Combusted: The death of hybrid taxis in New York

In 2007, Bloomberg announces hybrid taxi fleet. (Edward Reed via NYC.gov)
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“We’re gonna have all of our cabs be hybrid.”

So said Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Matt Lauer on the “Today” show in 2007, as they stood in front of a hybrid yellow cab donated by Yahoo! and emblazoned with its logo.

The mayor gestured toward a thin man in glasses to his left: “And most importantly, this is City Councilman David Yassky, who has been leading the environmental fight here in the city.”

Today, Yassky is Bloomberg’s taxi commissioner. And 2012, the year by which the taxi’s fleet was to go hybrid, has come and nearly gone.

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In the meantime, not only has the city’s powerful taxi lobby defeated the mayor’s hybrid-cab plan in federal court, but the city is now taking steps that will actually reduce the number of hybrids on city streets.

“We were really hoping New York could be a leader,” said Johanna Dyer, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s kind of a shame that it seems like we’re falling back a little bit."

Paul Gillespie, former president of the taxi commission in San Francisco, where most of the cabs are now green, said, “It’s just so disappointing to me now, because Commissioner Yassky and Mayor Bloomberg were early champions of hybrid vehicles.”

Bloomberg, who’s made public health a principal cause in both public and private life, was a big hybrid booster.

Regular cabs, he told Lauer on “Today,” “just sit there in traffic sometimes belching fumes.”

Hybrids, on the other hand, work most efficiently at the same low speeds at which cabs tend to operate on congested city streets, drawing on their battery power, rather than on gas.

“In an urban environment like Manhattan, when taxis are often sitting in traffic, that’s when hybrid engines are actually putting out the least amount of pollution,” said Michael Seilback, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

As Bloomberg put it to Lauer, thanks to the city’s hybrid cab initiative, “Our kids will breathe a lot better air.”

IN 2005, THEN-COUNCILMEN YASSKY AND JOHN Liu introduced legislation that would require the Taxi and Limousine Commission to allow taxi owners to purchase hybrids.

Thanks in good part to City Council pressure, that same year, the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved six hybrid models for use as taxis.

“I'm determined that in five years, every cab on the streets of New York will be a hybrid," Yassky told the Daily News.

At the time, most cabs were Ford Crown Victorias, which get between 12 and 14 miles per gallon in city driving, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

On Earth Day in 2007, about a month before his "Today" appearance, the mayor delivered a large-gauge policy speech at the American Museum of Natural History, enumerating 127 initiatives to make the city more sustainable by 2030, by which point, the city estimates, New York's population will have grown by a million. He called his program, of which lower-emission taxis were an element, PlaNYC.

"PlaNYC initially called for converting the fleet within 10 years," noted the Times, that May. "But Mr. Bloomberg said City Councilman David Yassky, a longtime advocate of a greener taxi fleet, had persuaded him to cut that time in half."

The administration’s plan did not require taxi owners to switch to hybrids, explicitly. Rather, it mandated that when owners retired their cars after the requisite three-to-five years, they replace it with a vehicle that gets at least 25 miles per gallon starting in 2008, and 30 miles per gallon in 2009. Those sorts of efficiencies simply wouldn't be achievable with the old cabs.

Administration officials, according to that same article, “said the mayor’s plan was believed to be the most extensive of any major city.”

By October 2007, there were more than 500 hybrid cabs on the road. Thomas L. Friedman wrote a laudatory column about the effort in which the mayor is quoted as saying, “When it comes to health and safety and environmental issues, government should be setting standards.”

In 2008, Bloomberg announced that black limousines would also have to meet new fuel efficiency standards.

But then, in what would ultimately prove the initiative’s death knell, a powerful taxi lobby called the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade filed suit in federal court.

Its argument was two-fold: first, that only the federal government can impose fuel efficiency standards, and second, that hybrids weren’t safe.

By that time, 1,400 of the city’s 13,237 cabs had been converted to hybrids.

