Home Taxis The life and death of hybrid taxis

The life and death of hybrid taxis

by Benjamin Kabak

Fuel efficiency was not a criteria for the Taxi of Tomorrow. (Photo via the Taxi and Limousine Commission)

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.

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Miles Bader October 19, 2012 - 2:08 am

I’d like to know which palms were greased when they chose the “T.o.T.”, because it certainly doesn’t seem to have been chosen on its merits…

Nathanael October 20, 2012 - 7:17 pm

The NV200 is an ADA violation. It’s not going to ever have widespread deployment, because the City will be sued out of existence, and deservedly, for mandating a non-accessible vehicle. A government act which discriminates against people in wheelchairs….

They’ve managed to skate past the first two lawsuit grounds on some very, very questionable bases using a friendly Circuit Court.

This won’t last. There’s at least four more grounds to sue the city on, and the Second Circuit is creating an incoherent set of rulings which will have to be thrown out sooner or later.

Lurker #24601 October 19, 2012 - 2:23 am

I have problems with this entire debate. To start with, the opposition (the hybrid-pushers) are making the assumption that MPG is the only expense for these cabbies. If that was true, cab companies wouldn’t have fought the TLC’s proposed regulation to mandate hybrid cars for taxi service. I expect these companies looked at the maintenance costs and found them unacceptably greater than what they would have to pay to maintain a fleet of gasoline powered vehicles. Not to mention that hybrid versions cost more and they probably aren’t happy to pay that upfront cost on these.

What is the rationale anyway for the TLC to mandate which vehicles can serve as cabs? Seems obnoxiously intrusive to me. Let the cab companies choose for themselves. They have to pay the expenses on them after all. They are the ones who will be mindful of total cost of ownership.

The cars don’t need to be exactly the same to be identifiable as cabs. The TLC can mandate a paint scheme, although that’s just as intrusive and unnecessary. There’s no incentive for cabs to be stealthy. There’s no way the “problem” of being unable to identify whether a car is a cab or not will arise.

Anyway, if air quality is your real concern here, then you shouldn’t be spending your energy pushing for hybrid vehicles. Taxis can burn CNG and their particulate emissions will still be far lower than a 100% Prius powered fleet. You just need to provide fuel stations. Since these are fleet vehicles and Manhattan is a pretty confined space, I believe that is a solvable problem.

But to sum up my rant above… Hybrids are a boondoggle.

chemster October 19, 2012 - 9:54 am

Lurker #24601, the thing is you’re assuming that “taxi drivers” and “cab companies” are interchangeable. I don’t think they are; the “cab companies” don’t have to pay for the gas (so don’t really care about that cost), while the “taxi drivers” do, and do care. Are hybrids much more expensive to service? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the “cab companies” don’t know either, but just looked at the short term higher cost of hybrids and then threw their weight against ’em.

KAR October 19, 2012 - 6:08 pm

cabs are regulated in every city because they are commercial vehicles… dirty air has to be paid for by everybody. I’m not a fan of hybrids overall (I can’t see myself buying one)… but for yellow cabs that spend their days in stop and go traffic – hybrids or electrics are best because they emit less emissions on crowded city streets.

Bolwerk October 20, 2012 - 8:27 am

I can buy an argument that the TLC is overly rigid in what it allows to serve as cabs, but the logic seems simple to me: cabs need to meet certain standards that at least include interior space. I don’t see why you think color isn’t important either.

As for emissions, I don’t really see a lot of point in mandating hybrids just for cabs. Cabs are, per passenger-mile, probably among the less offensive passenger-size automobiles in the city.

I always figured the focus should be on mandating smaller vehicles. Lower emissions is a great side-effect of that, but the legal point would be they take up less space in a space-constrained city – not to mention they’re safer. That’s three birds with one stone. If anything, cabs are one of the few vehicle classes that logically deserve an exemption from such a requirement.

Matthew October 19, 2012 - 8:23 am

“For much of the latter part of the 2010s,” That should be the 2000s, the latter 2010s have not happened yet.

Matthias October 19, 2012 - 8:32 am

Not to nitpick, but “criteria” is plural. You meant to say, “Fuel efficiency was not a criterion…”

VLM October 19, 2012 - 8:44 am

That’s nitpicking. Do you know anyone who actually talks or writes like that, besides pretentious a-holes?

petey October 19, 2012 - 1:26 pm

pretentious a-holes like me!
thank you Matthias.

Eric F October 19, 2012 - 9:11 am

Did you paper explore issues with respect to the disposal of the metals and chemicals embedded in a battery powerful enough to fuel a taxi?

The term “car dependent” assumes the ideology of the people who use the term. Cars are very useful tools. Computers are too, but I don’t see anyone bandying about the term “computer dependent” even though I suppose we all are.

