Big cities take lead on ‘greening’ car fleets

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The mayor of New York has ordered that the city’s entire taxi fleet be converted to fuel-efficient hybrids by 2012 in a sign that energy ideology in the US is undergoing a climate-change shift.

  • New York cabs to go green 

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to replace the city’s 13,000 taxis with gas-electric hybrid vehicles, on 22 May 2007. 

Currently, there are just 375 hybrid vehicles circulating on the city’s streets but this number should increase to 1,000 by October 2008 and a further 20% of the fleet will be replaced every year up to 2012. The city is also working on introducing hybrid buses, garbage trucks and cars, the mayor said. 

The plan, which is expected to reduce the carbon emissions of New York City’s taxicab and for-hire vehicle fleet by 50%, or 215,000 tonnes, during the next decade, is part of Bloomberg’s wider sustainability strategy for the city, which includes a target of cutting carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. 

The strategy could also include the introduction of a congestion charge – similar to the London scheme – for drivers entering some of the busiest parts of Manhattan, Bloomberg announced in April. 

Shifting the entire taxi fleet to hybrids by 2012 appears an achievable goal as the lifespan of a New York City taxi is typically around three to five years. Furthermore, although hybrid vehicles are more expensive, it is expected that the increase in fuel efficiency could save taxi operators more than $10,000 per year. 

Different levels of ambition 

The Ford Crown Victoria, the current workhorse of the taxicab fleet, achieves only 14 miles per gallon (equivalent to 17 litres per 100 kilometres). But, after October 2008, all new vehicles entering the fleet will have to achieve a minimum of 25 miles per gallon (equivalent to a maximum of 9.4 litres per 100 km). One year later, all new vehicles will have to reach 30 miles per gallon (7.7 litres per 100km) and be hybrid. 

The plan remains less ambitious than EU plans to limit average CO2 emissions from all new cars to 120 grammes per kilometre by 2012 – a target that would correspond to a fuel consumption of just 4.5 litres per 100km for diesel cars and 5 litres/100km for petrol cars. 

However, Bloomberg’s intention to replace the existing fleet means that the impact will be speedier than in Europe, where older, more polluting cars will likely remain on the roads for at least another decade. 

  • Hydrogen cars – still a future solution? 

A team of UK scientists announced on 22 May that the widespread uptake of non-polluting hydrogen cars could be accelerated, thanks to a new breakthrough in storage technology, that would allow enough hydrogen to be stored on-board fuel-cell-powered cars to enable them to drive more than 300 miles before having to refuel. 

The question of storage was seen as one of the major challenges for the mass marketing of fuel cell cars. Nevertheless, other challenges, such as the fact that a hydrogen-based transport system would require a network of fuelling stations that would cost vast sums of money to set up, still need to be resolved (see LinksDossier on Hydrogen and Fuel Cells). 

"The idea is to make our cabs more efficient," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told NBC television, adding: "It will be the largest, cleanest fleet of taxis anywhere on the planet." 

"Because taxis are so heavily used, the new standards will have the equivalent effect of removing 32,000 individually-owned gas-powered vehicle from our streets," he said, adding: "These cars just sit there in traffic sometimes belching fumes. This does a lot less. It's a lot better for all of us." 

Ford spokesman Jim Cain said the company was not worried by the announcement that the Crown Victoria would be phased out of the taxi fleet. "The goals are laudable and it's up to us to work with the city and the taxi agency to make sure we're part of the solution," he said. 

Industry analysts said that the plan provides an opportunity for automakers to grow their hybrid business and bring down the overall cost of production. "You might think 13,000 vehicles is a large number, but in automotive production terms it is not a large number at all," Brett Smith, from Ann Arbor, a Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, told Bloomberg. 

Health associations, such as the American Lung Association of the City of New York, welcomed the move. "Putting more clean cabs on New York City streets is an important step in our fight to improve air quality, especially for the one million asthmatics in our city," said Louise Vetter, president and CEO of the association. 

Cities are increasingly suffering from congestion and high levels of pollution, noise, and accidents, largely caused by excessive use of the private car. 

A number of European cities have taken the initiative to develop traffic-control systems, in order to encourage a modal shift towards greener transport modes. London, for example, moved to congestion-charging in February 2003. 

Moves to make car fleets cleaner are also being made in Europe, in order to progress towards the goal, agreed by EU governments in March 2007, to unilaterally cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% by 2020 (see LinksDossier on Cars & CO2). 

Since the US President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, the United States has come to be seen by many Europeans as the leader of the "axis of climate-change evil" and the European Union has claimed world leadership in efforts to combat global warming. 

However, these moves are being fiercely resisted by the automotive industry, which fears loss of competitiveness. 

In the meantime, US energy ideology appears to be undergoing a climate-change shift. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has become the champion of climate-change activists, introducing measures for a 25% reduction of emissions by 2020 and a low-carbon standard for automotive fuels. 

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks eager to follow in his footsteps. 

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