Supreme Court torpedoes NYC’s hybrid taxi plan

By · Published in 2011

A hybrid taxi roams the streets of New York City in 2007. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

My first true exposure to the politics and economics of transportation came during my junior year in college when I took a course on the automobile. For my final project, I wrote a detailed treatment of New York City’s taxicab industry and explored why it should be an aggressive first-mover in the environmental space by hybridizing its entire fleet. If you care to read it, it’s right here as a Word Document.

The city obliged my early transportation whims when it became to implement such a policy, but as with any change, cab drivers threw a few. The hybrids didn’t have enough trunk space; they were too expensive to maintain; they can’t withstand the abuse of daily work on the pothole-laden streets of New York. Yadda yadda yadda.

Eventually, a lawyer figured out a way to challenge the city’s move by highlighting a preemption argument under the Clean Air Act. The city, said a federal judge, was precluded from enforcing gas mileage standards because Congress had preempted the field via federal legislation. It seems crazy to think that a federal court would find the Clean Air Act a preemption of New York City’s efforts at regulating the taxi industry, but there go.

The city tried to enforce a different policy — offering cab drivers financial incentives to switch to hybrids. That effort too was deemed a “de facto mandate” in violation of the city’s inability to regulate vehicle emissions standards, and while New York could license hybrid taxis and include them on the allowable list of vehicles, the city could not mandate them. Of course, an appeal to the Supreme Court followed.

Yesterday, the high court declined to hear the case, thus ending an important environmental effort for now. City officials were upset. “I am bitterly disappointed,” Taxi and Limousine Commission Chair David S. Yassky said. “New York City is trying to reduce literally millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and the Supreme Court has told us we can’t do it. I cannot imagine when Congress wrote the Clean Air Act that they intended to handcuff states and cities trying to clean their own air.”

Michael Bloomberg too expressed his displeasure with the ruling, and he appealed, off-handedly, to a theory of federalism in which states server as laboratories for federal policy in a democracy. The cities are those that are addressing real-world problems like climate change and energy policy,” the Mayor said. “The federal government seems unable to address those issues.”

So what’s next? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is on the case. Via Twitter, she said she would again pursue an effort to gain Congressional approval of her Green Taxis Act. She attempted to usher in this piece of legislation in 2009, but the Senate did not act on it. The bill would “authorize States or political subdivisions thereof to regulate fuel economy and emissions standards for taxicabs,” and the full text is available online. Hopefully, this measure can gain approval in DC.

Meanwhile, the city is moving forward with its plans for the Taxi of Tomorrow. The Karsan design has been chosen as the people’s favorite, and the city will soon make its determination from one of the finalists. If the winner is fuel efficient and offers a more sustainable ride, perhaps all of this litigation will have been for naught. Still, the city should be able to mandate its own fuel standards for its taxi fleet, and this non-decision by the Supreme Court is both unsurprising and dismaying.

The Karsan taxi, designed specifically for the Taxi of Tomorrow project, won the support of the public.

Categories : Taxis

21 Responses to “Supreme Court torpedoes NYC’s hybrid taxi plan”

  1. Bolwerk says:

    So am I to understand, legally, the city could theoretically still mandate exactly what a cab a taxi company must buy in the future? One that just so happens to be “green[er]”?

  2. ferryboi says:

    Since Ford is discontinuing the Crown Victoria this year, and most other city taxis are smaller, mid-size cars, why is the city getting all pushy about this? The MPG of most cars today are miles ahead of cars from just 20 years ago. Maybe if the city took away all the “official” cars from workers who could easily get around by subway, the city would burn a lot less fuel and save some big bucks in the process.

    • The city has been “getting pushy” about this for six years. It’s not a new initiative, but the litigation appeal reached the Supremes this term. As for the official cars, they are all hybrids now anyway, and taxi mileage far outpaces mileage for city cars.

      • Donald says:

        I don’t know about all of the official cars being hybrids. I still see plenty of city owned Crown Vics and Malibus (and I am not just talking about police cars).

