Hybrid cabs and the cab of the future

Hybrid taxicabs are on the rise in NYC, but their growth is limited

May 10, 2012

At 1:30 in the afternoon in New York City’s East Village, First Avenue becomes a blacktopped river banked by the bright yellow bodies of taxicabs. The cabs line up bumper-to-bumper: wide-hipped Crown Victorias, snub-nosed Priuses and boxy Escapes. Their owners filter out onto the sidewalks and head north toward the Medina Masjid mosque on 11th Street for the 2:00 p.m. prayer call. By 3:00, the curbs are empty; the cabs have filtered back into the streams of cars flowing through the Manhattan grid.

On a chilly spring afternoon, cabbie Mazuman Subhani, a towering man with a downy black beard and a cream-colored Morrocan cap, pulls his traditional Crown Victoria out of traffic and into this scene. He parks between 10th and 11th Streets to prepare to pray. He likes his cab, but he has friends who save a lot of money on gas by driving hybrid cab models. “It costs $37 to $38 to drive this car 100 miles,” Subhani says, motioning to his Crown Vic on the First Avenue curb. “For a new hybrid model, it costs $10 to $12.”

Had Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s wishes been granted, every cab parked on First Avenue – or motoring anywhere in New York City – would be a hybrid. In 2007, Bloomberg mandated that his city’s entire taxicab fleet be hybrids by 2012. But any New Yorker can glance down an avenue and see that Bloomberg’s mandate fell through. While almost half of the 13,000-vehicle taxi fleet are currently hybrids, half aren’t. Moreover, within a few years there will be far fewer hybrid cabs than there are now.

Bloomberg’s failure to create an all-hybrid taxi fleet was triggered by opposition from lobbyists representing taxi drivers and fleet owners. These lobbyists successfully sued the city over the mandate because they did not want to be forced to buy cars they considered less sturdy and safe than the time-tested Ford Crown Victoria. While many cabbies and fleet owners have bought high-mileage cars anyway, next year the choice of taxicab models on the market will get a lot narrower. Most cab owners will be forced to buy the city’s newly chosen official taxicab – and it’s not a hybrid.

Back in 2007 when Bloomberg proposed his hybrid taxicab mandate, he was trying to reach a larger goal. His overarching environmental plan for the city, PlaNYC, calls for a more than 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2030. Since on-road vehicles are responsible for around 20 percent of the city’s carbon emissions, Bloomberg declared that all new taxicabs hitting the streets in 2008 get at least 25 miles per gallon and get 30 miles per gallon each year after that. As the lifespan of a New York City taxicab is only five years, his plan meant that the whole fleet would have been converted to high fuel efficiency vehicles by 2012, saving city air from carbon emissions equivalent to burning enough coal to fill one thousand train cars.

Bloomberg’s plan drew some critics, however. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade (MTBOT), a politically powerful collective of taxicab owners, argued that hybrid vehicles – the only vehicles that got 25 to 30 miles per gallon in 2007 – did not satisfy the safety and durability standards set by New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) for all cars that operate as taxicabs, says MTBOT lobbyist Michael Woloz.

“They were just hybrid passenger cars that some owners were painting yellow, outfitting with a partition and a roof light and calling taxicabs,” says Woloz. Only Ford Crown Victorias truly meet TLC standards because they’re built specifically for use as taxicabs. He says the city cannot require cabbies to drive any particular car if that car isn’t as durable on the streets as the Crown Victoria.

On that basis, the MTBOT and a few other taxicab organizations sued the city in 2008, calling Bloomberg’s mandate illegal. The judge on the case sided with the taxicab organizations and cancelled Bloomberg’s mandate in 2009, but not because hybrid cars don’t meet operational standards for taxicabs. Instead, the judge found Bloomberg lacked the authority to create emissions laws.

The Clean Air Act states that only the federal government can impose laws regarding fuel efficiency and mileage, says Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the TLC. “In other words,” Fromberg says, “the clean air laws don’t allow us to clean the air.”

Despite this legal setback, the number of hybrid taxicabs in New York City continued to steadily grow, says Fromberg. Of over 13,000 taxicabs on the road, nearly 6,000 of them are now hybrids. This means the percentage of hybrid taxicabs being driven has risen from less than 20 percent to more than 40 percent in the past five years.

“Regardless of the lack of a mandate,” Fromberg says, “people realize that it is a very wise decision to buy a hybrid and have been voluntarily purchasing them.” There are currently around 16 car models that have been authorized by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to serve as taxicabs, including hybrids such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Toyota Prius.

