Pardon me while I leave the underground world of transportation and visit the devoted straphanger’s sometimes-nemesis, sometimes-friend: the taxi cab.
I’ve long been fascinated with New York City taxis in a more academic way than I am with the city’s subways. More specifically, I’ve watched with interest as the city has pioneered a radical plan to convert its entire taxi fleet from fuel-guzzling Ford Crown Vics to green hybrids of all shapes and sizes.
The root of my interest began in the spring of 2004 as hybrids were slowly becoming a popular item. I was enrolled in a class on the political economy of the automobile, and for one of my term papers, I proposed that the City of New York should convert its entire fleet into hybrids. Little did I know how prescient I would be.
The gist of the paper — which you can find here as a Word document — was that cab drivers would see significant fuel savings by switching to hybrids designed for optimal use in the stop-and-go traffic environment of New York City. Hybrids, in most cases, get fuel mileage in city traffic two to three times greater than the old Crown Victoria taxis do. While some passengers would be inconvenienced by the smaller trunk space and decreased leg room in the hybrids, the social benefits, ranging from a cleaner air to the city’s place as a model taxi fleet, would far outweigh the downsides.
While that is a fairly simple argument, I think it’s held up over time. Since I wrote that paper, the city has indeed embarked on a landmark program to convert its entire fleet to hybrids, and beginning this year, only hybrid cars may be registered as taxis. Considering that the entire taxi fleet turns over every three-to-five years, the clock is ticking for the 15 city miles-per-gallon Crown Victorias, a relic of the day when we worried too little about gas prices and paid too little at the pump for our gas-guzzling ways.
But of course, cab owners aren’t too happy about the switch, and they’re voicing their displeasures. Via Sally Goldenberg in the Post:
Owners cite a shortage of hybrids and argue that they’re also not as safe as the standard, heavy Crown Victorias. Ronald Sherman, a fleet owner and president of the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, said major hybrid providers Ford and Toyota can sell only a fifth of the number required to meet the directive. “Clearly, there will not be enough to sustain this mandate,” Sherman said. “The numbers simply don’t add up.”
In a letter to Matthew Daus, chairman of the city Taxi and Limousine Commission, he asked that the city push back the deadline due to a “nationwide hybrid car and parts availability crisis.”
“Crown Victorias are 5-star, across-the-board crash-rated vehicles that withstand severe accidents,” he wrote.
The Post also mentions that Sherman has long been a critic of hybrid taxis and testified against the Ford Escape hybrid earlier this year. That car has since been cleared by auto safety experts.
I can’t really explain Mr. Sherman’s opposition to the hybrids. While he is concerned about black-market cabs with more trunk space stealing the yellow cab businesses when the smaller trunks are prevalent, anyone who’s ever hailed a cab in New York will be quick to dispute this point with Sherman. The vast majority of people aren’t taking taxis with suitcases, and those who do will find a way to fit their suitcases into the back of a taxicab.
In the end, it’s all about an auto industry voice resisting change for the better. While not as egregious as various promotions celebrating subsidized gas for two years, Sherman’s voice is yet another trying to stem a tide that will help out the city environmentally and cab drivers financially. Trade reps should be encouraging these developments; they should work with the Bloomberg Administration to ensure a smooth transition. In 2008, with gas prices high and global climate change an accepted reality, Sherman’s words seem remarkably out of touch with the times.