Evgeny Friedman, with slicked-back hair and Adidas trainers -- talkative in two languages and on two cell phones -- is the no-nonsense co-owner of Taxi Club Management Inc., managing a fleet of 650 cabs that cruise the streets of New York. Talk to him about the City Council’s plans to replace the city’s taxis with hybrid vehicles, and he has a...well...hybrid reaction.
The typical hybrid vehicle combines a gas
engine with an electric motor, using the gas engine to charge up the electric motor, and the electric motor to supply supplemental power when needed. The result is about half the gas consumption of a regular vehicle. It also means more headaches for mechanics learning to deal with the added complexity.
"My mechanic has to wear a rubber suit just to avoid electrocution,"
Complications aside, however, Friedman is a big fan of staying one step
ahead of the technology curve. That is why, when the Taxi and Limousine
Commission offered up its first set of hybrid vehicle medallions at
auction this spring, Friedman and his partners ponied up an $8 million
bid for 18 medallions.
"It's a no-brainer," he says. "Look at gas prices now and look at
the Middle East. Within five to six years there's not going to be a
regular gas taxi on the road. Every cab you see will be either hybrid
or alternative fuel."
And, he says, "with hybrid vehicles, my drivers don't have to put in so many hours, and I don't have so much turnover.”
Friedman is not the only enthusiastic pioneer. Hybrids are a can't-miss both politically and
fiscally. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was equally enthusiastic
in May when he signed a law requiring a 20 percent boost in city fleet's fuel
economy through additional hybrid vehicles.
But they are, by
definition, an imperfect solution, especially in a city already earning
poor marks for air quality.
No Hybrid Meeting NYC Standard?
In the course of putting the hybrid medallions to use,
Friedman and his partners have hit a major bureaucratic pothole. His
company received a congratulatory note from the commission after
winning the auction and had its initial $486,000 deposit accepted. A
few weeks after the deposits, however, the bad news arrived. Citing a
2001 mandate on minimum back seat leg room for authorized cab models,
the commission said it could find no hybrid models available yet on the
market that met the current standard.
Friedman promptly filed suit in local court to get a resolution on this
regulatory Catch 22. He suspects that somebody inside the Taxi and
Limousine Commission chafed at the medallions' reduced cost. The usual
market price for a New York City taxi medallion is $800,000, meaning
Friedman and his colleagues received a 40 percent subsidy at city
taxpayers' expense . Given the cabs' experimental status, however, he
expects to spend the bulk of that subsidy on maintenance costs: "At the end of the day, I'll probably break even.”
Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Matthew Daus, meanwhile, says the key
sticking point isn't cab company buy-in so much as manufacturer buy-in.
Taxi cabs, much like police cruisers, undergo a rigorous qualification
process, focusing on everything from interior amenities to long-term
durability. In the case of the Crown Victoria, currently the most
popular model among city cabs, the Ford Motor Company went out of its way
to build a special New York City model. So far, no manufacturer has
stepped forward to do the same for hybrid vehicles.
"There's no one who's told us yet that they want to focus on this as a
market," Daus says. "There's been give and take, but right now, [the
manufacturers] have not presented vehicles to us and asked them to put
them on the road for testing."
Bill To Push Hybrid Cabs
The New York City Council recently passed legislation to help break the impasse.
Three years after authorizing 900 new medallion sales on the condition
that nine percent go to hybrid vehicles at a discounted price, the
council passed a bill that now makes it possible for all new
medallion holders to operate hybrid cabs. Lauded by environmental
groups such as the Coalition Advocating for Smart Transportation and the
Natural Resources Defense Council, the bill leaves it up to the
commission to decide which exact models qualify but puts a 90 day limit
on the deliberation process.
Although the bill still awaits the mayor's signature, Daus says the
commission is ready to accept the council's challenge. It is currently
in talks with Ford and Toyota about taxi versions of the Escape and
Highlander SUV models respectively. The Toyota Prius, while currently
the most-recognized symbol of hybrid technology to most U.S. consumers,
remains "totally unworkable" Daus says because of interior legroom
"We're excited about the opportunities opening up, but we've had to be
proactive just to get to this point," Daus adds. "Usually the
manufacturers come to us and say, 'Can this be a cab?' In this case,
none of the vehicle models existed until a very recent period."
