taxi.jpgPaul Gillespie had a vision that many taxi industry leaders thought was unachievable.

As a member of the newly formed San Francisco Taxi Commission, in 1998 Gillespie envisioned rolling out a fleet of zero-emission vehicles.

While that goal is still a way off, today Mayor Ed Lee, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and city leaders joined Gillespie to announce the city’s taxi fleet has surpassed an emissions reduction goal set four years ago.

The 2008 Green Taxi Ordinance–enacted while Newsom was still mayor–specified a reduction of average-per-vehicle greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels.

“Not many people believed it was possible,” Newsom said at a news conference today held at the city’s Yellow Cab Co-Op, where Gillespie and others announced that there has been a 49 percent reduction in those average emissions.

In 1990, the average San Francisco taxi emitted 59 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Today, the average city taxi emits 30 tons, city officials said.

“The option is no longer there to do things the way they once were,” Newsom said. “The clean taxi program has shown that aggressive action is possible at the local level to make reductions in carbon emissions.”

Overall emissions from the fleet have been reduced by 10 percent, officials said. The reduction comes even as the city’s fleet has expanded from 821 vehicles in 1990 to 1,432 today, of which 92 percent–or 1,319 vehicles–are hybrid or compressed natural gas vehicles. Those numbers reflect so-called “eligible” vehicles and exclude the fleet’s wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Newsom–who said he got to know Gillespie in the days before the Taxi Commission was created–and others, including Lee, credited Gillespie’s vision and passion for helping to make San Francisco a leader in reducing taxi-related carbon emissions.

“San Francisco taxicabs are the cleanest in the U.S. and a model to other taxi fleets around the world,” Lee said.

The commission, Gillespie said, advocated for landmark legislation mandating emissions goals and greenhouse gas reduction for the entire taxi fleet–the first such legislation in the country.

In exchange for the commission’s requiring more hybrid vehicles, companies were allowed to charge drivers $7.50 more per shift. Over the course of a vehicle’s lifetime, the increase adds up to about $16,000 — the difference between the cost of a used police car and a new hybrid vehicle.

“That $16,000 really was the difference between shifting that old paradigm of buying used police cars and running them into the ground as a taxi or buying a new hybrid,” he said.

Speakers today stressed how the hybrid vehicles have also benefited the drivers in reducing fuel costs and other maintenance costs, such as brake replacement. Drivers, on average, save about $25 a shift in fuel costs by driving a hybrid vehicle, Gillespie said.

Newsom noted that the situation is a triple win–for cab companies, drivers and city residents–because of the improvements in air quality associated with the fleet, making San Francisco the “Greenest Taxi City in America.”

Although Gillespie has largely achieved his vision, there is only so much that could be done to meet that goal with current resources.

Until car makers market hybrid wheelchair-accessible vehicles, San Francisco’s fleet will never be 100 percent low-emission/green because 7.5 percent of the fleet needs to be accessible for disabled riders.

Unlike a handful of other U.S. cities such as New York that have attempted but failed to seriously launch hybrid taxi vehicles, San Francisco made good on its promises, a success that Gillespie attributes to the city’s “native open-mindedness.”

San Francisco’s fleet is largely comprised of hybrid models manufactured by three different auto makers–Ford, Toyota and Nissan.

New York’s story is one plagued by conflict and lawsuits after that city tried to award a 10-year contract by competition to a single manufacturer to provide all of the city’s 13,000 yellow cabs. The winning vehicle, the Nissan NV200, is neither disabled-accessible nor a hybrid.

“New York has been a serious disaster,” Gillespie said, noting their approach lacked transparency and collaboration. A key part of San Francisco’s policy, Gillespie said, was allowing the cab companies to charge more for drivers to rent the vehicles.

“There’s an alternative story, and that’s the San Francisco experience,” Gillespie said. “Perhaps we’ll tell our story and other cities will get it.”

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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