Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Журналист, писатель, бард. Обладатель «Бриллиантовой совы» интеллектуальной игры «Что? Где? Когда?»
Liberal Arts
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BORIS BURDA: New York’s mysterious phenomenon

BORIS BURDA: New York's mysterious phenomenon
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Street photo New York, November 2023. Author photo: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo)




Alexander Genis, in his book «The American Alphabet», called THIS a phenomenon that weaves together space, time, and money. In New York City, there are now roughly 13,000 of these phenomena. So what is THIS?




Taxicabs, of course (we’re only talking about official «yellow» cabs).




The growth of civilization means the development of cities. It happened faster than most people realize. A number of researchers estimate that already about 4000 years ago, the cities of Ur of the Chaldeans and Knossos in Crete became cities of hundreds of thousands. Not everyone agrees on whether Babylon became the first million-city 2500 years ago, but there is no doubt that Rome under Augustus became one.

Walking from one end of such a city takes several hours to the other. A rich man may have a horse for this purpose, and a wealthy man may have a palanquin and porters, but what about a middle-income man who needs to cross such a city once could find for moderate money a service that would allow such a luxury?

There is circumstantial evidence that this was possible in Rome. The famous Roman engineer Vitruvius, who described a number of machines created by the Romans, has a description of an odometer — a system of toothed wheels connected to a wagon wheel so that after about a mile of travel, the holes in the two wheels align and a pebble falls into a special vessel.

What could such a thing be used for? Measuring distances in this way is not very convenient — an ordinary measuring tape is easier and more accurate. There was an interesting assumption that the odometer was installed on hired carriages to determine the distance traveled by the carriage rider. The more stones dropped into the vessel, the greater the toll.

No such carriages have been found yet, and there is no mention of such carriages in ancient Roman books, but otherwise, it is impossible to understand why these odometers in general and why the hell Vitruvius needed to describe them among enough running mechanisms. So it seems that it was in ancient Rome that such a helpful thing as a cab was invented.


Римский одометр
Roman odometer / mir-znaniy.com




With the defeat of Roman civilization, many useful inventions were lost — the cab among them, perhaps, and not the most important. But the exact causes lead to the same effects. By about the seventeenth century, London and Paris had become cities of millions, and the problem of getting around them required its own solution no less than in the Rome of Augustus.

Surprisingly, but in these two very different cities, this idea was realized in the same year, 1639, and quite independently of each other. The British followed the usual way for them, establishing a corporation of coachmen, which issued licenses for carriage — without it was prohibited to do it. The carriages for carriage were called hackneys — «traveling horses».

And in Paris in the same year, a Frenchman founded an inn of horse-drawn carriages that anyone could hire for an agreed sum. It was located near the chapel of St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners and gardeners — maybe because the symbol of St. Fiacre, of course, is a shovel, and shoveling money is flattering to anyone?

The English began with the use of bulky open four-seater carriages, and French fiacres, borrowing the name of the patron saint, mainly were closed and at least six-seater. By the mid-nineteenth century, both carriages had become two-seater carriages with a folding roof — such a carriage is called a cabriolet; in London, they said «cab».

From «The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes», we know that cabs in London were plentiful, and it did not cost anything to catch them. Like his Parisian colleague, the cabman could not fit under the roof — he sat either on the straddle or on a high seat in the back of the carriage so that he could distinguish house numbers and through the London fog. The payment was agreed upon beforehand, not always without scandal.



Cabs and fiacres, naturally, were not called «taxicabs». A taxicab is a service in which you pay according to the taxa, not according to the coincidence of the desires of the driver and the cabbie. To determine this very tax, which is logical to do by the length of the route, Vitruvius’ odometer would be very useful, but it died under the hooves of Atilla, and Alarich’s warriors and the new one was invented not soon enough.

And to dogs, dachshunds (taxa in Russian), strange as it may seem, the word «taxi» has no relation, though dachshund as a symbol of a cab is a common thing. Simply when the dachshund was bred for hunting on burrowing animals, in Germany, it was called «dachshund» — a dog hunting on badgers. That’s what they say: «Getting into a taxicab, the dachshund asked: “What’s the tax for the ride?”. And the driver said: “We don’t charge dachshunds at all. That’s how it is!”»

