Nine Taxi Experiences in Nine Different Cities

New York

Jim Jarmusch once made a movie called Night on Earth, which told five different stories that took place in five different taxicabs in five different cities across the world. This list isn't really a tribute to Night on Earth as it is my thesis that two things distinguish a nation's character: paying the bill at a restaurant, and taking a cab. In each of these respects, no two countries are alike.

  1. New York. What city is more synonymous with the taxi? I've been to the Big Apple just three times as of early 2002, and have taken a cab twice. The first time, my driver was your average Irish-American New Yawker. Young and alone and afraid that if I looked like a rube he might take the long way to my destination, I faked a Brooklyn accent as I spoke. He didn't mention how phony it probably sounded. (I was young.)
  2. London. London's venerable black cabs are almost like limousines, with their bulky, '50s-era frames a throwback to a simpler time. Here too I tried to fake a British accent to keep my driver honest, and here too I probably made an ass of myself. I later learned that Corin Nemec, the American actor who played an Englishman in my film Foreign Correspondents, pulled the same trick when he was in London.
  3. Hong Kong. These are my favorite taxis: little red compact cars that dart around the city, state-controlled so the drivers are reliable and the fares are cheap. I took a Hong Kong cab about 30 miles and only paid about $15! Many HK cab drivers personalize their vehicles with little toys, photos of local pop stars, blinking lights, and so on.
  4. Tokyo. If you want to ride in the most expensive taxis on earth, go to Tokyo. To some extent, you get what you pay for: these drivers know every nook and cranny of this city - no mean feat - and they even wear dainty white gloves and press a little button on the dashboard which opens your door for you.
  5. Tromsø. Tromsø is a college town at the very top of Norway, and students must make up about half of the population. So late on a Saturday night, after everybody's been drinking for hours, its few cabs are in high demand. You have to wait in line for nearly an hour if you are seeking a ride after midnight (and they'll only pick you up from the town's center square). Carpooling is popular.
  6. San Francisco. There's nothing remarkable about San Francisco's taxis except that for a large, dense city, where many residents either don't own cars or don't use them around town, cabs are scarce. Often you have to phone a taxi service instead of hailing one on the street.
  7. Florence. One of Italy's greatest cities - and most popular tourist destinations - Florence also doesn't offer much in the way of cab service, as the center of town is so walkable. But I was there with a trio of Germans, one of whom refused to dirty up her nice shoes whenever we went out for the evening to find a "jazz bar" - something that doesn't actually exist in Florence - so we had all kinds of taxi misadventures. Don't get me started.
  8. Wellington. Okay, this was a privately-hired town car that ferried me around New Zealand's capital, as cabs here are somewhat scarce as well (the city is rather small). But it was cheap: US$3.50 could take three guys across town, at least in 2002.
  9. Los Angeles. The city I call home has some of the worst cab drivers you will find in America. Most don't speak English, they're gruff and uncommunicative, drive terribly, and worst of all, have no freaking clue about the streets they drive. Also, the cabs are expensive, and it's illegal to hail one on the street! LA is the pits.