NYC Green Taxi Debacle Marches On

Posted by: David Kiley on April 22, 2009

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New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been frustrated so far by the courts in his quest to make all the city taxis get 25 mpg or better

A federal court said last October that Bloomberg’s mandate runs afoul of Federal law. The Mayor is trying a counter-move: to charge taxi operators more to operate non-hybrid taxis.

The League of Mutual Taxi Owners, an organization of 3,200 owner-drivers has been one of the groups at the sharp end of opposing the Mayor’s moves.

The controversy centers on this: The most popular taxi among cab companies and drivers is the Ford Crown Victoria, which does not get 25 mpg. The fuel economy is more like 19 mpg combined city and highway. In city driving, it gets only 16 mpg. In contrast, fuel economy, according to www.fueleconomy.gov, of the hybrids Bloomberg favors include 34 mpg city and 32 mpg combined for the Ford Escape Hybrid and 33 mpg city and 34 mpg combined for the Toyota Camry Hybrid. Real world fuel economy is not that high as cabbies drive their cars very hard and tend not to get the government fuel economy numbers.

The Escape and Prius, though, make for pretty awful taxis when cab companies install the divider between the front and back seat. In the case of Escape, the divider actually slants into the leg-room of the driver-side rear passenger in order to give the driver adequate leg-room. Egress problems for senior citizens and others who have physical challenges are considerable as well.

Ford recently met with members of the Bloomberg administration, though, about the Ford Transit Connect taxi concept (pictured above) it has been trying to advance. The taxi is built in Hungary and Ford is importing the vehicle this year to start selling to the trades businesses like plumbers and carpet cleaners who have expressed great interest in the vehicle as an alternative to minivans and full-sized vans.

With the courts on the side of the taxi-buyers, and Ford so far, look for Ford to sell some pilot taxis into the fleet later this year or early next year to get feedback from cabbies, as well as city officials.

The Transit Connect gets about 19 mpg city with 90% lower emissions than the Crown Vic. Those aren’t hybrid numbers, but it is an improvement over the Crown Vic. And the comfort and safety level of the Transit far exceeds the Crown Vic and the available hybrids.

Ford is intoducing an electric version of the Transit Connect for commeercial fleets, but that is not deemed practical for city taxis. A gas-electric hybrid has not been announced yet, but that would tend to make the city, cabbies and consumers, happier.

Ford will have to see if there is a market for hybrid Transit Connects. The company sells about 6,000 cabs a year right now, with 3,000-plus of those going to NYC. As one Ford executive told me, “I have never seen so much energy go into such a small business, but the company views the NYC taxi business as a great symbolic business and it is determined to keep its taxi business.”

Reader Comments

Allan Fromberg

April 22, 2009 2:24 PM

The writer of this post is incorrect, there has NOT been an injunction on the recently-passed hybrid incentive regulations. The writer also incorrectly mentions the League of Mutual Taxi Owners as being the principal foes of the administration's efforts to protect and enhance the city's environment. In fact, it is not a driver group, but rather a small consortium of fleet owners.

From Kiley: The blog has been amended since posting to reflect that the Mayor's hybrid incentive program has not yet been blocked by a judge.

Frank Loweser

April 22, 2009 2:36 PM

I agree. The hybrid taxis I have ridden in are mostly awful. Why not try and revamp the system so that more fuel efficient vehicles are used as taxis, while not specifically trying to make them all hybrids.
I sat in the Transit Connect at the NY auto show last year, and it was terrific for passengers and luggage.
I never liked the Crown Vic as a taxi either. The best cabs I ride in are minivans.

Adam Aston at BusinessWeek

April 28, 2009 5:38 PM

You're missing a critical point in Bloomberg's agenda here. His goals are not simply to improve mileage but also to cut harmful emissions. Questions of efficiency and vehicle-size aside, NYC has some of the country's worst urban air quality, especially during summer months. This is mostly due to vehicle emissions. The asthma and other respiratory problems this causes in tens of thousands of residents are, in brutal economic terms, a costly burden on the city, not to mention the human toll. These harms fall disproportionately on low-income, non-insured residents who rely on public healthcare.

Bloomberg is chasing low-emissions just as much as he wants high-mileage. He's doing so for the same reason New York and all other major cities have banned public smoking. Mayors aren’t interested in legislating morality: that’s political suicide. They are interested in knocking out big costs facing their public healthcare system. Hybrids and other super-low emissions vehicles are part of the solution to this kind problem, along with efforts to reduce congestion and improve truck and commercial vehicle tailpipe emissions. If Ford's 19-mpg minivan is rejected by the city, look for emissions to be a big factor.

As to the discomfort of current hybrids, keep in mind that taxi and limo drivers have a choice: the don't have to install plexiglass anymore. A simple digital camera works as well for crime prevention, is lighter, less uncomfortable for passengers and are appearing more often.

In terms of opposition, don't overweight the interest of the owners. Most *drivers* polled support the high-mileage rules since they pay for the gas. Owners, who lease out the cars to drivers, are the vocal opponents here, since they want to buy the cheapest cars they can.

On that note, I don't think Frank's criticism of hybrid taxis has anything to do with the nature of hybrids per se, but rather with their size and how they’ve been implemented so far. After all, for decades, the likes of Vancouver, Paris and Hong Kong and most other non US cities have lived with less than boat-sized taxis. The answer isn't to pass on hybrids because the first generation is uncomfortable on folks' knees, but to design a better taxi. Let's give Ford, and Bloomberg, credit for trying to get it right.

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BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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