Taxicabs and Pedicabs

I’m a fan of Tyler Cowen, at Marginal

Revolution: one of the better and more entertaining blogging economists.

I’m not such a fan of his co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok, however. His entry

on Ethiopian drought insurance,

for instance, refused to even address concerns that it might not be a wonderful

idea. And then, today, he moves

on to New York pedicabs:

There are fewer taxicabs in New York City today than in 1937. Entry restrictions

have meant too few taxis, too many private cars, and gridlock so bad that

in downtown Manhattan, pedicabs, basically tricycle-rickshaws, are faster

than cars.

The first sentence is flat-out

wrong. There are 12,487 taxicabs in New York City today, compared to 11,787

in 1937. The second sentence is hard to parse. What is Tabarrok talking about

when he refers to "entry restrictions"? Does he mean bridge and tunnel

tolls? I think what he means is that it’s hard to enter the taxicab

market, because the number of taxi medallions is artificially constrained by

law. That might mean that there are too few taxis, but I can’t see how it has

much of an effect on the number of private cars. To constrain that, one would

need to implement some sort of congestion charging.

In any case, there really aren’t any pedicabs in downtown Manhattan,

let alone pedicabs which are faster than cars. Pedicabs are overwhelmingly found

in the tourist-heavy parts of midtown Manhattan, and while they might

in certain circumstances be faster than cars, they’re not generally used for

their speed. In cases of gridlock, speed is a function of width, and pedicabs

are pretty wide – almost as wide as cars. While I can speed past most

backed-up traffic on my bicycle, that traffic often includes motorcycles, since

even they are too wide to squeeze in between traffic and parked cars a lot of

the time. And pedicabs are certainly wider than motorcycles, so I doubt they’re

much faster than cars.

Pedicabs might like to claim that they’re faster than cars, but I’d be interested

to do the experiment. Take a typical midtown trip, say from Barney’s to Times

Square, and time how long it takes by subway, by taxi, by foot, by pedicab,

and by bicycle. My guess is that since that trip doesn’t involve changing trains,

the bike and the subway will be easily the fastest, followed by the taxi, the

pedicab, and the pedestrian.

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5 Responses to Taxicabs and Pedicabs

  1. TA sponsors this sort of competition each year during Bike Week, but it’s geared more towards a commute. The cyclist is expected to obey traffic signals, and still consistently wins. Pedicabs, as far as I know, aren’t part of the competition yet.

    Something a regular cyclist would note is also elevation: Manhattan runs downhill more steeply than one thinks (given it’s weight, a pedicab could probably coast from Times Square to Union Sq if there were no traffic lights). Pedicabs have a reduction gear, I think, so heading up to midtown in a Pedicab means you are moving pretty slow, no matter the traffic.

  2. Actually Felix, you are wrong. There were over 13 thousand taxicab medallions licensed in 1937. About two thousand let their licenses drop during World War II. See Quick Facts here:

    Entry restrictions is an economic term referring to restrictions on entry into the industry (not the city). I should have been clearer, but it is an economics blog. Since there are too few cabs more people use private cars resulting in too many cars.

    You are correct, I should have said midtown not downtown. Not being a New Yorker I get these confused.


    Alex Tabarrok

  3. I’m sure casual observation can’t wilts in the face of the cold-eyed precision of economics, but I don’t see how increasing the medallion count would decrease traffic. I’ve lived almost exclusively in cab-rich neighborhoods, meaning my lived experience should bear some relavance: in the off-hours, the number of available cabs is huge. And as you get to the high end of commuting patterns, car service usurps cabs (the stats from the link above the majority of trips are recreational). The cost of car maintenance and the likelihood of fare levels descreasing (due to competition) would not benefit driver income, and the only real effect I can see is it would lead to a rise in part-time owner/drivers flooding the streets for peak hours and leaving those who depend upon cabs at other times high and dry (there’s no way the minimum driving requirements could be upheld because the market would collapse). For perhaps six hours a day, doubling the number of cabs might effect convenience, but every study I’ve seen about private car use shows it to be heavily dependent on the availability of parking (and its cost), not congestion.

  4. Felix says:

    It’s hard to reconcile the official story with the one that Alex T links to, but as far as I can make out, what happened is that in 1937, the number of taxicabs licenses in NYC was capped at 11,787. Up until 1937, there was no limit to the number of licenses. Existing taxicab licensees were grandfathered in, but no new licenses were issued as they retired. Since 1937, the limit has been raised by 700, to 12,487.

    Alex confirms that his line about entry restrictions means what I thought it meant. But among the reasons for using private cars, inability to get a cab rates very low on the list. 99 is right: parking is much more of an issue, and cost in general. If it were cheaper to take cabs rather than a private car, due to a combination of congestion charging and parking charges, then we’d really start making a dent in gridlock. Simply increasing the number of taxicab medallions would, at the margin, only increase the amount of traffic in Manhattan.

  5. mike meritz says:

    taxis in nyc 1937 vs 2006 ?

    it is taxis in 1937 and taxis + black cars+ gypsy cabs in 2006.

    so 12000 in 1937 over 50000 in 2006.

    yes i drive yellow part time.

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