Energy experts say city’s new fuel-efficiency standard for taxicabs is too weak.
When the City Council voted earlier this year to overhaul the city’s taxicab ordinance, among the changes that passed was a requirement all taxicabs be fuel efficient within a decade.
City officials have repeatedly touted the fuel-efficiency rule as a groundbreaking green initiative, and a sign of the city’s commitment to reducing global warming emissions.
When energy experts were asked this month to critique the policy, however, some said the way the city defined fuel-efficient — 23 miles per gallon, city driving — makes the rule so weak that its environmental impact will be modest at best.
“It’s not only timid, but one could argue that it is a do-nothing proposition,” said David Morris, a former White House energy advisor and vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit sustainability think tank.
City officials defended the mileage standard as a step in the right direction, and some taxicab owners and drivers said they’re going to struggle enough to meet that mark, let alone anything higher.
A citizen’s committee that advises the city on environmental issues is considering whether to recommend changes to the definition. And a council member who proposed the rule said he will push for increasing the standard next year.
A new concept
The taxicab ordinance was amended by the City Council on March 30 after months of debate and planning by city staff, council members, and a task force of taxicab owners and drivers. The primary reform was lifting the city’s cap on licenses, which have long been sold at a premium among owners on an unregulated secondary market.
As that discussion started, Council Members Cam Gordon (Ward 2) and Gary Schiff (Ward 9) introduced the fuel-efficiency requirement. Their amendment left it up to city staff members to define fuel efficient. That process involved employees in the city’s environmental coordinating and regulatory services offices, as well as the taxicab task force.
Ricardo Cervantes, the city’s deputy director for business licenses, said the goal was to find a definition that improved on existing fuel efficiency but also took into account the industry’s preference for vehicles with large trunks and spacious backseats.
Currently, most taxicabs in Minneapolis — and nationwide — are Ford Crown Victorias, gas-guzzling workhorses that are usually bought for cheap at police auctions after they’re retired as squad cars. Owners like them because they’re durable, easy to repair and proven to last well past 200,000 miles.
The group identified 23 miles per gallon as a bar that left companies a variety of only slightly smaller vehicles from which to choose, Cervantes said. Newly licensed companies that needed to comply with the rule this year have commonly turned to the Chevrolet Malibu, a mid-sized sedan rated for 24 miles per gallon city and 34 highway.
It’s a considerably lower definition of fuel efficient than New York set for its taxicabs two months later. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in May that all his city’s taxicabs will be held to a 30 mile per gallon standard by 2012. And the U.S. Senate passed a bill last month calling for all new cars sold in the country to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
Gayle Prest, the city’s environmental coordinator, said it’s important to keep in mind Minneapolis created its taxicab fuel-efficiency rule before New York and before the U.S. Senate voted in favor of raising national fuel-efficiency standards.
“Minneapolis is an environmental leader,” Prest said. “When this passed, it was a brand new concept nationwide, and it’s a 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency over what’s currently on the market.”
Most Crown Victorias average between 14 and 17 miles per gallon. But cars with that poor of mileage are on their way out, regardless of the city’s rule, thinks Morris, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
The city’s taxicab fuel-efficiency amendment is potentially meaningless, he said, because other regulatory and economic forces, like rising gas prices, are likely to bring swifter change to the taxicab industry.
“It’s very hard to believe that, come 10 years from now, that manufacturers would be building any cars that were under 23 miles per average,” Morris said. “To me, it’s inconceivable that that would occur.”
Christopher Childs, co-chair of the local Sierra Club’s clean air and renewable energy committee, said he doesn’t doubt there was a genuine effort behind the fuel-efficiency rule, but the final definition is disappointing.
“I’ll celebrate anything that remotely resembles progress, but if you’re going to set this alongside where this culture really needs to be aiming, I have to say my initial reaction is that this is aiming a little low,” Childs said.
Ken Bradley, senior policy associate with Fresh Energy, a St. Paul nonprofit, said the 23-miles-per-gallon definition for fuel efficient is “amazingly low.” At all levels of government, policymakers need to seriously tackle energy and global warming issues if the planet is going to solve its looming crisis.
“This is not one where we can hope to take baby steps. We’ve taken no steps for 30 years. Now is when we need to take big leaps,” Bradley said.
Hybrids: Not feasible?
Cervantes said he doesn’t consider the fuel-efficiency rule a baby step, but that slow change is important when regulating.
