Hail a 'Green' Cab!
By Bill Moore
New York City is renown for many things and among them is its "sea" of gas-guzzling cabs, typically Ford Crown Victorias. Thousands of 'Crown Vics' and other passenger-friendly, but environmentally-brutish sedans run the length and breadth of the city and its surrounding burroughs 24-hours a day, virtually non-stop, making it nearly impossible for New York to meet its EPA air quality standards.
Then along comes CAST -- the Coalition Advocating Smart Transportation -- to lend a hand in helping the city and its beleaguered cabbies reduce their emissions and cut their fuel consumption by switching to gasoline-electric hybrids.
Todd Sigaty, the director of CAST, explained to EV World how a previous effort to introduce more environmentally-benign taxis -- in this case ones running on compressed natural gas -- was stopped cold, in part because of a lack of refueling infrastructure.
"We stepped into the process to form a coalition, work with the city, work with council members, the taxi commission, and a number of environmental, health, and even business groups, and the taxi cab owners, themselves, to make New York the first city in the United States, if not the world to have a formal law to allow for more 'green' cabs being on the road".
The new law, passed earlier this summer, will effect the 13,000 cabs that ply the streets of New York, permitting owners, be they individuals or fleet operators, to utilize gasoline-electric hybrids, including the Honda Accord Hybrid, Toyota Prius and Highlander Hybrid, and the Ford Escape Hybrid, as well as the Lexus 400h, though its high cost may limit its appeal to operators. Sigaty explained that about half of the 13,000 cabs are owned by single owner/operators, typically working in tandem with a friend or relative, to keep the vehicle on the road 24 hours a day, in two, twelve-hour shifts. Those taxis will put on more than 100,000 miles a year.
The remaining cabs belong to small to large fleet owners. Every cab needs to have the coveted, "good-as-gold" medallion, which can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sigaty said that often the medallion owner doesn't even own the cab, but licenses it out for someone else to operate under.
"It's an enormous business," he stated. New medallions are auctioned off for upwards to $300-350,000 dollars each. Older medallions have been known to pass down through generations of family members.
Overseeing this is the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, which rules the business like a small fifedom, dictating what vehicles can be used for taxi service and how they are to be equipped
"It is pretty much an authoritarian group that has kept a tight, close reign on the taxi [business] in New York City".
Sigaty observed that, normally, the City Council only works on budget matters during the summer, but this year, they were willing to take up the 'green' taxi initiative, in part because a recent poll, commissioned by CAST, showed overwhelming support for the idea. New Yorkers, it showed, were willing to sacrifice a few inches of leg room, if need be, in order to get the Commission to permit the use of hybrids. Even more suprising, CAST's goal of having the law changed to impact just nine per cent of the cabs was expanded to include all 13,000.
The Council was willing to move so quickly and unexpectedly for a number of reasons, in Sigaty's view, starting with the health issue. He said that New York has more asthmatics than another other city in the nation.
"It's a health issue. It's an economic issue, as well". He pointed to a recent study that showed that cabbies in New York will save more than $4,000 annually on fuel costs. He also observed that San Francisco was the first city in the United States to officially put 15 Ford Escape Hybrids on its streets as taxis.
That fact helped encourage the city fathers in New York to move forward, compelled by the notion of not wanting to be considered the second city, behind San Francisco, to introduce gasoline-electric hybrids.
Coming back to the poll, he said that a number of questions where asked, including how familiar New Yorkers were with hybrid vehicles, as well as what they though of them as possible taxis.
"It was an overwhelming response. Up to eighty percent said they favored the use of hybrid vehicles as taxis.
"The Taxi Commission came back and said that nobody in New York City would ever sacrifice comfort for a car that brought better benefits for the health and the environment. We wouldn't give up this expensive legroom in this large vehicle for any benefit. And the poll came back and it was 77 percent of New Yorkers said that they would be more than willing to give up a few inches of leg room to be known as the city with hybrid vehicle taxis and to have those benefits for their city".
