Big fuel costs have cabbies thinking small

| Business, Environment |

If Joni Mitchell were to rewrite her hit Big Yellow Taxi, she might be inclined to call it Little Green Hybrid instead.

It
wouldn’t be nearly as catchy and it has a strange Martian ring to it,
but with fuel costs and greenhouse gases both crowding the upper
atmosphere, it might prove more accurate as cabbies look to more
efficient cars to preserve their livelihood.

In Toronto last week, the council committee that oversees taxis
endorsed a fuel surcharge in the face of $1.30-per-litre gasoline,
while Vancouver, where gas costs even more, is being hit with a similar
charge that was approved yesterday. B.C.’s Passenger Transportation
Board has introduced a temporary fuel surcharge of 3.5 per cent on all
taxicabs in the province. The surcharge will be implemented on July 12
and is effective until there is a significant change in fuel prices.

Toronto is also looking at relaxing its taxi legroom requirements to allow smaller cars and more hybrid models onto the streets.

The measures can’t come soon enough for Louis Seta, president of the
Toronto Taxi Industry Association, who says his city has dragged its
feet too long at the increasing expense of beleaguered cabbies.

While the fuel surcharge will increase fares by 11.4 to 17.5 per
cent, depending on the length of the trip, gas prices have soared more
than 30 per cent since the last big increase in 2005, and insurance
costs are up 20 per cent this year alone, Mr. Seta said.

"The industry has traditionally been willing to eat the extra costs,
even though it means every time we have to eat extra costs, our
standard of living goes down, which people don’t seem to understand,"
he said.

While New York has mandated that all 13,000 of the city’s cabs be
replaced with hybrids by 2012, and that all new taxis meet certain
emissions and mileage targets as of this year, Toronto has so far "just
said no" to smaller cars and mandatory fuel-saving measures, Mr. Seta
said. "I believe that we should be moving toward hybrid fleets or
fuel-efficient cars, whatever it is that we can get. It only makes
sense to operate something that’s more efficient."

Opinions differ on what that "something" will be.

With a grant from the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, Co-op Cabs launched
a one-year test last November to compare 10 Toyota Camry hybrids to 10
conventionally powered Camrys in terms of performance and fuel
efficiency.

The jury is still out.

"There is some savings, no doubt about it, but it’s not very much,"
Co-op CEO Peter Zahakos said. "These are preliminary statistics that we
have, so it’s not 100 per cent sure, and that’s without factoring in
the costs for maintenance," which are unknown for hybrids over the
five-year lifespan of a high-use cab in Toronto, he said.

Hybrid or not, fuel-sipping cars are fast becoming a no-brainer in
the taxi world, and if one upstart American company can pull it off,
interior space won’t have to be sacrificed in the process.

The Standard Taxi, as it will be called, is not exactly pretty; the
boxy yellow prototype, which produced great buzz at trade shows in
Seattle, Las Vegas and New York during the past two years, is the
automotive equivalent of SpongeBob SquarePants, the homely-but-loveable
cartoon character.

Still, if it can deliver fuel efficiency through an engine specially
tuned to cab-driving cycles, it stands to win industry hearts with its
low-floored, high-ceilinged cabin, bus-like seats, roll-on wheelchair
accessibility and flat, easily replaceable body panels.

"I’ve got deposits on a couple of them," said Jim Bell, general
manager at Diamond Taxi in Toronto, who had a quick ride in the
Standard during a trade show and loved it.

Production, originally scheduled to begin late last year, was
delayed after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced New York’s tough new
efficiency requirements for taxis, Mr. Bell said, which prompted
Standard to take its drive train back to the drawing board.

Others aren’t as enthusiastic about the car. Mr. Seta called the
design "terrible," while Mr. Zahakos said it does not meet the TTC’s
current regulations for wheelchair accessibility.