Free, In Use or Off-Duty? Confusing Taxi Light System May Get Makeover

The flashing lights atop taxis that signal whether they’re vacant, filled or off-duty often cause serious confusion among those trying to hail a cab.

Now, the Taxi & Limousine Commission is considering simplifying the system, much to the relief of beleaguered fares.

Understanding the different combinations of the lights has become a sign of a street-savvy New Yorker, but the TLC fears visitors often have trouble navigating the system. 

The current system with the medallion light in the middle and the two off-duty lights on the outside may be too complicated for the so-called "uninitiated," TLC chairman David Yassky told The New York Times.

The taxi commission is considering eliminating the side off-duty lights altogether and replacing them with one simple light that would tell prospective passengers whether the cab is free or not.

The TLC also says the off-duty lights frequently lead to arguments and abuse by drivers who are trying to pick and choose their fares, which is illegal.
A single-light system has worked well in London and the TLC says potential fares don't care why a cab is available, only whether or not it is.

Here's a refresher as to what the current light combinations mean:

  • If the side off-duty lights are off and the center medallion light is on, that's a clear sign the taxi is available. If the off-duty lights and the center medallion light are all off, it means the taxi is occupied and unavailable.
  • The trick part is when the side off-duty lights are on and the center medallion light is on, which means the taxi is technically off-duty but drivers can choose to pick up passengers who are going in their direction -- a sort of "driver's choice" system.
  • If, however, the off-duty lights are on and the center medallion light is off, that means the taxi is off-duty and already carrying a passenger or just not available. 

The TLC is asking for feedback and suggestions about changing the lights on Facebook. Comments on the page this morning varied from "It isn't confusing" to "Well, it's about time. I have lived in Manhattan for most of my life and it is still very confusing to me," and "It is confusing to foreigners."

It's not clear when any change might be approved or go into effect, but the discussion came up as part of design talks for the city's new taxi fleet, which is due to roll out in 2013. 

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