And we owe the word «taxi to a princely family, whose founder was named della Torre and settled at the foot of mountain Tasso (by the way, in Italian, «tasso» means «badger», so there is a connection with the breed of dog), and then, when the family moved to the Holy Roman Empire, they acquired the magnificent title of imperial princes of Turn und Taxis.

As early as 1490, Franz von Taxis, on the orders of Emperor Maximillian, established a regular post office — first between Vienna and Brussels, but later it spread to several states. This was practically the first pan-European post office that carried not only letters but also people for a fixed fee — the taxa. That’s where the word comes from.


Франц (Франческо) фон Таксис — почтмейстер, курьер, основатель первой регулярной почтовой системы между Веной и другими европейскими городами
Franz (Francesco) von Taxis — postmaster, courier, founder of the first regular postal system between Vienna and other European cities / mercatorumpriula.eu




The horse-drawn reign in private cabbing ended at the end of the 19th century, although the last London cabman did not surrender his license until 1947. The decisive year was 1896 when in Germany, the inventor of the automobile Daimler released on the streets of Stuttgart his six-seat cabs with a motor of as much as 4 horsepower — four horses are clearly more powerful than one.

In the same year, the French firm Renault began production of fiacres with a motor. Two passengers could fit under the tent, and the driver sat in front, open to all winds, and dressed for such an occasion in a waterproof raincoat and military-style cap. It started with only 4 prototypes, but in 1922, there were already 11,295 taxicabs in Paris!

By the way, France’s cab drivers came in handy during the First World War. When the Germans broke through the front on the Marne, Marshal Joffre mobilized thousands of Parisian cab drivers, and they delivered reinforcements to the front at an unthinkable speed. But did he mobilize? Simply, each cab driver, starting at the front, turned on the meter, and then he was all paid.

About the same time, they tried to use electric cabs as cabs. In the remarkable 1896 in England, 70 electric cabs Bersey with incredible then speed of 15 km/hour came to the streets, and a year later in the USA, Electric Vehicle Co. produced its own version of the electric cab. However, both firms soon went bankrupt to the joy of cabmen — the time of electric cars had not come yet…

The fact that Vitruvius’ invention could be repeated contributed a lot to the rapid success of taximeters — as early as in 1891, the taximeter was reinvented, and Daimler cabs started to install it at once. Gradually, the taximeter was improved and became a common way to determine the fare, although some chauffeurs are not happy with such accuracy.


Daimler Victoria — первый таксомотор с бензиновым двигателем, 1897 год
Daimler Victoria — the first gasoline-powered taxicab, 1897 / wikipedia.org


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The taxicab quickly spread worldwide, and each region acquired its own distinctive characteristics. In France after World War I, such a characteristic turned out to be the nationality of a large number of chauffeurs. After the defeat of the Whites, many officers, honest and technically competent, found work in France behind the wheel of a cab.

The reputation of Russian cab drivers was good — they almost always returned things forgotten in cars, were polite, and followed the rules. A typical meme of the interwar time in Paris was the expression «a Russian prince is a cab driver» (there were such!). The last of the taxi driver officers took a well-deserved retirement in the ’70s — he was 92 at the time.

In modern New York, cab driver is also mostly an immigrant profession: among drivers, there are no more than 6% of native Americans. But among license holders, there are considerably more of them — they give their cars to emigrants for rent. The reputation of cab drivers is ambiguous — since the «dry law», when most of the cabs were owned by the mafia…

London’s black cabs are as much a part of the city as the double-decker buses. Their high roofs were once designed to keep the occupant comfortable and keep his cylinder on. Passengers in such a cab are necessarily seated behind a partition in the rear, and there is a place beside the driver in which to put his luggage.  

English drivers are usually polite but can’t compare with Japanese drivers. A Japanese driver always wears white gloves, and the white lace cover on the headrests changes daily. But you can’t have a chat with a Japanese driver on the way — he drives you in complete silence, not saying a word. Maybe it’s a matter of language skills? I don’t know.

