Atlantic Cities

Gas Shortage Underscores NYC's Move Away From Hybrid Cabs

Gas Shortage Underscores NYC's Move Away From Hybrid Cabs
Reuters

On Thursday my brother and I arrived back into LaGuardia after four days stranded outside New York. We didn't feel particularly lucky, but our cab driver offered a comment that suggested we sort of were: he said if we'd arrived tomorrow — meaning today — there might not be any cabs at all. He said most taxis in the city were running out of fuel. He had just enough left to drop me off and park somewhere and wait.

I can't say that Driver No. 5392941 (via receipt) had conducted a fleet-wide study of the subject, but it looks like he knew his stuff. Thursday evening taxi commissioner David Yassky announced the post-Sandy fuel shortage "will definitely reduce" the number of cabs in the city. The Colonial Pipeline that brings the northeast most of its gasoline remains slow to recover. Lines at gas stations are starting to feel like "something you see in the movies."

There might be a little relief in sight. Senator Charles Schumer announced Thursday that New York Harbor, which had been closed to commercial shipping since the storm, would reopen for fuel deliveries. Governor Chris Christie is permitting New Jersey gas stations to buy fuel from other states. Still the head of service stations for New York state told the Huffington Post that fuel levels "won't be normal until the end of next week." HuffPo explains why:

Though the region doesn't lack fuel supplies, delivering those supplies from their original source has been blocked in several ways. Key refineries, storage terminals and pipelines that serve the region have been without power, or suffered water damage, or both, and are only slowly coming back on line. Waterways for importing fuel have been closed. Many gas stations that have gasoline don't have the power to pump it. Other stations may have power, but no gasoline. Obstructed roads have made it more difficult to haul fuel to gas stations.

The situation underscores New York's recent move away from hybrid taxis. Last month Dana Rubinstein of the Capital news site wrote a wonderful short history of the city's attempt to create a fuel-efficient cab fleet. It began back in 2007 when Mayor Bloomberg told the Today show that "all our cabs" will soon be hybrids. The city released a plan requiring cabs to get 25 miles per gallon by 2008 or 30 mpg by 2009 — which in essence required a shift from Crown Victorias to hybrid models.

A taxi lobby said not so fast. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents fleet owners, filed a federal suit claiming the city had no right to direct fuel efficiency. The board's president called hybrids unsafe — too small, too light, too little "crush space," according to the New York Times. That seems like a bit of a red herring; medallion owners likely wanted to keep the status quo in which drivers, not the owners themselves, typically pay for gas.

Precise motive notwithstanding, the courts took the lobby's side. In 2008 Judge Paul Crotty of the Federal District Court in Manhattan granted an injunction against the hybrid shift based on the grounds that the plaintiffs "will be irreparably harmed" by the move and were likely to succeed in court. In his ruling, Crotty didn't really address the safety issue, but said the city was wrongly preempting federal emissions laws. Basically New York was over-regulating the industry [PDF]:

As written, the 25/30 Rules present taxi owners with an alternative: provide a service to the handicapped or buy a vehicle with improved fuel economy. … This is the kind of mandate that only a regulator makes—it is not typical of what a proprietor would do for itself, and it would be a strange choice to impose for one's own use.

The city challenged the ruling to no avail. In 2010 the Court of Appeals upheld the decision that followed the injunction, and in 2011 the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. When the Taxi of Tomorrow was announced, Mayor Bloomberg went out of his way to state that fuel efficiency was not a criteria, in an effort "to make clear it wasn't violating federal law," writes Rubinstein.

It doesn't look like things will change anytime soon. In March of 2011, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced a bill that would allow states and cities to regulate fuel economy standards for cabs — the so-called Green Taxis Act — but a similar bill already failed in 2009 and GovTrack gives the current version, which is in committee, a "0% chance of being enacted." Not exactly an encouraging forecast.

Several thousand cabs did make the switch to hybrids before the city's efforts were thwarted. For today, at least, many other owners probably wish they had too.

Top image: People wait for gas at a Hess fuelling station in Brooklyn, New York Harbor, November 2, 2012. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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