A US Federal judge barred New York City last week from implementing a regulation that all new taxicabs achieve at least 25 miles per gallon, which was to have taken effect November 1, rising to 30 mpg a year later.
On Halloween Day, Judge Paul A. Crotty agreed with a taxi-owners group that said the city’s mandate was pre-empted by both the recent Energy Policy & Conservation Act, which restricts vehicle-emissions regulation to the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg promptly fired off a strongly worded statement that slammed the ruling. “The decision is not a ruling against hybrid cabs,” he said, “rather…that archaic Washington regulations are applicable, and therefore New York City and all other cities are prevented from choosing to create cleaner air and a healthier place to live.”
The judge’s ruling accepts the same argument automakers use in trying to end California’s right to set its own vehicle emissions standards. That right was accepted 30 years ago, but after President Bush signed higher fuel-economy laws last December, the EPA denied California’s routine waiver for its own, stricter limits on greenhouse gases. That in turn brought a prompt Congressional investigation into political interference by EPA administrator Stephen Johnson.
The “Patchwork Excuse”
Automakers frequently cite their fear of a “patchwork of legislation,” calling it a “nightmare” to build cars to different standards for different states. But in fact, they have done exactly that for 30 years. California is the sole state allowed to set stricter standards; the other 49 states may only choose the national limits or California’s. Thus far, several Northeast states require new cars sold there to meet California standards.
The September lawsuit against New York City came from the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade (MTBoT), which said the high-mileage hybrids were “unfit and unsafe” for use as taxis. The rule was part of the city’s comprehensive PlaNYC 2030 blueprint to cut energy use; the taxi fleet would have halved its fuel use and emissions by 2013. This isn’t Mayor Bloomberg’s first environmental defeat; his plan for congestion pricing was rejected by the state legislature in April, after what some called his inept, high-handed politicking.
The ruling eliminates all but voluntary purchases of hybrid cabs in New York—unless or until the city rewrites its rules to compel the same effect in a legal way. The first Escape Hybrid hit city streets in November 2005; now almost 1,500 of the city’s 13,200 yellow medallion taxis are hybrids, largely Ford Escape Hybrids. New Yorkers also see taxi yellow on a few of almost every hybrid, from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Chevrolet models to a luxury Lexus RX400h Hybrid.
Safety, Cost, or Just Fear of Change?
Most of the city’s taxis remain full-sized Ford Crown Victoria sedans, built only for fleet sales. Cabbies say the 4.6-liter V8s give 12 mpg if they’re lucky, going as low as 8 mpg, and they’re ecstatic over having to buy less fuel. But taxi owners loathe the hybrids, largely because they aren’t the simple, cheap cars they’ve used for decades. So while the lawsuit can be seen as a legitimate public safety concern, it can also be viewed as a way for taxi owners to avoid the added cost and unfamiliarity of new vehicles.
New York taxi riders may be shocked that, among its litany of complaints, the MTBoT lawsuit worries that hybrids cut passenger legroom up to 10 inches. This may be the first time in history taxi owners have professed concern about the actual experience of their paying customers.