It’s a crisp spring morning in San Francisco, and Mayor Gavin Newsom is standing in front of a row of taxi cabs lined up at City Hall. He points to the TV camera and says, “To Mayor Bloomberg, I say we beat you on this.” He gestures to the taxis, each either a fuel-efficient hybrid or natural gas vehicle. “The Big Apple is not the green apple yet.”
Indeed, San Francisco succeeded in greening its taxi fleet—which is now 55 percent hybrid or powered by clean-burning natural gas—where New York City failed even to approach San Francisco’s level.
Before you imagine this game of environmental one-upmanship is strictly between big city mayors, consider this: the man who arguably deserves the most credit for reducing the San Francisco taxi fleet’s carbon footprint—by a whopping 35,000 tons per year—is a 53-year-old rank-and-file taxi driver named Paul Gillespie. Gillespie’s efforts serve as an object lesson in how real environmental change gets done—not by politicians politicking but by grassroots hard work, consensus building, and levelheaded thinking.
The story begins 13 years ago, when former Mayor Willie Brown established a taxi task force to look at all issues facing San Francisco’s cabbies. The task force recommended the creation of an official Taxi Commission, with one of the seven seats allocated to a working driver. Gillespie raised his hand and was chosen. “I was just a regular guy who got himself appointed to this position where I had a chance to get things done,” Gillespie recalled.
Top Priority: Green
At the commission’s first meeting, the president of the group, Marianne Costello, asked, “What should we put on the agenda?” Gillespie responded, “Clean taxis.”
Gillespie has been concerned about the environment for a long time. As a high school student in Michigan in the mid-1970s, he wrote a column in the school paper. Several of his pieces focused on the Arab oil embargo and the need for Americans to ditch gas-guzzling vehicles. After a 10-year stint as a customer service manager for a film post-production facility, Gillespie started driving a cab in the late 1980s. At the same time, he enrolled at San Francisco State to complete his degree, mostly taking courses in the geography department. A course on climate change was a turning point. “I became convinced that cutting carbon emissions would be the issue of the 21st century and that we have to deal with it.”
Decades later, Gillespie—earning his living behind the wheel—turned his attention to the Ford Crown Victoria, until recently just about the only vehicle used as a taxi. In 1999, the Crown Vic was rated at 15 mpg in the city, and commonly got 9 or 10 mpg in real-world driving.
Things moved slowly with the taxi commission. Over the next three years, Gillespie repeated his message of environmental change to anybody that would listen. He was emboldened in 2002 when San Francisco passed a resolution calling for a citywide reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Unfortunately, during those days, city officials and cab company owners didn’t have a practical alternative to the gas-thirsty Crown Vic. But Gillespie heard that Ford was planning to introduce a small hybrid SUV some time in 2004.
“I hade a close relationship with the management at Yellow Cab. I mean, I’m not in their pocket by any means, but Hal Mellegard (the general manager) and I used to play golf together every year,” Gillespie explained. “And every year I’d say, ‘Hal, when those Escape Hybrids come out, you’re gonna try them, right?’ He would say, ‘Sure, Paul. Right. ” Mellegard made it clear that he didn’t want to be pushed.
By the time the Ford Escape Hybrid, rated at 30 mpg in the city, hit the market, Gillespie had worn down the cab company managers. Yellow Cab agreed to put 10 into service, and Luxor Cab added five. That was a major victory. Those 15 hybrid taxis made history as the first such fleet in the United States. “Part of it was that Hal is open-minded,” Gillespie said. “Anything to reduce the use of foreign oil. That’s his big issue.”
Gillespie drove one of the Escape Hybrids on his nighttime shift and studied its fuel efficiency benefits and real-world performance. He figured out that the carbon impact of the each taxi—driving 90,000 a year on average—was huge. “At that point, the city had 811 cabs, multiplied by an average of 87 tons of carbon dioxide per year, means we were putting out 72,000 tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions in the taxi fleet.”
The Rivalry Begins
In late 2005, more than a year after San Francisco’s hybrid taxis came online, New York City put its first hybrids on the road. But the rivalry didn’t really heat up until May 2007, when Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed on the Today Show that all new taxis in New York must get 25 mpg by 2008, and 30 mpg by 2012. In other words, all New York taxis had to be hybrids within five years.
By this time, Gillespie had been elected president of the taxi commission. He remembered hearing the Bloomberg announcement and thinking, “OK, I’m pretty sure they’re going to have problems with that.”
