The end of New York’s confusing rooftop taxi-light system is near

Rooftop taxi light. (Flickr via Phillie Casablanca)
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The often-mystifying rooftop light system by which yellow taxis indicate whether they are on duty should be extinct by the end of the year.

Today, the Taxi and Limousine Commission gave a presentation on the new system during a public hearing at its 19th-floor Beaver Street offices and said, pending a June 21 public hearing and vote on the matter, the new lighting system would be phased in by the end of 2012.

Right now, taxis have two rooftop lights: the medallion number light and the "off-duty" light, which are used in four different combinations of varying comprehensibility.

When the medallion light is on, and the off-duty light is off, the taxi is on duty and available.

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When both lights are off, the taxi is on duty but occupied.

When both lights are on, the taxi is off-duty and on its way home or to the fleet garage, but possibly available to a passenger whose destination is along the way.

If the medallion light is off, but off-duty light is on, the taxi is off-duty and unavailable.

According to Dawn Miller, the director of research and evaluation at the Taxi and Limousine Commission, that system is hard to understand and also allows drivers to use the manually operated off-duty light to avoid passengers who want to travel to far-flung destinations.

The new lighting system would be much simplified. The manually operated off-duty portion of the light would be removed, with only the medallion number capable of lighting up and only two settings: on and off, indicating available or unavailable.

"After some public discussion about this, I got an email from a high school friend who said, 'Please don't do this, it's one of the few advantages you have as a native New Yorker, is you can decipher the off-duty sytem, and that gives me an edge over the newcomers," said David Yassky, the taxi commissioner. "Which, I again understood where he was coming from, but I didn't feel like that was a strong reason for retaining it."