Cab of the Recent Past

Lee Hachadoorian on May 23rd 2011

The Bloomberg administration announced recently that it had chosen the new model for the New York City taxi cab, the minivan-like Nissan NV200. The van has a number of interesting features, including outlets and USB ports for charging cell phones and PDAs, and sliding doors for reducing dooring of pedestrians and cyclists (OK, neither USB ports nor sliding doors are exactly rocket science). The van also gets a respectable 25 mpg. Certainly not revolutionary, but a significant improvement over the roughly 15 mpg of the fleet-dominating Ford Crown Victoria. Not as good as the one-third of the fleet which are already hybrids, and which, since Nissan won an exclusive contract in this design competition, will also be replaced by the NV200 over the coming decade.

This represents a lost opportunity, although an inevitability once the courts blocked the city’s attempt to regulate the fuel economy of the taxi fleet. New York City had tried to regulate fuel economy directly in 2008, then in 2009 tried to encourage the adoption of more fuel efficient vehicles by allowing cab companies to charge drivers higher lease fees for hybrids but lower lease fees for the Crown Vics. Both approaches were rejected by the courts based on the fact that the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and the Clean Air Act both specifically prohibit states or localities from creating fuel economy standards or regulating emissions from motor vehicles (relevant sections for the EPCA and the CAA).

The policy outcome is wrong. In a federal system, where powers are divided among national, state, and local governments, local governments should be able to regulate local actions which impact local air quality. There are natural limits to this: obviously a city can’t pass a law regarding a power plant in a neighboring city, though it can lobby for a state or federal law to control emissions, or sue to enforce existing state or federal law. But it is well within the traditional powers of cities and other local governments to regulate local business for the purpose of protecting or improving local environmental quality, and this is exactly what New York City was trying to do.

Further, while there have been noises (although nothing concrete) in Congress about making an exception to the EPCA and the CAA for this purpose, arguably the law as it stands is appropriate but the court interpretation was wrong. I tend to agree with New York City’s filing in the case. The City argued that the laws were designed to prevent a state or local government from attempting to influence manufacturing standards through general rules about what vehicles could be purchased or registered within its territory. So if New York City passed a law requiring that all cars purchased or registered in New York City had to achieve 35 mpg or better, that would clearly be prohibited by federal law. But that’s not what New York was doing. As argued in its brief, New York was regulating a local business. Clearly this had an intended environmental effect, but not one that seems to be prohibited by the federal laws, because the laws prohibit a mechanism, not an intention or a result.

In fact, while I disagree with the courts’ interpretation of the law, from a policy perspective, one could argue that in some cases the law inappropriately preempts local power. Cities like Los Angeles and Denver have smog problems because surrounding mountains (and ocean breezes in the case of LA) form a barrier to air circulation, made worse when an inversion layer “caps” the bowl formed by the mountains. The one-size-fits-all nature of federal law is inadequate to address the needs of these cities. In a federal system, authority should be granted to the level of government best suited to address a given problem. Cities whose physical geographies create uncommon challenges should have the authority to meet those challenges.

Perhaps the problem with New York’s attempt to regulate taxi mileage was one of perception. In the absence of effective federal action on global climate change, New York City, along with other states and cities, has been pursuing initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. PlaNYC’s initiative to “Reduce emissions from taxis, black cars, and for-hire vehicles” appears in the Air Quality chapter, but also in the Climate Change chapter. While I don’t think that the federal government is doing enough with respect to global climate change, that is a national issue, and federal preemption of state and local laws might be appropriate in order to forge a national policy. It was perhaps too easy to read New York City’s intention as one that went beyond addressing local air quality.

So we get a Nissan with sliding doors and USB ports.

Filed in Federalism,Transportation,Urban | One response so far

One Response to “Cab of the Recent Past”

  1. […] incoming fleet of Nissans to the New York taxi scene and grew into a really amazing piece on some faults in our current Clean Air Act policy.  Thank you for bringing this to the Commons.  Maybe I just don’t keep an eye for these […]

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