BBnet3000 October 19, 2012 - 10:57 am

You really think we should be building places where people are forced to drive?

Eric F October 19, 2012 - 12:28 pm

There is no “we” building anything. There are a variety of living options for people. No one is forced to do anything. The only force I see is in the proto-authoritarian desire by those on the left to effectively ban the personal auto.

Matthias October 19, 2012 - 3:29 pm

Agreed that there should be a variety of living options for everyone, where people have a variety of options for getting around. The current penchant for designing streets to speed cars with little or no regard for other modes, requiring gobs of automobile parking, and subsidizing high-cost/low-density fringe development outside of metropolitan areas is reducing people’s freedom to get around as they choose. But that’s not really the focus of this post…

Bolwerk October 20, 2012 - 5:57 am

You only see it that way because you’re an authoritarian. Like it or not, land use is deeply regulated, and not in favor of living without an automobile. Even in New York. When “we” build car-dependent developments, “we” are clearly creating burdens for other people. All over the world, in fact.

Even if you buy that automobile proliferation is desirable, that any other option is effectively banned would displease an actual anti-authoritarian. Yet the mention of trying to fix that – through (gasp!) deregulation – makes reactionaries who imagine leftists banning private automobiles moan like banshees.

Nathanael October 20, 2012 - 7:18 pm

Eric F, please look up “Parking Minimums”. When you repeal all the zoning laws requiring “parking minimums”, then you can claim that we aren’t being forced to buy automobiles.

Eric F October 22, 2012 - 2:54 pm

You lost me there. Yankee Stadium is in the news these days because a large garage was built near the new stadium and it sits mostly unused, according to reports. Does the presence of the garage force driving?

Does minimum bike parking requirements force bike riding?

Nathanael October 23, 2012 - 2:40 am

Forcing developers to build parking spaces makes it a lot harder to not drive, because *these parking spaces make the city less walkable*. They take up *space* which could otherwise contain things you could walk to!

Bolwerk October 23, 2012 - 10:24 am

“Everything not forbidden is compulsory” – Eric F. T.H. White

Bolwerk October 20, 2012 - 6:06 am

Car dependence isn’t an ideologically-laden concept at all; nor is transit dependence. Both simply tell it as it is, that existing development patterns make people dependent on certain transportation modes to meet even basic basic needs – frequently, in the case of auto-dependency, even biological needs like feeding oneself.

The implications of transit dependence aren’t as bad as the implications of car dependence, of course. But you don’t need to be an ideologue to see that; indeed, you need to be an ideologue to not see it.

Chris October 19, 2012 - 11:57 am

I don’t really see why the general public should be greatly concerned about the fuel efficiency of ~20000 taxis in a society with hundreds of millions of vehicles.

One thing we definitely should not be too worried about is the daily cost for drivers – not when by far their biggest cost is simply the cash the goverment extracts in return for permitting them to operate.

Alan October 19, 2012 - 12:32 pm

The general public that lives or works in Manhattan is right to be concerned about the emissions of the taxi fleet (which can be proportional to the fuel efficiency), since it makes up such a large part of the traffic on most Manhattan streets. The Escape Hybrid has a 2.5L engine in addition to its electric engine and is a “SULEV” by California standards; it also doesn’t run the gas engine while stopped or idling. The Nissan has a 2.0L engine and there doesn’t seem to be much information out there on its emissions, but it’s probably a pretty standard drivetrain and will have similar emissions to a midsized car: better than a 4.6L V8 in a Crown Vic, but worse than a lot of existing hybrids. Hopefully slower acceleration than the Crown Vic, too– there’s no good reason for cabbies to be taking off with the speed they do, and it puts Manhattan pedestrians & cyclists in danger.

There’s theoretically going to be an electrical version of the NV200 somewhere down the line, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

Chris October 19, 2012 - 5:20 pm

The problem with this is that you’re talking about very small impacts in emissions; perhaps 20% of the city’s emissions are transportation related, with maybe 70% of that from passenger vehicles – say even 25% of the city’s traffic is taxis (which is too high by a large margin), you are talking about 3-4% of the city’s emissions being taxi-generated. So make the taxi fleet twice as efficient and you’ve cut total emissions by roughly 1%, not the “significant” impact on the city’s environment that Ben was describing.

This sort of issue is high-profile but not high-impact – not useful when there are much more powerful levers available (e.g. changes in the city’s gas tax rates).

KAR October 19, 2012 - 6:11 pm

chris – taxis are not private vehicles… so the city has a say. I guess you think the city should go back to using old buses too…? You’re right though – it’s not just driving emissions… buildings emit a lot… hence the law requiring buildings to convert from #’s 4 and 5 heating oil. That will also do a lot to clean the city’s air.

dungone October 19, 2012 - 6:24 pm

And unlike buildings which are all different and have to be renovated one by one, the taxis presented an opportunity to make a positive impact in one fell swoop. It was a low hanging fruit.

dungone October 19, 2012 - 6:21 pm

Cutting the total emissions by 1% is significant enough to pursue.

