Hybrid Taxicabs Move County Toward Cleaner Rides

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

Arlington County taxis are going green -- some of them, anyway.

The environmentally friendly county unveiled last week the first of what will be at least five hybrid taxicabs, with up to 55 more expected to come into service by the end of the year. Hybrids have both electric and gas motors and emit fewer pollutants than do conventional vehicles.

Red Top Cab's first hybrid vehicle hit the streets Aug. 1, and the company will introduce four more within a few weeks. Red Top officials are seeking county approval for 20 additional hybrids. Another company, EnviroCAB, is applying to operate a 35-cab, hybrid-only fleet.

"This was a natural for us," said Charlie King, vice president of Red Top Cab, the county's largest taxi company. "We are a large fuel consumer, and we can be a large contributor to auto emissions in an urban environment like Arlington. These hybrids will produce about 40 percent of the emissions of a typical cab.''

Red Top's venture is an outgrowth of Fresh AIRE (Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions), which the county launched in January. It set a goal of 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from government buildings and operations by 2012 and encouraged residents and businesses to undertake similar efforts.

Since 2000, Arlington has had an incentive program that encourages developers to "build green." This year, the county approved a personal property tax break, averaging about $500, for residents who buy hybrid cars. And most newer county vehicles are hybrids or run on some sort of alternative fuel.

"We're trying to do our part to reduce global warming. Government should lead by example,'' said Arlington County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D), who then ended a telephone interview because, he said, he happened to be purchasing a Highlander Hybrid with his family.

For several years, every time Red Top officials came before the board, Ferguson has encouraged them to purchase hybrid vehicles. What convinced the company was rising fuel costs, King said. Hybrids burn much less fuel.

The five initial Red Top hybrids will have decal lettering across the back saying "clean fuel cab," according to the company, and the rear will say "Red Top goes green." The company, which owns 330 cabs and serves 80 percent of its customers through dispatches, hopes people request the hybrids.

King said Red Top is "committed to making the program work,'' but he acknowledged several potential obstacles. Although hybrid taxis are being tried in cities such as New York and San Francisco, King said they remain relatively rare nationally. One reason is that hybrid vehicles tend to be smaller than regular cabs. Red Top's Ford Escape hybrids seat one person in front and three in the back seat, "although the three people in the back seat can't be too large," King said.

"If you get a family of four and their luggage going to the airport, you could have an issue," he added.

The company will try to avoid problems by having dispatchers question airport-bound passengers in advance and by sending non-hybrid cabs to pick up larger parties.

Red Top is hoping to have county approval for the 20 additional hybrids by the end of the year.

The county board will take up EnviroCAB's proposal in the fall. Hans Hess, an EnviroCAB partner, signaled the company's intention to aggressively court environmentally friendly riders by criticizing the more established Red Top, founded in 1964.

"Any time anyone does something for the environment, it should be applauded," Hess said. "But residents should have a greater than 2 percent chance of getting a hybrid when they call. We would be an entirely hybrid fleet."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company