IMAGE: HYBRID TAXIS
Adam Rountree  /  AP
These and three other Ford Escape hybrids have joined the New York City taxi fleet.
updated 11/11/2005 7:17:12 AM ET 2005-11-11T12:17:12

Hybrid taxis that get double the gas mileage of traditional cabs and generate far less pollution have begun rolling in small numbers on New York’s streets.

Delighted environmentalists, city officials and the chairman of Ford Motor Co. posed with the owner of the first hybrid cabs atop a Manhattan auto showroom Thursday to belatedly celebrate last week’s quiet debut of the vehicles.

For now, there are only six of the bright yellow Ford Escapes in the city’s vast taxi fleet, but owner Gene Freidman said he planned to have 18 on the street by Thanksgiving.

City Councilman David Yassky, who pushed for the legislation authorizing the use of the vehicles as cabs, predicted that thousands more will follow.

“I’m determined that in five years, every cab on the streets of New York will be a hybrid,” Yassky said.

The small SUVs run on a combination of gas and electricity and generally emit no exhaust when they are moving slower than 25 mph. They drive the same as regular cabs and never have to be recharged, but passengers will notice some differences.

Security, savings trade-off
The Escape has less leg room and a narrower back seat bench than the big Ford Crown Victorias that make up the bulk of the city’s fleet. Some cabbies may also balk at the lack of a security barrier between the front and back seats. There wasn’t enough room, officials said, to include the partitions.

Drivers, however, might be willing to risk lessened security in exchange for lower fuel costs.

Cabbie Gennadiy Abramov, who was on hand for Thursday’s rollout, said he has saved an average of $20 per shift since he started driving a hybrid.

Over time, those savings could mean thousands of extra dollars per year for cabbies, most of whom pay for gas out of their own pockets.

Abramov said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the smaller space. “The customers want all taxis to be hybrids,” he said.

City incentive
Whether or not the vehicles proliferate, however, may depend most on whether the owners of the city’s cab fleets can find some long-run financial benefit to justify their extra cost.

Freidman, who operates a fleet of about 650 cabs, said he only got interested after the city offered a chance to buy new taxi medallions for alternative-fuel vehicles at a deep discount.

Under the deal, Freidman and two business partners purchased 18 of the licenses at a savings of about $170,000 each — more than enough to offset the extra $5,000 to $6,000 cost of buying a hybrid.

New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission later had second thoughts about the deal and tried to call it off. A court battle ensued. The City Council intervened and passed a law this summer that essentially ordered the commission to approve the use of hybrids as cabs.

Future hybrid purchasers won’t get a similar incentive, but Freidman said he thought owners would buy them anyway.

“It’s a no-brainer. The drivers love them,” he said. “I didn’t start out green, but I’m green now.”

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