Mike October 19, 2012 - 12:06 pm

Its the Taxi of Yesterday
Is this mayor nuts? I was one of the
first owners to buy the Ford Escape
Hybrids and now I am supposed to
buy in a year from now, cars that are
more polluting?
Do you mean I am also supposed
to stand on a street corner and breathe
in the air from gas guzzling cars,
instead of hybrid cars in electric
mode? It will be like the old days
of having exhaust pollution blown
in your face.
You know I wake up at about 5 am
every day, this morning I looked up
and I actually saw the stars, maybe that
is not a big deal for some people, but
living in NYC it is. I remember years
ago you couldn’t see the stars because
the air was too polluted. Hanging out in
New York City in a few years is going to
be like hanging out with people who are
smoking. Give me a break. The mayor
has lost it. It’s got to stop!!!
Driver for 32 years


KAR October 19, 2012 - 6:13 pm

Mike – did you read? The court killed the city’s plan to make it hybrid only fleet – NOT the mayor (who was the one who banned smoking also). The Taxi of Tomorrow is kind of a back door way – as eventually Nissan is going to make an electric version. Blame the taxi lobby – not the mayor.

TERRANOVA47 October 19, 2012 - 1:30 pm

The London version of this taxi has a low polluting, high mileage per gallon diesel engine, the selling point is reducing London’s polluted air.

Kai B October 19, 2012 - 2:33 pm

I never quite understood why the city couldn’t legally mandate hybrids but yet can mandate a precise model (the TOT).

jj October 19, 2012 - 2:37 pm

Hybrids cost $5000-7000 more than a conventional car ,

the gas savings doesn’t offset the difference

KAR October 19, 2012 - 6:15 pm

jj- you are right that for a normal driver gas savings are nothing. In fact if someone drives a lot on the highway a clean diesel vehicle is better. However on dense city streets in stop and go traffic is where hybrids shine. For a taxi driver they more than pay for themselves – that’s why about 50% already bought them voluntarily.

Jerrold October 19, 2012 - 3:26 pm

Again, I know it’s off-topic, but I can never seem to find a suitable place here to post a comment that will be SEEN:

Today, I was at the Broadway-Lafayette statio for only the SECOND time since the work was completed. Unlike the first time, the new escalator was not working. Wow, it sure didn’t take long for the vandals to fuck it up, did it? Or coming to think of it, maybe it’s because of typical shoddy construction.

Jerrold October 19, 2012 - 3:32 pm


Again, I know it’s off-topic, but I can never seem to find a suitable place here to post a comment that will be SEEN:

Today, I was at the Broadway-Lafayette station for only the SECOND time since the work was completed. Unlike the first time, the new escalator was not working. Wow, it sure didn’t take long for the vandals to fuck it up, did it? Or coming to think of it, maybe it’s actually because of typical shoddy MTA construction.

John October 19, 2012 - 4:24 pm

This same article should be written on the lack of accessibility in the Nissan. Horrible missed opportunity to prevent/reduce the MTA fare hike (MTA subsidizeds Access-a-ride which provides rides that cost well above the taxi fare rate)

John October 19, 2012 - 4:27 pm

Leaving aside fuel efficiencies, hybrids have compelling clean air benefits. In some smoggy highway corridors, Prius exhaust is “cleaner” than the ambient air (fewer unbrurned hydrocarbons –a smog precursor).

Spendmore Wastemore October 19, 2012 - 6:14 pm

“Prius exhaust is “cleaner” than the ambient air”

There’s no magical ingredient in a Prius. It does help that the engine can run at a more constant road – gas engines don’t like idling and have an emissions spike when idling for long periods (I need to edit my previous post on that point). At cruise, any car which meets CA/NY/MA federal emissions puts out air cleaner than that in a high smog pocket. Hybrid technology is well suited to yellow cab use, especially in NYC.

The trouble is we don’t have a mass produced vehicle suitable to be a taxi which is offered with a hybrid powertrain.

OTOH, the visual pollution of the Prius’s aggressive ugliness vomits forth unabated with or without the engine.

Miles Bader October 19, 2012 - 7:57 pm

OTOH, the visual pollution of the Prius’s aggressive ugliness vomits forth unabated with or without the engine.

The “T.o.T.” Nissan is vastly more ugly than the Prius….

I can only guess that ugliness was the major factor used to decide the T.o.T. “competion.” Well, besides a briefcase full of cash, of course… 🙁

Spendmore Wastemore October 19, 2012 - 5:59 pm

It’s very strange that the city wants to mandate a particular mpg level for its taxis. It has no effect on quality of life in the city nor on the quality of taxi service.