A taxicab with a day driver and a night driver cruises the streets of New York City for at least 20 hours a day. That’s a lot of road time, which is why cabs can easily rack up around 1,300 miles a week. By driving a hybrid Toyota Prius, a cabbie could burn 50 gallons less fuel each week than if he or she drove a standard taxicab like Ford’s Crown Victoria, saving $20 to $25 a day on gas.

Saving money by driving a hybrid might be a straightforward choice for drivers who own their own cabs, but many cabbies lease their cabs from fleet owners. Muzaman Subhani is one of these cabbies, and he drives whatever the fleet owner gives him – a Crown Victoria, in his case. According to Fromberg, fleet owners often buy Crown Victorias en masse, because the parts can easily be traded from car to car. If one car’s body is junked, for example, a fleet owner can take its functional brake pads and transfer them to a car with bad brakes.

Because of the gas money saved by hybrid drivers, though, it might seem reasonable to imagine that even fleet owners could be swayed to invest heavily in hybrid models over the next few years. Perhaps the percentage of hybrid cabs in New York City could keep growing until every cab lining First Avenue in the early afternoon or whipping through city streets is a hybrid. But this will almost certainly not be the case, because the NV200s are coming.

Beginning in October of 2013, an army of square-shouldered vans will replace the plethora of taxicab models that now reign on the roads. Over five years, the city will require all of its taxicab drivers without special wheelchair or hybrid taxi licenses (there are currently only around 300 hybrid licenses) to replace their old vehicles with a single model.

The model the city has chosen and dubbed the “Taxi of Tomorrow” is the Nissan NV200. While the Nissan should get around 25 miles per gallon (a major improvement when compared to the Crown Vic’s 14 miles per gallon), it’s no hybrid, which can get twice as many miles per gallon than the Nissan.

Though it seems like tomorrow’s taxi should be a more environmentally friendly car, hybrids weren’t even among the cars suggested as potential models for the new official cab, according to Johanna Dyer. Dyer is a lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council who specializes in New York’s environmental initiatives. She says the city could not consider a hybrid model as the Taxi of Tomorrow because of the same law that cancelled Bloomberg’s 2007 mandate – city governments can’t require anyone to buy a high fuel efficiency vehicle.

Nissan is planning to test six electric NV200s in the upcoming years, but Dyer says that as far as she’s aware the contract between NYC and Nissan doesn’t require Nissan to develop a significant number of durable electric cabs. “If Nissan and the city don’t work together to ensure a path to cleaner-running vehicles,” says Dyer, “then this Taxi of Tomorrow could be a missed opportunity for New York to set an example of sustainability for other cities.”

Like the Crown Vic, the traditionally fueled NV200 will be built specially for taxicab use and should meet the safety and durability standards that the MTBOT and other taxicab organizations require.

The MTBOT is not easily pleased, though. Lobbyist Woloz says the organization supports the idea of creating a “super taxi” but isn’t sure the idea has been realized in the NV200. He says the only way to know if a car will be a good taxi is to put it on the streets and see how it holds up. “Time will tell as to whether the end product meets the expectations that we all have,” says Woloz.

He says that not many cars can withstand the abuse a taxicab suffers – passengers kicking seats, slamming doors, and banging into partitions for over 20 hours a day. That’s why MTBOT is suspicious of cars, like the Toyota Prius, that are merely painted yellow and put on the street as a cab.

Subhani is less critical than the MTBOT of the cabs he and his friends drive. Last month he went to the Taxi and Limousine Commission headquarters in Manhattan to preview the NV200. “Inside is beautiful,” he says. There’s no rise in the floor at the center console in back, so if he has three passengers, the middle person doesn’t have her knees bumping into her chin. The floor is also rubber like the floor of a bus – very durable and easy to clean.

“Everybody’s excited,” says Subhani. For him, as for those supporting the Taxicab of the Future, it seems the utility of the cab trumps the fuel efficiency.

About the Author

Kelly Slivka

Kelly Slivka finished up her B.A. in English and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, after which she traded amber waves of grain for actual waves of water. The past three years, she’s been stalking endangered whales on the East Coast for various conservation and research institutions, a profession that has given her plenty of fodder for fascinating science writing, but no feasible outlet. Now, through NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program she’s moved on to stalking all things new and cool in science and sharing it with, well, everyone! You can learn more about Kelly on her website, www.kellyslivka.com, and follow her on Twitter @k_sliv.


1 Comment

Andre says:

This was a set back given to the city by that federal judge. These are vehicles licensed to operate by the city – so the city should be able to set guidelines for pollution.

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