As for Friedman, he remains in limbo, waiting to see if the medallions
he legally purchased at a discount also qualify for the new program. He
expects a court to resolve the issue this summer.
"I hate to go up against the TLC, because, to be honest, the TLC has
made me a lot of money," he says. "I just want to close this issue and
put these vehicles on the road and make TLC part of the solution."
HYBRID BUSES IN HARLEM
Attempts to put hybrid diesel buses on the streets of Manhattan have
drawn less attention and, interestingly, less acclaim from local
environmental groups. Chalk it up to diesel's dirtier reputation as an
air pollution source and a still lingering dispute over bus depots north of Central Park.
The dispute began with a 1998 deal between West Harlem
Environmental Action, a group that goes by the acronym WE ACT and the
Metropolitan Transit Authority to put more "clean air" buses burning
compressed natural gas instead of diesel on Manhattan streets. Backed
by Governor George Pataki's office, the deal pegged the Manhattanville
bus depot at 133rd St. and Broadway as the most likely site, although
left the site open for negotiation.
In the following years representatives of New York City Transit, the
MTA agency responsible for public bus and subway transit inside the
five boroughs, pressed to make the Mother Clara Hale Depot, a smaller
facility located at 146th and Lenox Ave., the main site for compressed
natural gas buses, noting the smaller cost of re-conversion.
According to Swati Prakash, environmental health director for West
Harlem Environmental Action, the negotiation process began to
falter around 2003, the year New York City Transit opened a new depot
at 100th Street and closed one of its two remaining depots in
Lower Manhattan. When the agency announced a year later that it
would be housing hybrid diesel buses instead of compressed natural gas
buses at the Mother Clara Hale depot, negotiations broke down completely.
"We were waiting for the agreement to wend its way through the legal
department," says Praksash. "Then we read a story in the New York Times
saying that the MTA is set to use hybrid-diesel in its buses."
Prakash says hybrid buses are an unsuitable compromise for her group,
because Harlem and nearby neighborhoods already boast some of the
nation's highest youth asthma rates. According to a 2003 Harlem
Hospital study, one in four Harlem children has asthma, more than four
times the national rate as determined by
the Centers for Disease Control.
Linking those rates directly to diesel is tough, but not impossible.
Diesel engines tend to be more efficient than regular fuel and
compressed natural gas engines, lowering the number of carbon-based
"greenhouse gases" produced as well as overall fuel consumption. At the
same time, however, even the cleanest-burning diesel engines generate
soot and ozone, two chemical "triggers" of youth asthma according to
the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
"Despite tighter regulation of air pollution, widespread diesel engine
use generates microscopic particles that penetrate deep into human
lungs and circulation," reads an Academy summary of a recent health
journal article. These particles contain chemicals that lead to cell damage.
For New York City Transit, the choice of diesel hybrids over compressed
natural gas comes down to cost. In a 2003 study published by the U.S. Department of Energy, New York City Transit noted that hybrid diesel buses require no major
capital investments in terms of fuel storage, resulting in a $1,800
incremental cost per new bus vs. an $8,000 incremental cost per
compressed natural gas bus.
So far, New York City Transit has already seen delivery on its first
major order of 125 hybrid buses and is slated to have at least 325
operating on Manhattan streets by the end of the year. In the meantime,
members of WE ACT and their Harlem neighbors have taken their
complaints to the MTA board. In May they asked the board to resume
talks on a natural gas depot above Central Park but left without a
Prakash is undaunted. She labels her group's appearance at
MTA headquarters a "show of numbers" as her group gears up to remind
neighborhood voters of the deal forged back in 1998.
"The MTA already sites six diesel bus depots above 99th Street," she
says. "Community residents are not going to let this go."
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