  3. Christopher says:

    How does this compare to states having their own mileage standards? California has been regulating cars and emissions for decades. I’m confused by why it’s allowable there and not here?

    • Bolwerk says:

      Kalifornia, because of its special smog problem back in the 1970s, has special authority to select its own emissions standards (to a point anyway). The rest of the country can choose to follow either federal standards or Kalifornia standards.

      • BBnet3000 says:

        Even then, CA tried to regulate CO2 but wasnt allowed.

        • Christopher says:

          I thought they actually worked that out with EPA. They have a smart growth law in California that is reflects target emissions for various regions. They regulate an awful lot of air quality. California has regional Air Quality Management Boards. I know this has come up with problems between them and the Fed and people have challenged them, but my recollection from living there is basically they told the Feds to screw themselves. Perhaps of NY State got involved.

          (That being said, NY state does have different standards for smog as well. That’s why when car companies release new lower emissions cars they are usually available first in places like California, NY and DC. Perhaps that’s an EPA mandate? And if so that raises the question then, why can’t NYC go to the EPA and get their approval?)

          • Bolwerk says:

            The liberal Bush Administration construed the Clean Air Act to mean only the feds could set emissions standards. The only apparent leeway here is what I mentioned before: CA can set its own stricter standards, which I think the EPA does have to approve, and other states have the option to follow the regular EPA standards or the CA standards. Generally, the northeast follows the CA standards. The more conservative, pro-states rights Obama Administration never reversed course on the Bush Administration’s position.

            Anyway, there is a logic to having a national set of standards. It wouldn’t do anyone any favors to have a national patchwork of automotive standards. (Well, maybe it would. It would drive up the prices of cars.)

            • Nathanael says:

              When the federal government is nonfunctional, it’s time to let the states regulate.

              With the current corrupt, corporate-owned Supreme Court, it is past time to let the states regulate. California will probably be the first to say “To hell with the feds” — it has 10% of the US population and can actually do whatever it wants, and the Feds have very little power to interfere.

              Of course I HOPE we can restore sanity to the federal government, but after 10 years, and with no change to the unconstitutional, undemocratic rules of the Senate, it’s looking unlikely.

  4. Chris says:

    I for one am glad to see these efforts fail. While the cause is noble, it’s fundamentally unfair to regulate this at the level of the taxicab authority. From the perspective of climate/carbon emissions a kilo of carbon emitted by a taxicab is no different than the same kilo from a private car. The rules related to climate change should treat the two equally.

    • Dan says:

      I don’t understand this distinction at all. The TLC shouldn’t be able to regulate cabs because the logic behind the regulation would soundly apply to all cars? Is that what you’re saying?

  5. SEAN says:

    Who was the hack that came down with that dessision?

  6. Donald says:

    “Hopefully, this measure can gain approval in DC.”

    It won’t. It will be labeled as “Cap and Trade Light” and will be killed on arrival by the GOP.

  7. Donald says:

    And the last time I checked, Bloomberg still rides around in a convoy of Chevy Suburbans. Going green should start at the top.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    The taxi fleet may not be as hybrid-heavy as it should be, but the bus fleet is adopting hybrid technology aggressively. NYCT buses are 20% hybrid already.

  9. David in NY says:

    Pure status quo greed is what drives the climate naysayers and they, unfortunately, currently have the political upperhand. Obama just watered down new EPA pollution rules in another concession.
    The G.O.P. stands for Greed Over People after all. And currently they control legislation to reduce carbon emissions despite our crazy addiction to oil and coal despite we are changing the climate faster than in the last million years.
    The time climate idiots ( climidiots? ) decide things must change, it will be too late and too little consolation to climate realists.
    Here’s to our future.

  10. ferryboi says:

    Caught a case of climidiot, and boy does it burn!

  11. Judith says:

    I always ask NYC taxi drivers who drive hybrids how they like their car. Without exception, every one of them has been very enthusiastic — particularly since they save so much money on gas.

  12. DONALD says:

    let bloomberg with all the money he has buy the whole 5 boroughs hybrids and we’ll be a better city and love him forever


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