Green Taxi Fleets: Seems like a no-brainer, eh?

I read a few months ago that New York City and San Francisco have both loosened municipal licensing rules with respect to taxicab fleets and new hybrid-electric cars on the market. Public demand is there, but the biggest problem was that most hybrids on the market didn’t meet passenger space — i.e. legroom — requirements. Each city’s council made exceptions for some hybrid models. I’ve even heard there are hybrid taxis running about in Vancouver (click here for testimonial).

A Reuters story today said the first six Ford Escape hybrids have entered the NYC cab fleet. City officials there are apparently saying that the city’s entire fleet of 13,000 taxis could be coverted to hybrids within five years. The Escape hybrid apparently gets double the mileage of the Ford Crown Victoria model predominately used in cab fleets.

Where’s my hometown of Toronto in all of this? Well, I’m disappointed to say that most taxicab companies in T.O. either haven’t given it much thought or are fixated on natural gas (not that there’s anything wrong with that…). About 10 per cent of Toronto’s cabs apparently already run on natural gas.

I’ve made a point of asking the driver of any cab I ride in about hybrids, and few of them have expressed any burning desire to go in that direction. I’ve also spoken with the city’s licensing bureau, and they’re not opposed to hybrids or the idea of changing legroom requirements, which as more hybrid models come out will be less of an issue anyway. But Bruce Robertson, director of licensing, says his department has never really been approached before about changing rules to accommodate hybrids.

Funny, I thought my city was capable of being proactive to encourage change. Am I missing something here?

I’ve spoken with Jim Harris, leader of the federal Green Party about this. His view on the issue is pretty clear cut: “If the Green party was in power, we’d say not one penny of (federal) gas tax is going to any city unless 30 per cent of their fleet are hybrids this year. We’d give double the gas tax to those that achieve 30 per cent.”

There are environmental and economic considerations here. Harris said that kind of decree would create enough demand to maybe convince Toyota or some other hybrid maker (Honda, Ford, etc.) to build a hybrid vehicle manufacturing plant in Canada.

Using a hybrid-electric car, such as a Toyota Prius, in a taxi fleet makes oodles of sense:

* Taxis are often idling as they wait for passenger pickups, even though city bylaws say they shouldn’t be. The Prius shuts down when in a stopped position, meaning no idling. Natural gas taxis don’t do this.

* Taxis spend a lot of their time driving in city streets, or rush hour highway scenarios where they’re always starting and stopping. This takes full advantage of the Prius’s regenerative breaking technology, providing even better mileage. Natural gas vehicles don’t provide this.

* Finally, hybrids overall just provide better mileage, and because they still use gasoline it’s easier for a cabbie to find a place to fill up. Natural gas cars have limited options, particularly when outside the city’s downtown core.

“Taxis produce more smog per vehicle than any other car on Canadian roads,” says Harris. “Average taxis in Canada drive 10 times the distance of normal vehicles. There are 25,000 taxis on Canadian roads, so changing that many taxis is the equivalent of changing a quarter million cars.”

And all it would take is a government mandate that, in the end, would save cab drivers money and reduce smog in city cores. It would also significantly contribute to our Kyoto targets, without much cost to Canadian taxpayers.

Here’s the really interesting thing: Harris suggests that the gas savings of driving a hybrid taxi, particularly with gasolines prices as high as they were this summer, would be enough to pay for the lease of the hybrid vehicle itself — i.e. free car.

I’ve done the calculations, based on my discussions with some cab drivers. I’m not so sure how much a lease would be, but I think drivers would at least save $4,000 a year, possibly much higher. That’s good for the pocketbook, and good for the environment, and I can bet you many riders would appreciate it as well — even suffer through cramped legspace.

It all makes me wonder why somebody hasn’t come out of the thin air to launch a small Green Cab company in Toronto just for downtown shuttling. Remember, Steve Case, founder of America Online, is heading in this direction with the Flexcar autoshare business he just bought in the United States.

The trend seems pretty clear — or green — to me.