Crown Victoria Knocked from Its Throne
Taxi companies are now taking a serious economic hit from the rising cost of gasoline. As a result, the Ford Crown Victoria is receiving the first challenge to its preeminent position as the mainstay of the North American taxi fleet. In San Francisco, London, and Vancouver, green hybrids have been turned into yellow taxis. New York City, the city that many consider the taxi cab capital of the world, is getting ready for a hybrid revolution.
"Within five to ten years, all New York City cabs will be hybrids or some other type of alternative vehicle," said Evgeny Freidman, fleet manager for three different New York-based taxi companies representing 650 vehicles and 2000 drivers. In Oct. 2004, when New York City officials held a special auction of 27 heavily discounted taxi medallions that could be used only with hybrid or natural gas cabs, Freidman purchased 18 of the licenses. Each license cost $222,743, which is one-third less than the cost of a regular medallion.
When the Taxi Commission tried to back out of the sale, asserting that hybrids lacked sufficient legroom, Freidman sued the Commission and won the right to use the medallions. Freidman’s company was the first to place hybrid taxicabs on New York City streets, when he put 18 Ford Escape Hybrids into service in November 2005. “It’s obviously the future," said Freidman.
As of March 2006, Freidman had his 19th Escape Hybrid taxi cab in service, and was preparing to introduce his 20th. "People love the ride, and the drivers are very happy," he said. "It’s an economic issue for them. They save $20 per shift. I follow the philosophy of ‘Happy Driver, Happy Fleet Manager.’" Freidman would like 40 of the 650 vehicles in his fleet to be Escape Hybrids, but has the ultimate dream of being able to buy the Crown Vic with a hybrid drivetrain. "That’s utopia."
The furthest reaches of the taxi future were on display at an exhibition entitled, "Designing the Taxi," organized by the New-York-based non-profit organization, The Design Trust for Public Space. The exhibit, which took place at the Parsons The New School for Design in Jan. 2006, included the design for a hybrid "Green Taxi," which featured an interior made of recycled organic materials and a front grille with additional filters to improve air quality for the passengers. Another design called for a "Mini-Modal" taxi, which can expand and contract based on the number of passengers. According to the New York City Taxicab Fact Book, 69% of all taxi rides consist of only one passenger.
The (Gasoline) Meter Is Running
Today’s taxi companies are more concerned with immediate economic realities. The ability to recoup the cost of buying a hybrid for personal use has been widely challenged. The mantra from the mainstream media is, “hybrids don’t pay for themselves.” But taxis often tally up 100,000 miles per year. Based on this amount of driving, and EPA fuel economy numbers, switching from a Crown Victoria to a Toyota Prius can save a taxi company about $9,000 in fuel costs per year. In addition, a hybrid’s use of electric motors and regenerative braking reduce wear and tear on the gasoline engine and brake pads. (And battery replacement is not an issue, even at the 200,000 or 300,00 mile mark.)
In Dec. 2005, Boston cabbies were granted a hike of $0.50 per trip help cover rising fuel costs. "You have to understand the hit that cabbies are taking," said Freidman. If prices shoot back up, taxi companies will begin using hybrids on regular full-priced medallions, according to Freidman. In fact, after Freidman adds his 20th hybrid, two of his Escape Hybrids will be operating with conventional medallions.
Where You’ll See Hybrid Taxicabs
With the gas prices on the rise, it’s not surprising that cost-conscious taxi fleet managers—think Louis DePalma from the television show Taxi—are going hybrid. Here’s a quick rundown on hybrid taxi activity:
- Andrew Grant began driving a Prius taxi in Vancouver in November 2000. He is widely credited as the world’s first hybrid taxi drive. In 25 months of driving a Prius taxi, he clocked 200,000 miles. At first, customers were leery. “People looked at it as a glorified golf cart,” said John Palis, general manager of Yellow Cab Company, under whose umbrella Grant operated his hybrid taxi. Yellow Cab, British Columbia’s largest taxi operation, now counts more than 43 hybrids in its fleet of 208 cars.
Palis’s detailed 2004 statistics show the fuel costs for their typical American-made cabs at $17,800 cdn, while their Prius taxicabs run at $8,200 cdn. (And this is before a dramatic increase in August 2005.) "The entire cost of the vehicle is covered by the difference in the gas price over a three year period," said Palis. "It makes economic and ecologic sense."
- As reported by the BBC, a diesel-electric hybrid taxi was introduced in London in June 2004. Azure Dynamics of Vancouver and London Taxis International developed the taxi. British Transport Minister David Jamieson said, "This advanced hybrid technology solution is a step in the right direction to create a cleaner and greener London."
- In Feb. 2005, 15 Ford Escape Hybrids were put into taxi service as part of San Francisco’s fleet. “San Francisco is proud to be the first city in the United States using hybrid SUVs as taxis," said Mayor Gavin Newsom. Ten of the Escape Hybrids are owned by Yellow Cab Cooperative. The other five are operated by Luxor Cab Company. Nate Dwiri, president of the Yellow Cab Co-op, said the Escape hybrid “is roomier than other hybrids on the market."
- In New York City, high gas prices trumped objections that some hybrid taxicabs do not offer sufficient legroom. On Sep. 8, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission voted 6 to 0, with one abstention, to approve the use of six models of hybrid vehicles as taxicabs. Evgeny Freidman has 19 Ford Escape Hybrids in service as of March 2006.
Saving fuel costs may be the catalyst for most taxi companies to consider using hybrids, but the public could reap a huge environmental gain. Swapping out old cabs with hybrids can reduce smog-related pollutants by about 80 percent and carbon dioxide by almost 40 percent, according to Bob Muldoon of the Sierra Club’s New York City Office. He said, “Replacing a conventional cab with a hybrid cab is like taking two old cabs off the road.”