The accelerated conversion plan, according to Board of Trade spokesman Michael Woloz, would have forced medallion owners to buy “too-small passenger hybrids that were never intended to be used as 24/7 taxicabs and in fact automakers like Toyota had expressly warned against using their hybrids as taxicabs including the Prius, the Camry and the Highlander.”

(A spokesman for Toyota was quoted by the Times saying, “Our engineers are nervous about it because they were not designed for commercial use.")

On Halloween, just a day before the new rules were to go into effect, a federal judge issued an injunction barring the city from moving forward. 

The mayor responded by accusing his opponents of "trying to kill our kids," and issuing a new set of incentives that would penalize owners for using gas-devouring Crown Victorias and reward them for buying hybrids. The taxi lobby protested that too, and again, a federal judge ruled in the industry's favor. 

By 2011, the year the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the city, quite a lot had changed. Though the mayor has supported a bill in Congress that would give cities the right to set fuel economy and emissions standards, he had more or less given up the fight at home.

The administration moved forward on a separate program, called the Taxi of Tomorrow, which will have the effect of decreasing the number of hybrid taxis on the city's streets.

The idea was this. The city would leverage its market power by offering one manufacturer an exclusive decade-long deal, estimated at $1 billion, to manufacture one tailor-made vehicle for New York. The vehicle would be designed to handle the wear and tear of the city's pothole-ridden streets and offer both drivers and passengers a more comfortable ride than current cab models do.

The city whittled down the competition to three entries before settling on Nissan’s NV-200.

“Fuel efficiency was not used as a specific criterion for evaluation,” noted the mayor’s press release announcing Nissan the winner.

(This was the city's effort to make clear it wasn't violating federal law, as interpreted by the courts.)

As of late September, 49 percent of the city's taxi fleet, or nearly 6,500 yellow cabs, were hybrid.

The non-hybrid Taxi of Tomorrow will start cruising city streets late next year and will eventually replace most cabs, including nearly all of those hybrids, by late 2018.

At most, 273 hybrids—those attached to alternate-fuel-only medallions—will remain. 

The city argues that even so, a taxi fleet made up almost entirely of Taxis of Tomorrow will be about four miles-per-gallon more efficient than today's motley fleet, which is made up of more than 20 different models, from Crown Vics to hybrids.

Further, "We have a partner that has a potential electric-vehicle future," said Allan Fromberg, a Taxi and Limousine Commission spokesman, referring to Nissan. "There's no other road we could have taken that would have brought us to that. We did good. We did very well with Nissan. And New York City will benefit from it greatly."

But green-taxi advocates, noting that a hybrid fleet would have been more fuel efficient than one made up of Taxis of Tomorrow, say that there were steps the city could have taken to incentivize hybrid ownership that would not have violated the law.

Roderick Hills, an N.Y.U. Law School professor, thinks the city’s loss in federal court on emissions standards “left the City cowed by the idea of promoting hybrids in their contract with Nissan—much too much so, in my view.”

HOW IS IT THAT NEW YORK HAS FAILED WHERE SAN FRANCISCO has succeeded?

The explanation has something to do with the way the taxi-industry heirarchy is structured in each city.

In San Francisco, there's a less antagonistic relationship between the medallion owners and the drivers, if only because they're so often the same people. 

"Medallions are held by drivers who have a driving requirement of 800 hours per year, and most drive full time and therefore have to buy gas," says Gillespie.

In other words, owners there have a direct incentive to switch to hybrids, for the simple reason that doing so lowers their own fuel costs considerably.

By contrast, New York drivers more typically lease medallions from owners who don't themselves have to pay the cost of gas.

There are other factors, too.

One important one is that the federal court decision that stymied New York’s emissions standards did not apply out west.

Another, it seems, is that the industry interests are more receptive to change, or at any rate less litigious.

According to Gillespie, there were no lawsuits filed in San Francisco challenging the new policy.

“I have to give it to the people out here,” said Gillespie. “They were just really much more open-minded than I would have ever expected.”

In February, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco mayor Ed Lee declared San Francisco the “Greenest Taxi City in America.”

“We really did accomplish something,” said Gillespie. “And I think other cities can learn from it.”

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