabs are New York icons. Even though checker cabs are long gone, the ride is still a quintessential experience for out-of-towners. Though the vehicles are diversifying, the signature yellow, roof lights, and medallions (and now a logo) differentiate cabs from other traffic.

Since the city regulates cab service, it makes sense that taxi media convey the TLC’s identity. As passenger information monitors replace the TLC’s bill of rights and map decals, their identity needs an even more prominent and persistent presence on screen.

4. Finding the Touch Points

Identifying the transactions along a typical cab journey reveals which interactions current technology mediates, and where there are opportunities for new services to broker other relationships among stakeholders.

5. Mapping the Process

Two stakeholders, the passenger and driver, interact in the cab for the duration of the trip. How they transact can be described on a process map (Figure 1). This provides a comprehensive view of where existing communications technology fits and which moments are not yet electronically mediated but might be. On the map, the sites of existing communications highlight opportunities for assessment and improvement.

Figure 1. How the passenger and driver transact.
  • Where a transaction is mediated by technology—for example, paying by credit card—the user-oriented designer can assess the user experience and begin to conceive improvements to any or all of the content, hardware, or software that delivers that experience.
  • Where a transaction is not tech-mediated—for example, seeking a ride or paying cash — we can assess how satisfactory the user experience is without these more sophisticated means.

For now, waving a hand in the air to hail a cab works well enough most of the time, as does paying with dollar bills at the end of a ride. At other moments, like when pedestrians seek a cab to wave at, the unmediated experience can be far from reliable or satisfactory. Chances are hit and miss, depending on where they stand at an intersection, whether it’s a weekday, whether it’s snowing, and so on. Nothing currently tells them if it’s worth waiting or hopping on the subway instead.

Identifying the gaps can reveal opportunities for innovation. Those opportunities can be subsequently documented in a service blueprint that suggests where service upgrades might take place at any moment along the string of the whole ride.

6. Making a Service Blueprint

Moving from process map to service blueprint takes the designer and policy-maker from as-is assessment to an opportunity-spotting view of what could be, from pinpointing potential to specifying actual, objectives-led design.

The service blueprint plots these identified needs to reveal not only at what point along the ride service innovation could bring benefits, but also how to mediate the experience.

Understanding where in the overall service string to innovate can identify the most appropriate new intervention based on the objectives it serves. The intervention may entail the delivery device, messaging, pacing, or business model.

Of course, for every transaction along the trip, we can also identify the relationships each technology innovation brokers and which other players are stakeholders for that service moment.

Of many possible concepts, the following three address specific moments within the service string of the cab ride.

  • CATCHING A CAB AT A CAB STAND – Most New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to identify more than a few places where cabs line up at stands that are key transit hubs. The TLC has a list of cab stands on its website (not a well trodden URL for most Gothamites, we have to admit), and locals have soft knowledge of reliable places to catch a cab in their neighborhood. TLC’s official information would be easy to distribute electronically or on a printed giveaway map; the soft knowledge could easily be made available and editable on a user-generated map for access over a PDA or phone.

Stamen Design’s Cabspotting project at (and recently featured at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Design and the Elastic Mind” show), is an even more sophisticated view of where cabs are at any given moment; in their case, in San Francisco. The TLC need not go half as far towards a useful solution here.

  • WAY-FINDING – The TLC found that decal maps of the five boroughs privileged tourists and gave insufficient detail on Brooklyn and Queens, where more detail was often most needed. Though the new screen-based maps did address the over-emphasis on Manhattan, they have other limitations.

To passengers’ frustration, they do not suggest directions, ostensibly to avoid contesting a driver’s discretion about a preferred route. In Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond, community cars (not yellow cabs) have introduced dash-mounted way-finding technology to give drivers a view of the map to set the route, while they rely on their passengers to confirm the destination. There are also opportunities to explore real-time, peer-to-peer traffic information now that crowd-sourcing technologies are being piloted for traffic in other cities, like CarTorrent in Los Angeles.

  • ENJOYING THE RIDE – As the city anticipates the next generation of passenger-side screens, survey results from the Taxi07 report can inform content strategy and revenue models. The city will know why and when certain kinds of people ride in cabs and can program relevant, location-based services that map to rider profiles. Among the possibilities are interactive media for confirming flight check-in en route to JFK or information about what’s in the windows along Fifth Avenue as shopaholics pass on their way to Bergdorf’s.

Finally, services need not be only screen-based. an array of cell phone- and iPod-chargers in the back seat so passengers can replenish their batteries while they stare out the window.

7. Prototyping

The next step to come in this ongoing dialogue is to prototype some of these concepts, perhaps for presentation to the city and its vendors. As digital information spaces augment physical places, new location-based services will emerge for riding cabs. For that matter, potential services will emerge for many other civic, urban, and commercial experiences. We should witness the strategic thinking, methods, and craft skills of service design practitioners taking an increasingly central place in public policy-making, as their well-designed services take a more central place in public space.