So, loyal fans of Turnstone, New York City have made their decision about the taxi of tomorrow (ToT) at last. Deep breath: The contract to build a custom yellow taxi for New York goes to Nissan, not to our client Karsan, nor to incumbent Ford.
First, thank you to notes and emails streaming in. No, we haven’t thrown Turnstone under a passing Crown Vic. From from it, Turnstone is delighted to be stepping into a new by-standing role as merely a savvy passenger.
That Karsan is already looking to other cities to establish a new global standard for cab design, and Nissan gets into production for NYC, is a huge testament to the original research accomplished with fellow Taxi07 Fellows of the Design Trust back in 2005-7, to Turnstone’s independent work leading up to Taxi of Tomorrow and to the efforts we made on behalf of New Yorkers’ favorite.
In a news week that buried alive all other announcements unrelated to Bin Laden and the Royal Wedding, we don’t envy anyone trying to cover this cab story, but we’ll try our best to represent some of the coverage here.
Calling Karsan’s submission ‘stylish and amenity-laden‘, the New York Times explained why the City have gone for the Japanese model over the Turkish one. Regulators are risk-managers before they are paradigm-shifting innovators. Good enough may be better than nothing at all.
Paul Goldberger’s glowing words for Karsan in The New Yorker will be framed for the Turnstone bathroom wall, alongside our Oscars and Platinum discs:
“The Karsan was far and away the best piece of design….It somehow looked as if it belonged on the streets of New York. …the Karsan taxi’s face was friendly. It made you want to jump aboard. …The Karsan was the only one of the three that made you smile, the only one that looked and felt as if it had been designed from the ground up as a taxi, and only as a taxi. It would have been something new, and something that would have made the streets of New York look better, which is what I thought this whole “taxi of tomorrow” business was about.”
While dieselheads at Jalopnik could barely muster faint praise as damnation (“New York’s New Taxi Freakin’ Sucks”), Gothamist comes out more clearly on Karsan’s side, calling out a rather ungentlemanly commenter’s verdict that the City’s choice was ‘the minivan of yesterday‘, declaring simply,
“Karsan Kab, we really wanted you to win!“
and greeting news that the V1 will go to market elsewhere,
“If those things start showing up in San Francisco we will not be amused.”
To all these speculative fans, who liked what they saw before the potential became a reality to climb aboard, thank you for allowing us to envision what New York deserves.
In what follows, I’ll draw a number of conclusions from a couple of distinct perspectives that reflect my various engagements with this process. First, as an independent design strategist with years advocating yellow cab passengers’ needs. Secondly, a partisan view, as a consultant to Karsan. Thirdly, as a designer, stepping outside the ring of municipal mega projects, to draw some lessons for other projects.
For decision makers, least worst may equal best
Orthodox as a public agency must be, the City’s choice is not the worst decision it could have made. It could have made no decision at all, or been cowed by lobbying interest groups. It stuck reasonably to the success criteria in its original, decently crafted Request for Proposal. You get (mostly) what you ask for. More about what else it could have asked for, below.
In this global economy, it’s no shock that a New York icon is to be designed in one corner of the world, manufactured in another (Mexico), driven in another (Manhattan…at least below 125th St. Harlem, the taxi of tomorrow won’t come soon enough) by a man with, most likely, a South Asian/West African passport. And let’s face it, Japan could use some good news these days. That said, the economy around any local industry is worth looking after.
The City’s yellow cab choice is still a bright green one.
What the NYC cab industry does in bulk for 13000 vehicles not only influences at scale the direction in which other national cab fleets follow suit, but sets a precedent, a new normal, for miles per gallon, air quality, fueling infrastructure, and the way individual motorists think about their own car purchasing choices.
We articulated this in the Roads Forward report in 2007, alongside many other vehicle requirements that influenced the ToT concept; choosing a new cleaner vehicle is a radical shift environmentally. Fingers crossed, the project can survive legal battles ahead which may frustrate what is good for cab drivers (who pay for their own gas), for New Yorkers who breathe traffic when they open their windows, and, yes folks, for the only planet we’ve got.
On yer bike
By not choosing Karsan, the City foregoes an opportunity to introduce a cab that’s accessible to all (that’s you too, stroller moms, luggage-schlepping tourists, furniture-hauling, carless apartment-dwellers, as well as the rightly vociferous wheelchair community). An inclusive vehicle – accessibility and availability – was a pivotal goal in Roads Forward and for Taxi of Tomorrow and yet the selected car allegedly sails past this objective like an off-duty cab at 4.30 in the rain.
Drive this shiny object towards shiny objectives
From the conception of ToT, the City called on auto manufacturers to make new, iconic, safe, robust, affordable vehicles. Certainly, no small request. But a wider conceptual frame to the project, one which situates that car in a service context (nod to Zipcar), might have raised the competition amongst the submissions. What’s the ride like? How, as urbane New York street furniture, will it look from the sidewalk, from the 47th floor of a skyscraper, in the next 20 years of countless movies and ads?
Turnstone’s contribution to the Karsan proposal, specifying content strategy for digital media in/around the car, would have improved the service experience of riding and driving a cab. So why not a connected cab, a gateway to rider-relevant, context-specific, revenue-generating services? Granted, deliver the vehicle, then let’s redraft some shinier functionality for it. I’ve made Jetsons noises like this before. To paraphrase an early Banksy: Laugh now, but when the next killer app arrives on wheels and you all hail one to get home late at night in another city, I’ll say, Told You So.
And, Karsan will build their cab anyway.
“We fervently believe that there is a strong market and an acute need for a true Taxi of Tomorrow, and we look forward to working with other forward-looking cities around the globe to make the Karsan vision a reality.”
So, uncharacteristically following rather than leading, NYC may later imitate what they might now have pioneered, once it becomes standard in other cities. Can’t blame anyone for not buying v1.0, but really?
Hold the door open for the ladies
Last of all, I was the only woman on any of the competing consortia, as far as I know. Coincidentally, most NYC cab passengers are women. Just sayin’.
Equal opportunities aside, Turnstone’s more important contribution to this project was as a strategic advocate of all those who ride around in cabs (not of those who run or regulate or refurbish them), a change agent within the design team, fusing the expertise of car and digital engineers to serve the people who will sit on cab seats 24/7, 365 days a year.
Finally, thanks to my friend York (fittingly, now working for Hot Wheels) who got me hooked on this project at the outset (that’s the last time I’m taking orders from an ex-Marine), to Imagination, the Design Trust staff and fellows, all the organizations and universities that have invited me to talk about taxis, to the constellation of unofficial tech consultants who validated our media concept in 2010, Frank at The Map Office for his visual design, and patient friends who sat through many cab rides while I barraged drivers with questions about medallions.
Your feedback is welcome. We’re going off-duty now. Back with news of the next projects very shortly.