Sandy Gas Shortages Make it Clear: We Need More Hybrid and Electric Vehicles

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On Saturday afternoon, like many New Yorkers who had been forced out by Superstorm Sandy, I finally moved back into my apartment in downtown Manhattan. After a couple of post-storm nights in my home—which Sandy had left without power, heat, hot water or cell phone service—I had decided to stay with friends uptown where the storm’s impacts were less immediate and uncomfortable.

However, on my journey back to my neighborhood, cabs were scarce and I shared one with three strangers, each of whom was paying an exorbitant sum for the pleasure. “Sorry, guys,” the driver explained, “I was waiting in line for gas since 3:00 this morning and wasn’t able to pick up passengers for hours.” We all understood the cabbie’s plight, and I don’t think any of us minded pitching in and paying a bit extra to help out.

The gas shortage was an effect of the storm that I think most New Yorkers weren’t expecting. Most of us were at least somewhat prepared for the loss of power (flashlights and candles: check), the lack of hot food (trail mix and peanut butter: check) and the loss of modern entertainment (board games and beer: check).

But most people had no idea that, long after power and other services had been restored in much of the city, people would still be queuing up, in many cases for miles and hours, for gasoline.

Now, as I have blogged before, NRDC is concerned about the elimination of most hybrid taxicabs from New York City’s streets as part of the “Taxi of Tomorrow” program. The program will require most NYC taxis to be identical Nissan NV200 vehicles with large footprints—both in terms of carbon emissions and gas usage. Suffice it to say that we’re not thrilled with the current agreement between the City and Nissan. Right now, many New Yorkers love the sight of the thousands of current hybrid cabs on the street; it makes us feel that we’re trying to make real progress in battling air pollution and climate change.

But those cars will be taken off the road soon, and the unintended consequences may be more than the city has bargained for.

For me, and probably for most New Yorkers, the storm’s fallout highlighted just how thin the city’s resources are actually stretched. It’s worrisome—particularly given the increasingly volatile weather that we’ll be seeing thanks to climate change—that in the event of an emergency many people don’t have access to enough gas to relocate, and even first responders may have trouble getting the fuel they need.

One way to mitigate some of this risk (and to reap the many other benefits of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels) is for the city government to make a strong commitment to promoting hybrid, electric and otherwise fuel-efficient vehicles. Getting more fuel-efficient vehicles on our streets should really be viewed as an important step toward greater emergency preparedness, as some happy electric-vehicle owners in the NYC area have discovered during the fuel shortages.

Advancing hybrid and eventually electric taxis would send a powerful public signal that there’s a strong market for efficient vehicles here in New York City, and that they’re good and durable cars that anyone can use. A fleet containing more electric vehicles would also help the city to develop a robust charging infrastructure that would encourage the wide-scale use of electric vehicles, both within our taxi fleet and by regular New Yorkers. Burning fossil fuels is one of the greatest contributors to climate change, so anything we can do to minimize their use would be well worth the effort.

And as a bonus, if the country meaningfully addresses climate change in this and other ways, we may be able to reduce the force and frequency of extreme weather events like Sandy. Then maybe we can worry a little less about the next big storm and go back to focusing on issues near and dear to the heart of every New Yorker—like Mets versus Yankees, or who makes the best pizza pie in town.

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About the Authors

Johanna Dyer

Attorney, Water program

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