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the green highway

The Nissan NV200 taxi van is seen during the 2012 New York International Auto Show at the Javits Center in New York, April 4, 2012.ANDREW BURTON

We've seen it so often; a one-size-fits-all public policy is announced with glorious, green intentions and it promptly blows up in everyone's faces. So it is with New York's Taxi of Tomorrow.

I've been interested in this program since it was rolled out last year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg grandly announced that New York's taxis had to become modern, roomy, fuel-efficient wonders that would delight New Yorkers and tourists alike and rid the streets of the gas-guzzling V-8 Crown Vics that had been around for years.

After years of evaluation, Bloomberg's bureaucrats in the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) came up with the Nissan NV200; it's a commercial van-turned-taxicab that has been ordered into service across nearly the entire taxi fleet.

It's a nice little package with big, wide doors, comfy seats, a "lower-annoyance" horn and even transparent roof panels to allow tourists to gawk at skyscrapers. They started to appear this year on Manhattan streets.

I commented at the time of the launch that I liked the four-cylinder engine in this Taxi of Tomorrow, but noted that it had no provision for wheelchair access.

Accessibility advocates were demonstrating outside the building where the big announcement was made, arguing that the entire taxi fleet should be useable by riders with wheelchairs. Lawsuits (this being the United States) were being prepared, claiming that the new taxi wouldn't meet the legal requirements for a fully accessible taxi system previously announced by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature. A federal judge ordered the TLC to come up with a plan for better access for wheelchair users.

As an afterthought, it has come up with a version that adds a ramp at the rear of the vehicle that, along with the removal of the rear seat, would allow wheelchair access. But the problems aren't over. New York cabbies are suddenly falling in love with hybrids; and that, of course, means another lawsuit.

The TLC went on the defensive and allowed that a hybrid could be used instead of the Taxi of Tomorrow as long as it had the same amount of interior space. Well, a Toyota Prius, the favourite of cabbies in Vancouver and other progressive cities, doesn't have as much space as a converted van. So, no deal. And that's where things stand in New York.

Confusion abounds, lawyers scurry about and nobody really knows what will replace New York's 13,000 cabs. They'd better come up with something because Manhattan has the lowest per capita car ownership rate in the United States and 600,000 daily taxi users.

Using hybrids for downtown taxis makes sense in anybody's city. Hybrids make no sense for trendy friends of mine who live in the country and drive almost exclusively on highways dragging along heavy batteries and electric motors that are hardly ever engaged. But for stop-and-go traffic, there's nothing better. You might have thought the TLC would have realized this.

Taxi owner-operators I've spoken with in Vancouver love their Prius hybrids because it lowers their gasoline bills, especially important on the Left Coast where there's a carbon tax added to every litre. They also like that the regenerative braking that charges their batteries for electric assist means brake pads and rotors nearly never wear out.

The problem is in cities like Toronto, where a small number of people own multiple taxi plates and buy one-year-old gas guzzlers at prices much lower than hybrids because the drivers, not the owners, buy the gas.

Nissan says there's a hybrid version of the NV200 coming and an all-electric version, too – some day.

Hybrid technology has proven to be ultra-reliable and the payback of the added investment is getting shorter. That's what the New York cabbies like. New York and Toronto should welcome and encourage hybrid taxi fleets for inner city use.

It makes sense. As they say in the country – horses for courses.