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Dolman: Taxis are New York City's daily dose of agita — and magnificence

A woman tries to hail a taxi on

A woman tries to hail a taxi on First Avenue in Manhattan on Oct. 31, 2012. Credit: Getty Images

New York City "makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin -- the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled," wrote the incomparable E.B. White in 1948. On good days, I think he's still right. On others, I think his notion is a cruel joke.

Consider the taxi wars.

Here's the problem. You can't get a taxi legally in the outer boroughs unless you make an appointment. God help you if it's raining or rush hour. The story, with a twist or two, is the same for Manhattanites who want to hail metered cabs. Moreover, Manhattan's metered fleets are still dominated by old Ford Crown Vics with cramped back seats that only a chiropractor could love.

The city Taxi and Limousine Commission wants to stop the madness.

It successfully fought the livery-cab industry for the right to authorize 18,000 "street-hail" cabs in the outer boroughs and in Manhattan above midtown. It beat back metered-cab owners for the right to auction off 2,000 new medallions for cabs with wheelchair access. And it commissioned the Nissan NV200 as the "taxi of tomorrow" -- with ample legroom, reading lamps, charging ports for electronic gear and a rollout date in late October.

So naturally, outrage is spreading through the city like wildfire.

Democratic mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner vows to change the outer-borough taxi plan "the moment I get into office." At a forum on aging Thursday, he said drivers will no longer be interested "in coming to your house and bringing you shopping." The changeover will be "chaotic," he advises darkly.

For their part, outer-borough livery drivers facing transition into the "street-hail" program are saying they prefer the current practice of accepting illegal street hails and then haggling over a (frequently humongous) fare with passengers.

And the taxi of tomorrow? Interest groups everywhere are in a dither. Litigious fleet owners are upset because Nissan won't offer a hybrid model until 2015. Others are incensed because the NV200 can't easily accommodate wheelchairs -- even though the city's fleet expansion will soon put 2,000 new wheelchair-accessible cabs on the streets. And then Weiner has a question: What happens when the taxi of tomorrow comes out "and they have a recall on the brake liners or something? Every single cab in the entire city is going to be off line."

Right, Anthony -- great reason to stick with today's dysfunction.

Bottom line? Only rarely does our sense of belonging to something unique and cosmopolitan overcome everyday urban annoyances. Other times? As often as not, the five boroughs resemble the world's biggest street brawl, where 8.4 million people with their own special interests fight it out for primacy -- on the sidewalks, in the taxis and on the streets. It can get ugly. But it does give the city a kind of magnetic energy. And yes, Mr. White, it's still a place where the good guys sometimes win.