Why to Love (and Hate) London's New Cabs

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The iconic London black cab sits in the bottom right corner, beneath a number of other London icons. (Flickr/Duncan~ )

To the dizzying number of improvements and alterations London will receive before the Olympic Games, we can add two more. Many of the city's iconic cabs -- black, squat, properly called hackney carriages -- will be outfitted with wi-fi and charging stations.

The news comes in this Cisco advertorial, and it's mostly to be welcomed. In the city -- in any city -- the cab is a key space for both tourists and citizens. Through a cab's windows, they see the city's sidewalks blur by. On a cab's seats, they feel the city's grime. With a cab's fare, they buy a brief respite of privacy from the city, in a reusable space that both is and isn't theirs. And cabs, accordingly, become a city's most famous set piece: They're yellow in Manhattan, black in London, long and aquatic in Venice.

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An iconic cab back in 1968 in Picadilly Circus (Flickr / roger4336 )

The cabs, the streets, the signs: these spaces are so ubiquitous that, more than any landmark, they define a city and refine certain values. And governments, perhaps finally realizing this, are working to refurbish them. New York City, for one, unveiled its efficient, anti-stench, charging-station-equipped, there's-not-even-a-bump-in-the-middle-seat Cab of the Future this April. In the same vein, the United States has been replacing the font on its interstate road signs for five years with a new version, designed to make the letters specifically more readable at night and generally more open and affable. 

But last April, too, a New York magazine critic immediately cried that he smelled a "strong whiff of suburbia" in the city's new taxis. He had a point; brashness and blight are their own values. And the Cisco story depicts the "London taxi audience" as "upwardly mobile, well connected people," who are "tech-savvy." These changes, in two financial centers, focus on keeping those in business eternally connected to each other and entirely apart from the normal people who live in the city.

So perhaps, more than anything else, these London cabs and their brethren across the pond represent the modern aesthetic of the corporation -- sleek, connected, all blue glass and aluminum -- colonizing the city's streets and separating them out. It's all about turning what used to be unthought-of, unconsidered public and private space into spaces of production, efficiency, and cleanliness.

Which isn't all bad. I'll always appreciate wi-fi in my taxi. Clean cabs are cool. But I also never want the cabs to lose what makes any city my city, never want to impose the blandly international on the flavorful local. 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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