Off Duty in NYC

In case you weren’t aware, every taxi cab in New York City has a light on top to indicate to potential passengers its status. If the light is on, the cab is available. If the light is off, they have a passenger and are not available. Simple and effective. This is a great system and it’s in use around the world.

But, I’ve left out one part of the puzzle. The stupid off duty light. I don’t know if this happens anywhere else, but in New York when a cab is off duty it turns on these smaller lights saying “off duty” on either side of the large middle light.

New York Cab Light

The problem with this, aside from the fact that this off duty light is totally unnecessary, is that they leave the middle light on too! So, when looking at cabs in the distance everyone thinks that the off duty cab is available. They get out their best cab hailing hand wave or whistle and start jockying for position only to see the much smaller off duty lights when the cab is about twenty feet away.

As a potential taxi cab customer, I only care about one thing. Is the cab available or not? I don’t care if the cab driver is driving home to Queens to have dinner with his family, or if he has four drunk yuppis crammed in the back. Either way, I’m not getting in that cab. Just turn the damn light off!

This might be the worst design decision that I’ve ever seen in use in the real world. Am I missing something here? How did this practice come about? Has anyone else noticed this?

Update: I conducted a little interview during a cab ride I took yesterday. The cabbie told me that the middle light is linked solely to the meter. Meter on, light off. Meter off, light on. The off duty light is independent. He also said, “all the tourists try to stop me when I’m off duty” and then proceeded to go on a 10 minute rant about how he’s been a cab driver for 26 years and how it’s an awful, thankless job that only immigrants get stuck doing. Dude was angry.

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