MICHELE NORRIS, host:
New York City is saying goodbye to the crown jewel of its streets. Next year, Ford will stop production of the classic stretch Crown Victoria, a hallmark of police fleets and, of course, New York City taxicabs.
As NPR's Brian Reed reports, that's left the city eager to find a worthy replacement.
BRIAN REED: Ford is discontinuing the Crown Victoria because it's a gas guzzler, and sales have been declining. But if the company ever wants to film a Crown Vic commercial just for old time's sake, it should visit this taxi garage in Queens.
What do you think of the Crown Vic?
Mr. SIMON MAJUMDER (Taxi Driver): It is the best car. It is the best car for yellow cab. This is the best one - very, very, very, very best car.
REED:�Simon Majumder has been driving taxis for nine years, and he loves his Crown Vic. It's roomy; it's comfortable; the A.C. is strong. It's reliable and when it does break down, it's cheap to fix. So whatever car takes the Crown Vic's place has some big tires to fill.
Mr. DAVID YASSKY (Taxi and Limousine Commissioner, New York City): We're looking for the perfect vehicle to be a New York City taxi.
REED: David Yassky is New York City's taxi and limousine commissioner. His department's holding a contest of sorts, called Taxi of Tomorrow, to replace not only the Crown Vic but also the 10 other vehicles that currently operate as yellow cabs in the city.
They've asked carmakers to design one that will be the singular New York taxicab, a kind of Checker Cab for the 21st century built specifically for that purpose - unlike the Altimas and Escapes and Crown Vics that roam the streets now. The winner gets an exclusive, 10-year contract with the city, and Yassky has some pretty high standards.
Mr. YASSKY: It's got to be comfortable, it's got to be durable, but we also want it to be a 21st century vehicle: fuel efficient, accessible for all passengers, have a design that reflects the energy of New York City.
REED: But for a cab system that carries nearly 700,000 passengers a day, the perfect taxi is a difficult concept to pin down. Adolphus Stewart is a taxi dispatcher at Penn Station, one of the most popular places to grab a cab.
(Soundbite of car horn)
Mr. ADOLPHUS STEWART (Taxi Dispatcher) People want different vehicles. One might want an SUV. One might want a van, the minivan. One might want a sedan.
REED: There are handicapped passengers, Stewart says; passengers with lots and lots of luggage who need trunk space; stubborn old-timers who won't get in anything but a Crown Vic. Just listen to Jennifer Levy, Michael Regan and Maria Salgado, all standing in Stewart's line.
Ms. JENNIFER LEVY: I think they should have sliding doors.
Mr. MICHAEL REGAN: Tight turning circle. You want a car that's flexible, mobile and economical.
Ms. MARIA SALGADO: I see too many I don't like. I don't like this one, and I don't like the other one. I just like the old ones.
REED: The Crown Victorias.
Ms. SALGADO: Yeah.
REED: Stewart, the dispatcher, says this leaves the designers of New York's next cab with quite a conundrum.
How do you design a taxi that accommodates all of those different preferences?
Mr. STEWART: Well, that's a good question. That's a good question. I really can't come up with that one.
REED: The reason the taxi commission is asking for a single model is because the demand for new cabs in New York isn't that high, by auto manufacturing standards: just about 2,600 new cars a year. But that worries some taxi fleet owners, like Michael Levine.
Mr. MICHAEL LEVINE (Owner, Levine/Corrigan Group): I need about five or six vehicles right now. I can't get a Ford Crown Victoria. So what am I going to do? I'm going to go out, I'm going to get some Nissan Altimas or whatever else is available. If there's one car and one manufacturer, and they are out of vehicles, you can't replace anything.
REED: It also eliminates competition, and Levine worries that'll make prices go up. And on top of that:
Mr. LEVINE: It takes kind of the fun out of operating a business when all your decision-making is done for you. You can't experiment with things. You can't try to make your company better. You can't differentiate yourself.
REED: But for lots of drivers, it doesn't need to get any better. At the garage in Queens, Jose Guevara says he's driven all sorts of cabs over the past three decades.
If you had to submit your design, what would it look like?
Mr. JOSE GUEVARA (Taxi Driver): I would make a smaller version of the Crown Vic. Crown Vic Jr., I would say.
REED: Brian Reed, NPR News, New York.
BLOCK: This is NPR.