Instead of getting mad, or getting even, Gillespie got analytical. He multiplied the number of Crown Vics times their average greenhouse gas emissions, and calculated how much each vehicle had to cut its emissions to meet the city’s 20 percent reduction goal. He worked out that each taxicab, on average, needed to emit no more than 38 tons of GHG per year.
“You get so frustrated with the talk about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s actually do this,” he said. “Let’s use technology that’s available—maybe we’re going to be pioneering—and use vehicles not intended for what they were built for, but let’s just push forward and be aggressive about this.” Gillespie, Mayor Newsom and the commissioners agreed not to make any grandiose pronouncements without the taxi industry’s support. Instead, they decided to simply test the hybrid taxis for three years without any mandates.
One year after the national television appearance, New York’s Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a taxi-fleet trade association, published a 43-page report documenting how Ford Escape Hybrids were unsafe to be used as taxis because they couldn’t be outfitted with bullet-resistant partitions. More importantly, the agency sued to block Bloomberg’s mandate, claiming that it was pre-empted by the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act and the federal Clean Air Act. In June 2009, a U.S. District Court judge sided with the Taxi board, killing Bloomberg’s goal of making all NYC cabs green by 2012.
Patience by the Bay
Back in San Francisco, Gillespie, Mayor Newsom, city government and the taxi companies had aligned to pass a carefully crafted ordinance ensuring that all new taxis put into service would average no more than the magic number: 38 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite that fairly aggressive target, which translates to a vehicle getting about 30 miles per gallon, most companies eventually complied. As a result, those first 15 hybrids in 2004 have grown to a fleet of 801 hybrid or natural gas taxis. City officials expect the San Francisco’s entire fleet of 1,500 taxis will meet the target in the next few years.
In the end, what convinced the companies to go forward was an innovative provision that Gillespie introduced into the plan. “There’s something called a gate,” explained Gillespie. “That’s the rental fee that a driver pays for a 10-hour shift. Most cab companies have two 10-hour shifts per day.” The city controls the amount of the gate, which averages about $100 per shift. Gillespie recommended that the gate be raised by $7.50 per shift for hybrid and other low-emission taxis.
“I took crap from some of the hardcore drivers.” Gillespie recalled. “They said, ‘Why are you doing this $7.50 increase? You’re giving away all the savings!’ I replied, ‘No, I’m not giving away the savings because, depending on the price of gas and how many miles you drive, you’re saving anywhere from $20 to $40 a night driving a hybrid. So, to share $7.50 with the company that has to buy the vehicle and insure it, fix it and replace it if you wreck it, that doesn’t sound unfair to me at all.”
The Taxi Commission designed the additional gate fee charge so the sum total of those extra gate fees, paid over the course of three years of typical vehicle service, would add up to about $16,000—the exact cost difference between a cab company buying a used police car and turning it into a taxi, rather than buying a new Escape Hybrid. Add to that other local and federal purchasing incentives, and the cab companies come out way ahead.
“It’s an absolute win-win. Everybody is saving money,” said Vandana Bali, manager of clean vehicle programs at the city of San Francisco. Bali played a key role helping translate Gillespie’s recommendations, and countless hours of public meetings, into a cogent and enforceable ordinance. Other contributors to the policy included the taxi commission’s labor representative Tom Oneto; Bob Hayden from San Francisco’s Department of the Environment; Dan Sperling from University of California at Davis; Luke Tonachel at the National Resources Defense Council; and John Waters, who was then at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
As a companion to the ordinance, Bali crafted a green taxi guide so any specific vehicle or technology would not be forced down the throats of drivers or cab companies. Instead, the guide “provided a menu of technology options” to meet the emissions targets. “Like with any new program, people just have to try it,” Bali said.
At that March 2010 press conference, Mayor Newsom celebrated the San Francisco taxi fleet reaching the halfway mark toward becoming completely hybrid and natural gas. “The owners do a little bit better. The drivers ultimately do better. And all of us do better because we’re breathing cleaner air,” Newsom said. “The equivalent of 4,700 vehicles are off the street because of this initiative.” Newsom couldn’t stop himself from one more dig at Bloomberg. “The good news is we’ve made progress,” said Newsom with a smile. “The bad news is New York has not.”
Last year, the San Francisco Taxi Commission was merged with the Metro Transit Authority. Paul Gillespie has rejoined the ranks of everyday cabbies. Reflecting back on his decade of service on the taxi commission, now disbanded, he’s most proud that San Francisco has avoided any lawsuits around its clean taxi policy. “If we spend the next 20 years filing lawsuits against each other over carbon reduction, instead of figuring out a way to make this work for everybody, we’re doomed,” Gillespie said. “We need to find a way to collaborate and work together. That’s what we did.”