Thursday, July 19, 2007

Change the Taxi, Change the Mindset

Should I ever become inspired to purchase a Hummer H2, the city of Chicago could certainly help me get a decent return on my investment. All I would have to do to defray its atrocious $55,510 cost is register the veritable mammoth with the Department of Consumer Service’s Public Vehicle Division and start up a chauffer service for the well-to-do. Add a few extra bells and whistles and, provided the vehicle had running boards and an eight-passenger maximum capacity, I would be licensed and (hopefully) making money faster than I could count it.

The H2 is one of 61 vehicles on the Public Vehicle Division’s Approved Vehicles List, a collection of public passenger vehicles that comply with Section 9-112-060 of the City of Chicago municipal code. The makes and models of vehicles used by the 21 local taxi companies must be on the list as well, but this is of little consequence because requirements are basic and few. Perusing the list, it appears as though virtually any automobile can be licensed for public use--that is, driven constantly around town as a source of income for its owner and operator. The next time you hail a cab, you could find yourself in a Cadillac Escalade, a Ford Expedition or a Lincoln Navigator because these gas hogs (along with over a dozen others) are also approved.

Of course, taxi companies and the drivers who work for them are not interested in filling an Escalade’s 26-gallon tank when gas is around $3.45 a gallon, especially considering its lowly 13 miles-per-gallon average. There is indeed a slew of nonsensical vehicles on the list, ones that, for their price tags and gas mileage, could never realistically turn a profit in the public transportation industry. So what is the taxi of choice, the most popular cab in Chicago? Do you even need to ask? I did, but only for purposes of confirmation. And sure enough, at nearly 90% of the cab companies I called, Ford’s Crown Victoria was the immediate, sure-fire answer. Had all of them answered the phone, this figure would likely be even higher. Common sense? Hardly.

From 1992 to 2006, no model of the Crown Vic ever broached 19 mpg, and where city driving (read: taxi driving) is concerned, the figure is closer to 17. This is quite average for an SUV, but pathetic for a sedan. Simply put, the ubiquitous Crown Vic is a gas-guzzler. It is little wonder that cabbies are calling for the city to implement a $1 gasoline surcharge and/or a 25% rate increase on every fare. Perhaps if cabbies drove more fuel-efficient vehicles, like the 13,000 hybrids New York is currently implementing, such measures would not be necessary.

Some people would protest the move, probably on the basis of comfort or interior space. Even in these selling-point categories, however, Ford’s bread and butter is only marginally better than the others. Front- and rear-headroom measurements in a 2001 Crown Vic, checking in at 39.4 and 38.0 inches, respectively, are virtually identical to those of a Honda Accord of the same year, which boasts 40.0 and 37.6 inches in those categories, respectively. The story is the same with legroom dimensions—certainly an important factor in taxis; the Crown Vic’s front (42.5 inches) and rear (39.6 inches) best those of the Accord (42.1 and 37.9 inches, respectively) to a minute and unnoticeable degree. The kicker is that a 2001 Crown Vic gets about 380 miles per tank of gas, which is roughly 30 fewer than a Honda Accord made in the same year, despite the fact that the Accord’s tank requires three fewer gallons to fill.

The disparity in gasoline consumption between the two would on a single-case basis be as minute as their interior dimension differences, but multiplying it by Chicago’s 6,300 taxis and the 365 days per year that they are in service yields notable differences in consumption. Making the Accord Chicago’s new taxi standard would have positive ramifications for the local economy (as dollars normally spent on gas could be used elsewhere), to say nothing of the improvements in air quality it would bring about. Further still, the move would place Chicago in the vanguard of environmentally-friendly metropolitan centers and would give a shot in the arm to current political discourse about reducing dependence on foreign oil.

This would be an uphill battle, however, because good gas mileage is seemingly far from being a Chicago priority. This is illustrated by the Public Vehicle Division’s conspicuous lack of a required minimum mpg, a reality which would allow for the licensing of my hypothetical H2 for taxi purposes. Furthermore, an editorialist in the Tribune a few weeks ago blamed cabbies’ gasoline plight on their own driving habits, citing hard braking and accelerating as the main causes of wasted gas. It is unfortunate, though likely, that this represents widespread sentiment. While it may accurately describe some taxi drivers, it erroneously places in their hands a high degree of control. In this way, the rationale fails to address a number of the industry’s realities: namely, that customer preference determines A/C and window settings, that traffic determines the amounts of engine idling and cruise control time, and that cab companies determine what car to purchase and how often it is serviced.

All of these are relevant factors in the mpg equation, and it is thus ultimately incumbent upon local cab companies to buy more fuel-efficient cars. This top-down approach to conservation would admittedly involve significant initial investment, and should thus be spurred by government incentives. The Crown Victoria is an SUV in a sedan’s body, and it must go the way of the dinosaur to make room for a model automobile, one able to set an example for local motorists and truly give credence to Mayor Daley’s push for a greener city. Bike paths, after all, can only go so far.


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