There are many pleasures that come with living in New York, but one of them is not standing just off the edge of a curb, flailing your arm in vain as taxis pass you by (particularly a problem in, say, Midtown, or at 5:00). You know that at least one of them would probably get you reasonably close to your destination. But for some reason, it’s taboo in New York City to share cabs.
Why? Who knows. Many other cities have share taxi systems, and New Yorkers aren’t shy about cramming into tight quarters literally everywhere else in the city. Who among us hasn’t been sweated on by a stranger in the subway? Or shared too-small living quarters with someone whose bodily habits you’re now over-acquainted with? What’s more, taxi cabs are a major contributor to traffic congestion and air pollution—some 14,000 meander daily through the five boroughs.
It makes all kinds of sense to share cabs, but for one problem: it would be a logistical nightmare to implement an efficient system for pairing riders. Perhaps the person who just stepped in front of you to steal your cab is going in the same direction as you, but your ideal cab-share partner is more likely down the street, or on your route.
It’s a Gordian knot of a problem, but Michael Szell, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, has attempted to meet it head-on. As Newsweek reports, Szell and his colleagues have unveiled an interactive visualization tool called HubCab, which captures for the first time “the inner workings of the city from the previously invisible perspective of the taxi system.” The lab divided New York City’s road network into 200,000 discrete segments, and processed data from all 172 million taxi rides taken in 2011. Using GPS data, they then mapped pick-ups and drop-offs onto an interactive map.
The goal of HubCab, according to its chief, Paolo Santi, is “to engage people and make them aware of the huge potential for ride sharing in New York. Residents can use it to get an idea of how many other individuals have a similar mobility pattern, which indicates the sharing potential.” A paper Santi authored last year showed that if passengers were willing to bear an extra three-to-five minutes per trip for the sake of sharing rides, the number of taxis on the streets could be reduced by 40 percent, with similar reductions in fares, traffic, and emissions.
The next step is to implement the findings. “Practical, everyday use,” according to Santi, “would be linked to a graphical user interface of a taxi-sharing service to show sharing opportunities in real time.” Someday soon, we may have an “e-hailing” app to facilitate the sharing process.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.