Lights Out for NYC Taxi "Off Duty" Lights

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The question of "is that taxi free or not?" could soon be easier to answer in New York. On Thursday, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission voted to do away with the off-duty lights. Here's a visual:

Whereas once there were two categories of lights, with four combinations:

(photo by magnus via filckr)

The city's Taxi and Limousine Commission voted to just have this -- the medallion number:

(photo "adjusted" by WNYC's Stephen Nessen)

David Yassky, the TLC commissioner, said off-duty taxi lights "are a relic of bygone days" and that the rules change will make the system easier to understand.

"The only purpose it serves today is to confuse the passenger," he said, adding that the TLC hears complaints "all time" about rooftop lights. "Taxi roof lights should be simple.  If it's on, it means you can flag the cab down. If it's off, it's unavailable."

(Only one commissioner voted against the proposal: Iris Weinshall, a former NYC transportation commissioner who was in the news last year for her dislike of the Prospect Park West bike lane.)

Yassky said people hailing cabs don't care about the particulars of the lighting system. "The passenger only cares if the cab is available or not."

He said he hopes the new system will do away with another perennial vexation -- the way some cabbies use the off-duty light to cherry-pick customers. "It's a source of frustration (for passengers)," he said. "Sometimes they see drivers with the off-duty sign on go from person to person asking 'where are you going' and we don't want that to happen."

That's currently possible because the switch controlling the lights is manual. But when the off-duty lights fade away, so will the driver's control over the roof light.

According to the minutes of the May 2012 public hearing on the rules change, the single light roof light would eliminate the manual switch that controls the off-duty light. Instead, it would be controlled automatically and synched with the meter. So when the meter is engaged, the medallion number light will automatically turn off, and when the trip is over, the light will turn back on.

The new rule technically takes effect 30 days after being posted in the city record. But there could still be off duty lights on top of cabs until April, which is the end of the first quarter inspection period.