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Taxi Choice Not the People's Choice
by Eric Samulski
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the Taxi of Tomorrow project in 2007, New Yorkers rejoiced at its the potential to create a custom-built fleet of taxis designed specifically for their city and their needs. In 2010 when the finalists were unveiled, the realization of a mode of transportation designed to accommodate all New Yorkers seemed even closer. But now, four months into 2011, the vehicle overwhelmingly supported by New York residents has been rejected, leaving the city with a feeling that the project may not have focused on their needs at all.
Yesterday, Bloomberg announced the city had selected the Nissan NV200 as the winner, choosing a car that some have described as "bulky and ugly." Apparently, according to the New York Times, an analysis commissioned by the city decided that Karsan's model proved to be the riskiest of the three finalists, because the Turkish company is "a new manufacturer, with a new manufacturing paradigm, not familiar with the U.S. regulatory framework, with no current sales, service or support infrastructure."
Therefore, eliminating the car from the competition was not based on the merits of the design or its concurrence with the project guidelines, but because of its lack of pedigree.
According to Jan Nuham, the executive director of Karsan, the company had never been informed of the analysis or of the city's specific. In fact, the city's analysis failed to mention that Karsan that has been manufacturing cars in Turkey for over 40 years and has built cars for Hyundai, Peugeot and Renault, all respected foreign models. In the past few years, a number of automakers -- Hyundai, for one -- that had been unknown names in the U.S. have become a reliable commodity -- something that the report seems to ignore.
(My father works for Karsan but the views here are entirely my own.)
What it comes down to is that the decision from City Hall shows a decidedly business emphasis and complete lack of regard for public opinion. From the outset of the project, information on the taxi competition was hard for the average New York resident to come by. In fact, when the finalists were announced in November, many people did not even know that there was a competition.
When the public was finally asked for its input, one model seemed to stand out among the rest. In a poll on the Taxi of Tomorrow website , about two-third of those responding preferred the Karsan taxi. The Daily News ran its own survey that showed dominant support for the Karsan model and in yet another poll, this one commissioned by the Taxi and Limousine Company, 66 percent of New Yorkers either liked or loved the Karsan model, supporting the 61 inches of leg room (the most of any finalist), four seat designed and clear sky roof for optimal viewing of the cities famous skyscrapers.
"The people of New York City have spoken, and they've found the taxi designs from both Ford and Nissan lacking," Zach Bowman of Autoblog wrote in February. "Around 66 percent of respondents either liked or loved the design of the Karsan V1, and that was enough to seal the vehicle's fate as the people's choice for the Taxi of Tomorrow."
Furthermore, as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz laid out in a press conference Sunday boosting Karsan's bid, the Karsan model brought the promise of new jobs for the city. If it was awarded the contract, Karsan had pledged to manufacture its vehicles at the Brooklyn South Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, creating up to 800 new jobs for residents. Contrarily, the Nissan model will reportedly be built in Mexico, while the Ford model would be built miles from the Karsan plant in Turkey.
Markowitz as well as representatives of labor unions and additional city officials from throughout Brooklyn, lauded Karsan's proposal to manufacture in Brooklyn as being an important step toward creating well-paying, middle-class jobs for New York residents. As recently as November, Brooklyn had the second highest unemployment rate in the state of New York, just behind the Bronx, at 10.8 percent . The plant would begin to alleviate some of that pressure and start the process of rebuilding Brooklyn’s economy.
Also appearing at the press conference on Sunday were members of the disabled community, which has steadfastly supported the Karsan model. Currently, fewer than 300 of the city’s 13,000 taxis can accommodate a passenger using a wheelchair. The Taxi of Tomorrow Project was supposed to require 100 percent accessibility, but when the finalists were unveiled in November, only the Karsan model fully complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It featured retractable ramps on either side of the vehicle, making curbside loading and unloading possible for all passengers in wheelchairs without the assistance of a cab driver. Once inside the vehicle, there were lock-ins to keep wheelchairs in place and 47 inches of headroom to comfortably fit even the largest model wheelchairs. The Karsan vehicle would have made it possible for a passenger in a wheelchair to hail any of the 13,000 cabs in the city and enjoy the benefits of public transportation, just like every other New York City resident.
Yet, somehow, despite vast public support, the promise of jobs for New Yorkers and the commitment to make Taxis accessible to every New Yorker, whether they use a walker, wheelchair or push a stroller, City Hall turned a deaf ear. In its announcement the administration did not address either jobs or handicap access, though it did say the Nissan "received high scores" in the categories selected as high priorities by 26,000 people surveyed.
It did not take long for some other city leaders to express their displeasure. Brooklynites Markowitz and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio have written to City Comptroller John Liu asking that he look into a possible conflict of interest that may have tipped the competition against Karsan. They charge that the consultant the city hired to analyze the Taxi of Tomorrow finalists had prior relationships with both Nissan and Ford.
For now, though, Nissan has the city's endorsement. In rejecting Karsan, the Bloomberg administration squandered an opportunity for New York to be a beacon of individuality and accessibility, as well as the chance to create momentum for an economy that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. But New York's loss may be some other city's gain. In a statement issued shortly after Bloomberg announced New York's decision, Karsan's Executive Director Jan Nahum said, "We fervently believe that there is a strong market and an acute need for a true Taxi of Tomorrow, and we look forward to working with other forward-looking cities around the globe to make the Karsan vision a reality." So you may see that slightly futuristic car with the curved glass top soon -- just not in New York City.
Eric Samulski is a writer/filmmaker and life-long New York City resident. He is the son of Karsan USA's project manager, but the statements expressed above are his own.
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