A long time ago, way back in early 2004, during the spring semester of my junior year of college, I took a class on the politics and economics of the automobile industry. In a way, I credit that class with launching my interest in public transportation as we focused extensively on the many drawbacks of an auto-centric and auto-dependent society. For my final paper, I proposed converting New York City’s taxi fleet to an all-hybrid one.
For much of the latter part of the 2000s, it seemed as though the city had embraced this idea. The Taxi & Limousine Commission had allowed hybrids to be included on the list of eligible taxi cars, and as gas prices have risen, taxi drivers have embraced the high-MPG vehicles. Not as roomy as the old Crown Victorias, these cars are nonetheless far more fuel-efficient, and drivers can take home more money at the end of the day.
Of course, the best laid plans often go astray. After a mid-decade push by the City Council to require hybrid cars, the taxi lobby sued, and on what I thought were shaky grounds, a court determined that only the federal government could impose fuel economy standards. Although the city could regulate its own taxis, the ruling stood, and hybrids become a choice rather than a requirement.
Now, that era, however, is over. When the ugly, boxy and large NV200 becomes the city’s one and only Taxi of Tomorrow, the hybrids will be phased out, replaced instead with a vehicle that gets only around 25 miles to the gallon. The look may be uniform, but the daily costs for drivers and the impact on the city’s environment will be significantly more. How did we go wrong?
In my view, this angle of the story hasn’t been covered enough. A push away from hybrids should garner more attention and outrage, but until earlier this week, the press had largely been silent. Dana Rubinstein, Capital New York’s tireless transportation writer, penned an extensively look at the death of the hybrid taxi. Her piece is well worth the full read, but I’ll excerpt:
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.”
…The idea [for the Taxi of Tomorrow] 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.)…
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.”
There’s a lot more to Rubinstein’s story so do click through. She talks about how Nissan could potentially deliver an electric vehicle for the city and how nearly 50 of the fleet today consists of hybrid vehicles. She focuses on San Francisco’s more successful push to make all taxis hybrid cars and the reticence the city has felt in the face of the federal court ruling.
All in all, I find it disappointing. The Taxi of Tomorrow doesn’t have much tomorrow-ness about it. It’s ugly; it’s big; it’s not fuel efficient. It is almost the taxi of yesterday when lower gas prices led to the proliferation of SUVs. It’s going to take six years for the Nissan vehicle to become the only one on the road. I’ll mourn this missed opportunity in the meantime.