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Talking to drivers of the hybrid taxis quickly proves they don’t just like their hybrids—they love them. Most NYC taxis are leased by fleet owners to individual operators for a weekly fee of about $500, though the hybrids run $630. Crucially, drivers must return the cab full of gas at the end of the shift. In taxi usage, a Crown Vic gets 8 to 14 miles per gallon, but an Escape Hybrid returns 25 to 30 miles per gallon. As gas prices soared over the last six months, fleet drivers had to pay more and more to refuel the cab—without any increase in meter rates. Hybrid drivers, one told The New York Times, pay just $10 in gas at the end of their shift, against $35 for a Crown Vic.
But because fleet owners don’t pay for gasoline, they save no money from operating hybrids. In fact, the law costs them more. Old wives’ tales persist on how much Ford Crown Vic cabs actually cost, when purchased in bulk—but the cost is most likely far lower than $20,000. Try to find an Escape Hybrid or Prius for that.
Taxi fleet owners prefer simple, proven, traditional technologies. For one thing, they’re easiest to repair. They are comfortable with full-size, rear-wheel-drive, body-on-frame Crown Vics, which they’ve used for 25 years, exclusively since the 1996 demise of the Chevrolet Caprice. Six years ago, Ford stretched the Crown Vic, significantly improving passenger space in the rear even with a steel-and-plexiglass partition installed. So fleets avoid front-wheel-drive, they avoid unibodies—and the notion of electric motors and high-voltage electronics makes them break out in hives.
So while the lawsuit can be viewed as a legitimate public safety concern, it can also be viewed as a convenient way for taxi owners to avoid taking on the added expense and unfamiliar repairs and parts of a new type of vehicle.
The TLC’s first deputy commissioner Andrew Salkin fought back at a City Council hearing held yesterday, entitled “Green Cabs: Are They Safe?” In his words, “taxicabs with improved gas mileage are fully performing, saving drivers money and doing so safely.” He also testified that there was “no credible evidence” that the hybrids were unsafe. Earlier in the year, TLC commissioner Matthew Daus had also noted that the agency found fewer problems when inspecting the hybrids than in standard cabs.
The story will continue to unfold as the lawsuit winds its way through the courts. For the moment, Big Apple taxi passengers retain the choice of a fuel-saving hybrid or a standard Crown Vic. Most New Yorkers, of course, take the first cab that comes along—and some of them wouldn’t notice if it were a Hummer. But, hey, that’s New York.