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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New York City Taxis: Clearing the Air With Natural Gas?

Air Date: Week of

In the United States, only Los Angeles is worse than New York for air quality. But air in the Big Apple could get significantly cleaner if the thousands of taxi cabs working its streets switched from gasoline to cleaner burning compressed natural gas. Getting cabbies to buy these vehicles, or convert their present ones is an expensive proposition. But, as Neal Rauch reports, a new incentive package may help the fleet to make the switch.


KNOY: About 4,000 people die prematurely each year in New York City because of air pollution. In the United States, only Los Angeles has a worse record, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. New York City air could get significantly cleaner, however, if the thousands of taxi cabs working its streets switched from gasoline to cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Getting cabbies to buy these vehicles or convert their present ones is an expensive proposition. But as Neal Rauch reports, a new incentive package may help the fleet make the switch.

(Traffic sounds)

MARTINEZ: Hey, how are you?

WOMAN: Good, how are you? I'm going to 123 West 79th Street.


WOMA:N Thanks.

RAUCH: Another day, another fare for hackey Silvio Martinez. Recently I joined him as he plied the streets of Midtown Manhattan. To most passengers his taxi looks, sounds, and probably even tastes like any other Yellow Medallion Cab in New York City.

(More traffic sounds; a horn honks)

RAUCH: But it's not the same. When Mr. Martinez says he's going to fill up his car with gas, he really means it. Instead of regular liquid gasoline, he uses compressed natural gas. And he notices the difference.

MARTINEZ: This car rides very like a railroad car. Because natural gas is stronger than gasoline.

RAUCH: Mr. Martinez says natural gas fuel, which is the same stuff many people use in their stoves, is more powerful than the highest octane gasoline. That means better pickup and better performance in rough city driving. He also gets better mileage, and natural gas costs less than gasoline, the equivalent of about $1.00 a gallon: a bargain for New York City. But even more important to Silvio Martinez is that it's good for the environment. So in 1995, he was one of the first owners to convert his cab to natural gas.

MARTINEZ: If you want to have healthy children tomorrow, we 've got to do something today for them.

RAUCH: Compressed natural gas is like regular gasoline, a fossil fuel. So it does add pollution to the air, including carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. But it burns much cleaner than gasoline. Richard Kassel, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says new natural gas vehicles emit 80% fewer hydrocarbons and particulates than regular gasoline cars, and cut in half carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides emissions.

KASSEL: When you're standing on Madison Avenue and you're looking downtown, you see a sea of yellow cabs. When you breathe on Madison Avenue you're breathing some of the highest pollution levels east of the Mississippi. If you can clean up those cabs, you've gone a long way to cleaning up the whole problem.

RAUCH: New York State's new incentive package is not the first attempt to encourage owners to switch to natural gas. Since 1995, the city has allowed owners to keep their natural gas cabs on the road 2 years longer than regular taxis before being required to replace them. Yet there are only 175 natural gas cabs currently in use. The alternative fuel has been slow to catch on for several reasons. It takes longer to refuel and there are only 14 natural gas stations in the entire city. Fill-ups are also more frequent, unless you have a larger gas tank, which takes up half the trunk space. But probably the biggest hurdle is the fact that it costs an extra $6,000 to outfit a new cab with natural gas, and just about as much to convert a gasoline model. So the state put together a public/private incentive plan to defray the additional expenses. Most of the money comes from Federal funds. About 20% is being provided by the private sector. New York Governor George Pataki announced the package at the New York International Auto Show.

PATAKI: The conversion can be accomplished without any cost to the owner of the cabs. A cab company purchasing a new natural gas cab will not have to pay one penny more than they would if they were buying a conventionally- fueled vehicle.

(Auto shop noises)

RAUCH: That's an offer that Shalom Burstein couldn't refuse. He owns Winner's Garage in Queens and purchased 100 new natural gas cabs from Ford. He likes the cars because, he says, they're easier to maintain.

BURSTEIN: Given that this is a relatively clean kind of fuel, there's less in the way of oil changes, tune-ups, less problems with catalytic converters, overheating in the summer. It's [inaudible].

RAUCH: Mr. Burstein wanted to try natural gas cabs for a long time. But it wasn't feasible until the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey lifted its ban on those vehicles on its bridges and in its tunnels. The Port Authority had been concerned about the explosive potential of compressed natural gas, or CNG. Tests convinced the agency of the new cars' safety, and Diane McGrath McKeckney, chairwoman of New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission, says any lingering doubts were put to rest after a natural gas taxi was in an accident.

McKECKNEY: This cab was rear-ended by a New York City bus that went out of control. There were some real tragic incidents that came out of that. But one of the positive notes was the CNG cab held up very, very well.

RAUCH: There was no fire, no leak, even though the cab was totaled. As it turned out, the taxi belonged to Pioneer Natural Gas cab owner Silvio Martinez. Because he liked his alternative vehicle so much, he bought a new one before the current incentive package was put into place.

(Traffic sounds)

MARTINEZ: Since that bus hit me at the wrong time. The bus was supposed to hit me now.

RAUCH: New York is not the first US city to get natural gas-powered vehicles. Atlanta has a fleet of 70 taxis. But New York is different. The Natural Resources Defense Council's Richard Cassel says the city's high concentration of taxis makes it the ideal place for natural gas fuel to make a difference in air quality.

CASSEL: The combination of New York City Yellow Cabs, buses, city public agencies, United Parcel and other private delivery vans moving toward natural gas, there's really no other city that's taking that multi-fleet approach to clean vehicles, and it makes sense. Because other than Los Angeles, maybe Houston, there is no other city that has New York-style air pollution.

RAUCH: But any change in air quality will come slowly. The Taxi and Limousine Commission's goal is to have 600 natural gas cabs on the street by the year 2000. That leaves more than 11,000 yellow cabs and some 40,000 livery cabs still using gasoline. And most of New York City's 5,000 buses will still be diesel-powered for the foreseeable future. All of which will continue to spew pollutants into the city's air. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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