I suppose that if one believes that petroleum is a sacred substance it’s relevant, but that’s religion. Emissions are a separate issue, nearly all of which depends on the condition of the vehicle rather than it’s type, since recent cars have nearly zero emissions once warmed up, until wear, dirt or mechanical issues upset the highly engineered design of clean combustion used now. Taxis run all day, some all 24 hours. Per mile they will be cleaner than the average car _if_ well maintained, because the system doesn’t undergo the thermal cycles and short trips of a typical car.

Taxicab’s role in global CO2 output is unmeasurably small. Agriculture, for example, is vastly bigger contributor. If CO2 is really the issue, then cut NYC’s 9 million body population by a third or so. That’s 1% of the USA, that would be a true impact.

Nathanael October 20, 2012 - 7:19 pm

It’s much stranger that the City wants to mandate a specific model of taxi, one which does not comply with the ADA.

Spendmore Wastemore October 19, 2012 - 6:32 pm

I forgot one critical detail regarding emissions: idling.

There is a quirk in gas engine emissions control strategies which, afaik, still applies to new cars.
After 30 seconds of idling, pollution output spikes. This is to reduce the fire hazard if a car is idling over dry leaves or grass.

When catalytic converters were first installed (before electronic controls) there was a small but not insignificant rash of fires when cars were parked, idling, over dry grass or leaves. There’s a warning to this effect in every owner’s manual and often on the sun visor, but 98% of owners don’t read the manual or even the sun visor and will ignore directions if they did.

The fix was to alternate a balanced fuel mixture which burns clean and hot, with an unbalanced fuel-rich mix, which cools the catalyst below the ignition point for dry grass. The computer does this in about 30 second intervals. As far as I know this is still done with today’s cars. If so, that would make hybrids and other cars which can shut down when stopped meaningfully cleaner in NYC use than the majority of cars which can’t do that. Hybrids can also shut down the gas engine when creeping along in traffic, which is a bad operating condition for gas engines.

Obviously, don’t try this with your car by keying off at every light.

El Toro October 20, 2012 - 12:08 pm

Allow cabbies a hybrid choice (future Nissan’s vans can be hybrids) but add a 50 cent surcharge per cab fare. The $6,000 or so extra cost will be paid for in less than a year when you also factor reduced fuel costs.
The vans could be clearly marked as hybrids and customers can choose not to take a cab that pulls over but most people won’t.

El Toro October 20, 2012 - 12:12 pm

Oh, and the surcharge would only last until the extra hybrid cost is paid off. After that, the fuel savings will go on.

paulb October 20, 2012 - 7:15 pm

The new cab is going to be a success. The engine is efficient and clean enough for its purpose. A hybrid the size of the Nissan might get a few more mpg, but not much. London is smart to pick the clean diesel, but Americans don’t like diesel, so that’s that. The London press release does not state whether the London cab will use a manual or automatic transmission. A manual would certainly save fuel, but it’s also something that would not be tolerated here.

Nathanael October 20, 2012 - 7:20 pm


Terrible MPG, ADA violation,…. who wants it? The taxicab owners certainly don’t. “White elephant” is a better description of the “Taxicab of Yesterday”.

paulb October 21, 2012 - 11:38 am

If the courts or the wheelchair bound demand that the entire fleet of medallion taxis, which, I don’t remember exactly how many cars that is, but it’s a lot, be full ADA, I’m cool with that. The MV1 would work, although it’s big and expensive. Any full-ADA taxi will be very expensive and heavy. Such a fleet will cost a lot and be bigger and heavier than necessary for most of the day to day work. I do not use taxis, and I do not think of taxis in the same way I think of other forms of public transportation, and as long as it’s the users of taxis who pay the freight, I’ve got no issues.

25-mpg terrible gas mileage? In stop and go traffic? Not at all–that is excellent mileage for a gasoline engine. A hybrid might do a little better, but probably not much. The diesel with a manual transmission (the London cab is using a 6-speed manual) would be much better, but it would never be accepted by drivers here.

As for John Liu…. He’ll say, assert, and demand anything. Who in the world listens to John Liu?

Nathanael October 23, 2012 - 2:42 am

All-electrics do really wonderfully in stop-and-go traffic. They’re not quite ready for 24-hour taxi use, but will be in a few years.

Link: The Atlantic Cities on the worst in urban trends :: Second Ave. Sagas January 4, 2013 - 4:17 pm

[…] in 2013.” On one level, these included topics near and dear to my heart: They urge cities to retain hybrid taxis, speak out against transit naming rights deals and call upon bikers, pedestrians and drivers to get […]


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