Sigaty told me that he spent a lot of time riding around in taxis trying to get a sense of cabbie interest and concerns. He discovered that when they understood that hybrids didn't need to be plugged-in, use normal gasoline, and could go almost two complete shifts without having to lose time -- and fares -- refueling, they quickly got onboard the idea.
"They could pack in five, six, seven, eight more rides, which is another hundred dollars to them", he said. The Coalition calculated that the hybrid program could put back a good $500 a month into a average taxi driver's pocket, which he thinks is a conservative estimate.
Based on the overwhelmingly positive response in New York from the various constituencies, the Commission decided to forego any demonstration program involving one type of hybrid in limited numbers and open the door to virtually all 13,000 cabs.
In addition to having to educate both the Taxi Commission and cabbies on hybrid vehicle basics -- they use normal fuel and don't need to be plugged in -- CAST also plans to work with mechanics for whom this technology is brand new; most are used to working on relatively simple Ford Crown Victorias, not with high voltage hybrids.
"We have to work with them to build the trust and expertise so these vehicle will handle the pounding a taxi cab in New York takes, which is 24/7..." Sigaty observed that there are independent taxi drivers in both Seattle and Vancouver, Canada who have up to 200,000 miles on their Toyota Priuses and claim "huge reductions in cost and maintenance".
He further explained that New York City already has hundreds of Priuses in operation in its fleet, and that San Francisco's Ford Escape Hybrid taxis are performing up to expectations.
"So, it wasn't a big shift to say that if you can use them as a city fleet, you can use them on your roads for citizens. It's important in New York because being on the road 24/7 with 13,000 of them... you know 60% of the people in Manhattan don't even drive their own vehicle... So, the impact on the health of the environment and the symbol was distinct in New York. This will make a huge impact".
So how will passengers respond after decades of riding around in the roomy back seat of a Crown Vic? Sigaty said that the program has a temporary exemption from having to install the nearly five inch thick plastic partition that separates the driver from the passenger. Single cab owners already have a similar exemption for conventional, non-hybrid taxies".
"By removing the partition, which makes it a more intimate experience, anyway, we are allowing that five inches of legroom to be increased in the hybrids, which make it very, very close, in fact, equal to the Crown and almost the same as a stretch Crown Vic".
The Perfect New York Taxi?
Sigaty thinks that for New York City the "ideal" taxi would be the Toyota Highlander Hybrid with the third row seat removed and the second row seat slid back a few inches. A hybrid version of the Sienna minivan -- supposedly due out next year, Sigaty said -- would also work well. There are a number of conventional Siennas already in operation in New York City.
"I think what you're doing is reducing emissions 90 percent, you're increasing the miles per gallon, even for those larger types of hybrid, and you are setting a symbol to the rest of the country... And the key is, you're sending a message to the manufacturers.
"This is transforming the manufacturing industry for vehicles, and I think that message has to be continually sent that cities and the public want this and will pay for it".
'Green' Cabs Expected This Fall
No cabbie in New York has yet bought a hybrid for his business, Sigaty noted. There are two reasons for this. There will be an auction this Fall for new medallions, which will include hybrids as an option. Also, current cab owners will only replace their vehicles after 3 to 5 years of operation, so they will be gradually phased in over time.
"It is our vision that in that three-to-five year time, they will all change out to hybrid vehicles," he stated.
"We will be looking this Fall as the first [hybrid vehicle] tires hit the road, and we'll see those vehicles on the street".
New York won't the only city making the transition. CAST is studying more than a half-dozen other large US cities including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which he hopes will adopt similar regulations by the end of this year. He also hopes to include a "Red State" metropolitan area like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston or Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina.
He pointed out that provisions in the new Energy Policy Act 2005 regarding hybrid and alterative fuel vehicles stem from the Clear Act championed by two conservative Republicans, so this is a cross-party issue.
Finally, Sigaty predicted that in 15 years time, the automotive landscape will have changed dramatically, saying we won't see vehicles like we have today. He thinks they will all be some type of alternative fuel, fuel cell or hybrid vehicle.
"What we're trying to do is fill that gap of time, and I think the hybrid, at least for New York City taxis, even private individuals, makes sense as that transition occurs".