I visited New York City recently and could not believe the number of taxicabs on the streets

I visited New York City recently and could not believe the number of taxicabs on the streets. Are there any efforts to “green up” these vehicles? They must be real gas-guzzlers, considering all the idling and stop-and-go traffic they face.

—Justin Grant, Berkeley, CA

Just this past May, as part of a larger effort to make New York the “greenest major metropolis on the planet,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an ambitious plan to switch over the city’s 13,000-vehicle taxi cab fleet from gas guzzling traditional cars to (comparatively) fuel-sipping gasoline-electric hybrids.

So far, 375 New York City cabs are hybrids, but Bloomberg wants that to rise to 1,000 by the end of 2008, with an additional 20 percent of the cab fleet going hybrid each year thereafter. The reason taxis are an ideal fit for hybrid technology is that they spend much time idling in traffic and while waiting to load passengers. Hybrid cars, which pair a conventional gas engine with an electric motor, essentially shut down when they are idling, minimizing emissions significantly. New York’s plan, once fully realized, is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions of the city’s taxi fleet by over 215,000 tons yearly.

And even though cabbies will have to pay a premium to replace their existing vehicles with hybrids, most are behind the move, as it will save them about $10,000 yearly in fuel costs alone. According to The New York Times, 90 percent of the city’s cab fleet is now made up of Ford Crown Victorias, which get only 10-15 miles per gallon (mpg) in city traffic. Ford’s own Escape hybrid would improve that to 34 mpg.

“I have been wanting to drive a hybrid taxi for years now,” says Kwame Corsi, a cabbie from the Bronx. “Once this law allows us to drive hybrids, our gas mileage will skyrocket and our expenses will plummet. We pollute less and make more money—who can argue against that?” New York cabbies now ready to take the plunge can choose from any one of six different hybrid models, including the Ford Escape, Toyota’s Prius and Highlander, the Lexus RX 400H, and Honda’s Accord and Civic.

New York is not the first to go hybrid with its cab fleet. San Francisco took the plunge in 2005 when 40 Ford Escape hybrid taxis hit the streets there. San Francisco is also home to 140 Ford Crown Victoria cabs retrofitted to run on cleaner-burning compressed natural gas (CNG), which has been shown to reduce ozone-forming emissions by 80 percent as compared to traditional gasoline. The city’s goal is to have half its taxi fleet—some 600 vehicles—powered by cleaner-energy sources (either hybrids or CNG) by 2008.

And Chicago’s Carriage Cab Company just welcomed its first hybrid, also a Ford Escape. It is joined in the city by just one other hybrid, that of an independent operator who began taking fares in June in his Toyota Prius. Chicago has ordered taxi firms with over 50 cabs to add at least one hybrid to their fleets. The cities of Denver, Colorado and Boston, Massachusetts are also looking to make the transition.

And while hybrid taxis may be all the rage in San Francisco and New York now, such vehicles have been plying the streets of Vancouver, British Columbia since 2000, when cabbie Andrew Grant first started offering taxi rides in his Toyota Prius there. Today about a third of all the taxis in Vancouver are hybrids and local lawmakers recently announced that the city would approve only eco-friendly vehicles when handling applications for new taxi companies or additions to existing fleets.

CONTACTS: Andrew Grant’s “Hybrid Taxi Driver” Blog; New York City’s Taxi & Limousine Commission