Most Chinese cab drivers definitely have a language barrier, and foreigners are advised not to get into the car without a piece of paper with the address written in Chinese. And not so long ago, in addition to passengers, Chinese cabs sometimes had two people sitting in them — the driver and the owner, who personally monitored whether the driver was pocketing the fare… This is rare now.




Cab cars are often distinguished by a specific color. In England, it is black; in the USA — yellow (a sign that the driver has a license); in New Zealand — green; in South Korea, cabs can be white and gray, but the most experienced drivers drive in black cars (like a black belt in karate). In the UAE, the cabs are cream; in Singapore, they are blue, wherever it is like…

Black and yellow Barcelona cabs have been wearing these colors since 1926 as a sign of mourning and shame. When the glory of Barcelona Antoni Gaudi was hit by a streetcar, no one wanted to take the poorly dressed man to the hospital, and he died of his injuries. So the authorities ordered to paint hired carriages in these colors so that no one would forget this shameful incident.

To show that the carriage was free, in the old days, a cabbie would simply raise his long whip upwards. The cab driver has light bulbs instead of a whip: red — busy, green — free. In Bulgaria, there are three lights: yellow means «going to the park». A green light is a frequent poetic image describing a cab; there is even a song, «Green-eyed Cab»…

But the most frequent sign of cabs in many countries worldwide are black and yellow checkered. Why is that? Some say that the symbol of Checker Motors Corporation, which produced cabs, was a chessboard. And some link it to the checkered flag that is traditionally used to signal the start at auto races (as if to hint at the speed of delivery).

I don’t know… Personally, I find it more plausible the story that in the early twentieth century, Parisian ladies of a particular profession wore hats with black-and-yellow checkered ribbons, and cab drivers decided that such a symbol would also suit them since they were hired by paying for their time. Why not? Sounds like…




In the past, the question constantly arose — and where to catch it, this very cab? The simplest solution is cab parking lots in crowded places. But there had to be so many of them that it was a short walk from anywhere. Often caught right on the street, «from the curb» — in our country, it is customary to raise your hand, in the U.S. — to point with your thumb under your feet: in general, the cab driver knows when he is stopped…

Back in the years of my youth, ordering a cab by phone was a rarity and had to be done in advance — if it was done at all, because I personally stood in line to install a phone for 14 years, and it was still fast… In the 80s, the Soviet queues for the phone quickly dissipated — apparently, earlier, they just did not want to put them, and it became easier to order a cab.

And new possibilities emerged when the phone turned into a smartphone capable of accessing the Internet. In 2009, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp created the San Francisco-based company «Uber», which developed a smartphone app that could be used to quickly order a cab. Now, there is no shortage of such companies, and other ways to hail a cab are slowly dying out.

But how will cabs themselves change? It is assumed that soon they will be deprived of a driver: the computer itself will give the cab and will take it to the specified place. And the same Uber is about to launch the passenger transportation service in Brazil not by cars but by helicopters. And don’t laugh — Uber’s service of crossing the Bosphorus by boat is already in operation. We are waiting for new wonders!




The fiacre cab’s ancestor has already finally fallen out of most people’s thesaurus. In the city of Breda, famous for Velasquez, they decided to give one of the streets the name of St. Fiacre but soon changed their minds — the inhabitants called it exclusively Viagra Street, which could be confusing…

No cab driver in New York City gets a license until they’ve taken a four-hour courtesy course with a range of topics like «If a passenger is angry, how do you calm him down?» or «Basic rules of conduct in a traffic jam».

Like Harun-al-Rashid, King Hussein of Jordan liked to ride incognito behind the wheel of a cab and listen to the opinions of unsuspecting subjects. Norway’s Prime Minister Stoltenberg in 2013 also spent a day behind the wheel for the same purpose… I wonder — did they enjoy it?

Cyril Northcote Parkinson recommends a test question to the board selecting naval officers: «Give the number of the cab in which you arrived». Any quick answer is considered correct — because the commission does not know this number…

And in conclusion — it’s an American joke about elections. A Democrat leaves a cab driver a big tip and says, «Don’t forget to vote for the Democrats». A Republican doesn’t leave a tip at all but says the same thing…


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