A Cab Ride with Rachel Abrams

Rachel Abrams is a design strategist. With a background in interaction design and political research, she identifies people-friendly, technology-mediated experiences for commercial spaces and public places. Her interest in New York City’s yellow cabs began in 2005, as a participant in the Design Trust for Public Space’s Designing the Taxi initiative. From there, as one of the Design Trust’s six Taxi07 Fellows, she contributed to its report to the NY Taxi and Limousine Commission, Taxi07: Roads Forward. Following the fellowship, Rachel’s independent research has continued to focus on opportunities for policy and tech-led enterprise to intersect and inform each other, exploring how regulators and design innovators can collaborate to improve everyday experiences of public space.

But what is design strategy anyway? We know what IDEO’s Tim Brown thinks. According to Omni-blogger Alex Kauffmann, Brown’s definition stems from his belief that while traditional analytical thinking “narrows and reduces ideas, design thinking broadens and multiplies them.” Rachel agrees: whether by invention or improvement, design for her is a way of interpreting and intervening in our common experiences of places, objects, each other and ourselves.

Five Steps

So, everyone knows what’s involved in taking a taxi. But sometimes breaking down even the most obvious of processes into their constituent elements can provide insights into how design thinking can reimagine, and improve, everyday experiences. She took us on a cab ride in mid-summer 2009. Through her design thinker’s lens, Rachel’s understanding of the basic elements of daily transactions can offer insight, suggesting the touch-points where technology can usefully, appropriately, seamlessly intervene.

Actors Involved

As we analyze the steps that we take for granted, the network of actors involved, previously unapparent in a system as complex as this, is revealed.

One of the actors most directly involved in and affected by the conditions of the taxi system is, of course, the driver. For this cab ride, we found ourselves in the capable hand of Anzou, an Ivorian man in his late twenties, who drives a Ford Escape hybrid. Like most cabs, it’s on the road pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Anzou drives an 8-12 hour shift six days a week and shares ownership of his cab with a colleague who drives it six nights a week. But they don’t own the medallion – the value of which Anzou estimates to be near to half a million dollars these days. It belongs to a small-scale license holder who does not drive a cab. The medallion is what signifies this vehicle is a legitimate yellow cab for hire. The associated hack license indicates its driver is licensed to pick up passengers.

The Passenger Information Monitor

The day before this cab ride, Anzou had a good day of fares: he picked up 23 passengers in 12 hours, trips that ranged from three minutes to 45. These trips provide not only opportunities for capturing hard data, but also chances to learn how the taxi experience itself might be transformed, for drivers and riders alike. Take, for example, the passenger information screen or Taxi TV. How might we reimagine what this screen presents? What other services are viable on-screen that would appeal to passengers and drivers? For programming content, that’s where some design thinking comes in handy.

Soft Knowledge

As the City draws inspiration from the Design Trust’s work, and elsewhere, to improve the taxi system’s efficiency, economic value, ease of use and sustainability – to harness the excess capacity both within and among cabs and their users – it could certainly make more of other untapped value in the system, such as what New Yorkers and drivers already know about the city.

The potential of this kind of thinking – capturing simple observations about what’s been previously overlooked, and applying these in both efforts, to keep regulation relevant and to finesse tech-enabled invention – is by no means limited to the taxi cab. Rachel’s current interests go beyond any one New York City government agency or one policy issue. “More broadly,” she says, “bureaucrats face an exciting, if daunting challenge: they serve citizens who, these days, also happen to be tech-savvy consumers with high expectations of commercial services in other everyday life transactions. The bar’s been raised. It’s no longer enough to throw digital capabilities at an institutional mandate to deliver tech-mediated public services. Who’s missing? Designers with empathic skills. Our process for revealing what citizens want and need can help policy makers meet their goals and broker not only what’s technically feasible but also appropriate and desirable.”

Just as we may not usually think of cabs as a central part of the public realm, much less a field of action for designers, many urban systems could benefit enormously from the kind of design thinking that questions the assumptions hiding in plain sight and then finds synergies with social imperatives and policy agendas. Many systems – whether a public good or a private amenity – also require greater efficiency, economic value, ease of use and both financial and environmental sustainability. We’re certainly at a point where public information for and about everything from mass transit to healthcare is opening up and going online. According to Rachel, “as authorities open up access to public data to applications developers and service designers, our transactions as public, participatory actors will be transformed. “At this open moment, a design approach can only enrich the outcomes of this emerging dialogue between government authorities and technology’s innovators. Why? Because although this exchange is already underway, it invites (demands?) public engagement, not least as it promises to shape, among other significant things, the public spaces of the city.”

Photographs by Jacki Munro