In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, New York City had a population of about 6.9 million, took in roughly 1 million out-of-town commuters every day, and had 21,000 licensed medallion cabs (the traditional metered "yellow cabs" that pick up fares without prior reservations) to service them all.
Seventy-four years later, the city's population has hit 8.2 million, it now sees 6.7 million commuters making the daily jaunt into the city from Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut and surrounding environs, and the number of available taxi medallions is....just a shade over 12,000.
The credit for this counter-intuitive development goes to a Depression-era relic called the Haas Act. Passed in 1937 in an attempt to stabilize cabbie salaries, Haas capped the number of medallions issued by the city at 13,595.
Attrition brought that figure even lower over the next few years, before rising again to 11,787 in the late Forties. And other than the addition of just 400 new medallions in the early 90s, the number of licensed cabs has remained roughly constant since World War II, even as both the city itself and the demand for taxi services has exploded. Only the growth of livery services -- appointment-only car services and so-called "radio cabs," also known as "black cars," that typically contract with major hotels and employers -- has staved off a paralyzing crisis.
Of course, the city now finds itself in a paralyzing crisis, nonetheless, thanks to that other early 20th Century relic -- the transit workers union. And proving Mencken's dictum that, for every complex problem, there is an an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong, Mayor Bloomberg's initial response to the MTA strike crisis is a double-barreled shot of wrong-headedness. First, he imposes onerous new HOV restrictions on the city's commuters, saddling New York's Finest with the crucial public safety task of counting heads. Then, he warn taxi operators who dare think the proper response to a massive and sudden increase in demand would be to raise prices that he will not tolerate "fare gouging" and that he has "sent inspectors out to investigate and I encourage anyone who has encountered this to call 311 and report it."
Alas, Bloomberg won't acknowledge the 8,000 pound dinosaur in the room: the Haasasaurus rex. Price-gouging is, after all, a much easier thing to pull off when you are operating within a government-imposed monopoly system specifically designed to enable such a thing. Were the Act to be struck down -- or, should so radically rational a move be just unthinkable, then at (truly) the very least, temporarily suspended -- then the most deleterious effects of the transit strike would, likewise, quickly dissipate. A million gypsy cabs could bloom, enough to serve every ride-less Gothamite. The bridge-and-tunnel crowd, long-mocked for their bad perms and their taste in cheesy techno, could be hailed (literally) as saviors.
But hey, why wait in vain for Bloomberg or any of his fellow dunderheads on the City Council to come to anything approximating a sensible conclusion? If the union's members can openly flaunt their lawbreaking, then perhaps it's time to demonstrate that civil disobedience runs both ways, muthaf*&ka.
The power is in your hands, New Yorkers. The next time you hitch a ride, offer the driver a little something extra for his trouble. Gas, grass, or ass, as the saying goes. Commuters of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your change!