“I think, in any industry, you have to take incremental steps to get to an end,” Cervantes said. “We all agree that we would like to see hybrids, but we wouldn’t have taxis out there if we jumped right to hybrids. Economically, it just wouldn’t be feasible for the industry.”
Taxicab companies hold licenses for more than 400 cabs and employ about 800 drivers in Minneapolis. Companies licensed for the first time this year are already required to have 10 percent of their vehicles be fuel-efficient, as defined by the city. The rule takes effect for other companies in 2008.
“It’s not going to work. It’s just, it’s not going to work out,” said Nadil Ali, owner of Gold Star Taxi. Ali said fuel-efficient cars are too small and too expensive for Minneapolis taxicab companies to afford. He paid $11,000 this summer for a 2005 Chevrolet Malibu, about twice as much as he spends for a Crown Victoria, he said.
Driver Don Weber is only putting about $35 in the tank each shift, compared to $50 when he drove a Crown Victoria. That $15 per shift savings averages out to about $5,000 per year. Still, Weber sees the car’s smaller size as a major disadvantage. He said he’s already been turned down at hotels because he couldn’t get a party’s luggage in the trunk.
“It just won’t fit,” Weber said.
But Josh Nelson, a driver for North Star Taxi, said he hasn’t had any complaints in his 2004 Malibu, and he doesn’t see why the industry couldn’t move toward more fuel-efficient cars.
“It’s ideal. It’s better gas mileage. I save money. ‘I’ve never had complaints,” Nelson said.
Bari Niaz, owner of Checker Cab, said the fuel-efficient Ford Focus he bought this year has been in demand among his drivers. So much so, in fact, he said a driver quit because he was upset about not being assigned the car.
“It helps the drivers out, and I haven’t heard any complaints,” he said.
The gas savings are a good perk to help keep drivers happy, Niaz said, even if they cost more to buy. He’s in the process of trying to add four more fuel-efficient cars to his fleet.
Still, Niaz is skeptical whether companies like his would be able to meet higher fuel-efficiency standards, like those being imposed in New York, without some assistance from the city.
So was Robin Kyle, a former cab driver who recently looked into starting a fuel-efficient taxicab company with a group of other drivers.
“We thought it was ridiculous how much you have to spend on gas, and we all, basically, wanted to do something progressive and something that made sense for the future,” Kyle said.
In the end, they decided to start a luxury transportation company, Best Car Service, and the collective runs multiple cars on biodiesel.
Kyle remembers days as a cab driver putting $50 worth of gas into a Crown Victoria. Now, he spends $20 or less on biodiesel for the same number of miles. He estimates his Volkswagen Passat gets between 30 and 36 miles per gallon in the city, and up to 50 on the highway.
But he doesn’t think their business model would work as a cab company. The diesel cars they bought cost too much to operate as cabs. Kyle said the 23-mile-per-gallon standard might not sound very good, but it still won’t be easy to meet.
“It’s laughable when you talk about fuel efficiency in general, but it’s not laughable when it comes to the cab business,” he said.
Jim Kliesch, a research associate with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said considering the average cab currently gets less than 17 miles per gallon, the move to 23 “isn’t trivial.”
“That’s a pretty significant step up, from 17 to 23 in city [driving],” Kliesch said. Based on city figures that cabs tally more than 15 million miles per year in Minneapolis, Kliesch estimated the rule would prevent about 200 tons of carbon emissions next year, and an additional 200 tons every year after that until the standard is phased in.
Raising the bar
Council Member Gordon said he had a higher standard in mind when he and Schiff proposed the rule. He voted against the final amendment, in part because of the weakened fuel-efficiency definition, he said.
“Hopefully we can raise that,” Gordon said. “I know others have been disappointed.”
Gordon said he hopes to revisit the standard next year after getting a recommendation from the Citizens’ Environmental Advisory Committee, a group that makes recommendations to the City Council. Dean Abrahamson, chair of the committee, said he was surprised at how low the standard was defined by the city.
“I think there are members who would like to see a more realistic standard, a more stringent requirement,” Abrahamson said.
Cervantes said he expects the fuel-efficiency definition will change over time, also, as cab companies experiment with what vehicles work.
“This is our first step. Does it mean that we’ll be at this first step three years from now? Probably not,” he said.
Contributing writer Dan Haugen lives in Northeast and edits the online publication, “The Northeast Beat.”