This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
Because of extenuating circumstances (a particularly large and heavy suitcase for a two-week trip to New York), I have made a calculated decision. Navigating the subway with this bag would be a physical feat I haven’t adequately trained for, and a Lyft driver would be unlikely to help me wrest my luggage into the trunk. Luckily for me, the taxi dispatch at JFK signals me toward a van with a wheelchair ramp, and the driver affably rolls my suitcase into the back. The hour and fifteen minute ride to the Lower East Side, a personal best for this driver, offers plenty of time for contemplation. Nauseatingly, I am forced to watch the scenery—Jamaica Rail Yards, Flushing Meadows, Mt. Zion Cemetery—pass through the side window, because directly in front of me, blocking my view, is the VeriFone Media player and credit card reader. Both screens extinguished.
Curb Mobility (formerly VeriFone Taxi Systems, a subsidiary of one of the largest payment processors in the world), and its only competitor, Creative Mobile Technologies, have gone through several iterations of hardware and software since first being introduced in 2003 as part of a small pilot program in New York City. In 2007, a law was passed that required all New York cabs to install “Taxi TVs.” This legislation was ill-timed. The first iPhone was just about to be released, and its introduction spurred the rapid development and improvement of touchscreens and mobile devices with complex computing capabilities. Taxi TV technology has lagged behind ever since.
Taxi TVs enable advertising, which offsets the cost of the metering system, typically several thousand dollars per car. Like when you purchase an iPhone under contract, taxi owners pay fees to vendors in exchange for the hardware. The hardware also allows riders to pay fares by credit card, arguably the most well-liked feature, but up to 5% of the fare is lost to processing fees. My JFK-to-LES driver affirms his preference for cash payment, and for the screens to be turned off.
The $52 flat rate fee I’ve agreed to with my driver means that he—at this point deep in conversation with his brother, on the phone, in French—has not turned the meter on. I don’t ride regularly enough to know whether this is standard protocol, but I appreciate the quiet. The VeriFone Media player is programmed to come to life when the meter is switched on.
The Taxi & Limousine Commision has been flooded with complaints about Taxi TV since their introduction, from drivers and passengers alike. The volume too loud, the screens unresponsive, the content asinine and repetitive. The devices loop a mix of news reporting, late-night talk show clips, weather reports, and advertising on a fifteen minute interval. Had the screen been turned on, I would have heard Jimmy Fallon tell the same joke five times. A special kind of hell. Incremental updates have mitigated some of these annoyances, but in a city where aural and visual stimulation is extreme, quiet in the backseat of a cab is an unexpected gift. In 2015, New York City regulators announced plans to phase out the required Taxi TVs, in favor of sleeker devices.
Given that the taxi industry in New York is reeling from the rise and limited regulation of ridesharing apps Lyft and Uber, it’s hard to imagine cab drivers—awash in debt from devalued medallions—investing in another device that passengers will roll their eyes at, while they swipe away at their phones. As we pull up to my accommodation, the driver switches the meter system on, and my peaceful ride is interrupted with a news scroll across the bottom of the display, and a televised report alerting me to a murder in one of the boroughs. He enters our agreed upon fare, I pay by card, and he ushers me and my bag onto the sidewalk.