Cab it forward

Green Cab leads a push to make San Francisco's taxis more environmentally friendly
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news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Eight San Francisco cabbies fed up with their money-devouring gas guzzlers have founded a taxi company that is friendly to the environment and to workers.

Green Cab hit the streets April 25, flaunting its ideology with bright paint jobs. The driver-owned cooperative has about 14 drivers and three hybrid vehicles, and it plans to purchase two more cars next month.

"We're the only cab company in San Francisco where every driver is going to have an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process," cofounder Mark Gruberg, a taxi driver of 20 years, said. "We're driver owned and driver operated."

The business is blazing a trail that others may soon follow if Mayor Gavin Newsom realizes the goal he announced last October of having all SF taxis be clean and green by 2011. On June 12 the San Francisco Taxicab Commission will discuss ways of meeting this goal of, in a sense, transitioning the city's cabs from yellow to green — or at least greenish. Of the 1,351 taxis in 34 fleets that operate in the city, there are 140 Crown Victorias that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is made mostly from the greenhouse gas methane, and 40 hybrids, most of which are Ford SUVs. By October of this year, another 25 alternative-fuel or hybrid taxis are expected to be on the streets.

Heidi Machen, executive director of the Taxicab Commission, told us that taxis are required to be replaced after they've clocked 350,000 miles. On April 24 the commission decided to hold off on a policy that, she said, "would have restricted any replacement vehicles to be hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles."

A key reason the policy was not approved, Machen said, was concern that the replacement alternative-fuel vehicles would be mostly those that run on CNG, which burns more cleanly than gasoline but still produces greenhouse gases and gives vehicles worse fuel efficiency than hybrids have. "[CNG] is an improvement, but only an improvement over something terrible to start with," Gruberg said.

Hybrids, unlike purely gas-powered vehicles, have engines that switch to electric power when the cars are stationary due to, for instance, traffic jams or stoplights. According to Gruberg, hybrids get about 40 miles to the gallon for city driving — a drastic improvement over the 12 mpg of standard Crown Victorias. Hybrids emit 13 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every 30 miles they drive, compared with the 40 pounds that Crown Victorias produce.

So, besides hybrids, what's the next efficient upgrade to the Green Cab fleet: Hydrogen? Electric? Biodiesel? "We're open to anything that's going to have beneficial effects to the environment," Gruberg said, adding that the company's always looking for more ideas — and envirofriendly car donations.

Joe Mirabile, another Green Cab cofounder, emphasized the urgency of the company's role in fighting or at least lessening the adverse effects of global warming.

"We have to move fast," Mirabile said. "Hybrids aren't going to do everything, but they're one small piece of the puzzle."

At its next meeting the Taxicab Commission will discuss possible monetary incentives, such as a higher gate fee, to make it easier for cab companies to purchase green vehicles. Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard also told us that grant money is the key to putting more Priuses on the street.

"The Mayor has made a commitment to seek additional grant funding at the federal, state and regional levels to help taxi companies finance the more expensive vehicles," Ballard wrote in response to Guardian questions.

But even if Newsom can't get those grants or otherwise fails to meet his goal, at least San Franciscans have Green Cab, which Gruberg said has been getting 50 to 60 customers per day and lots of goodwill from passersby.

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