In the past 15 years, the city of San Francisco has doubled the numbers of taxi cabs on its streets, up from 750 vehicles in 1997 to 1,500 this year. 

But thanks to incentives designed to get taxi operators behind the wheel of greener cars, 92 percent of San Francisco’s taxi fleet are either hybrids or cars run on compressed natural gas. 

The result ? A reduction in San Francisco’s taxi fleet fuel consumption of 2.9 million gallons per year -- about half of what it was in 1997.

The Taxi Commission

In 1997, San Francisco founded a Taxi Commission, and placed taxi driver Paul Gillespie into the role of Commission President. 

According to CleanFleetreport, Gillespie’s student days during the 1973 oil embargo crisis had given him first-hand experience of the need to find cleaner, more efficient cars for the San Francisco taxi fleet. 

With help from city Commissioner and General Motors EV1 driver Gavin Newsom -- now California Lt. Gov. Newsom -- Gillespie set about finding suitable replacements for the city’s fleet of Ford Crown Victoria taxi cabs.  Given that they could manage a gas mileage at best of around 15mpg, that wasn’t hard. 

Stick, Carrot

The first cars to be introduced under San Francisco’s greener taxi schemes were taxis powered by compressed natural gas rather than gasoline. 

But although more expensive to buy, taxi operators who purchased CNG vehicle were able to claim a $6,000 tax credit per vehicle bought,  allowing them to offset tax against the additional expenditure. 

Better still, operators with CNG taxis were told by the Taxi Commission that they would be given priority pickup over gasoline-powered taxis at San Francisco Airport, meaning less time waiting for fares and more paying customers. 

When it came to the drivers themselves, who lease their cabs from licensed San Francisco taxi operators, the city mandated operators charge an additional $7.50 lease fee to any taxi driver leasing a hybrid instead of a conventional gasoline car, helping them recoup the higher cost of buying a hybrid taxi.

San Francisco skyline

San Francisco skyline

While it caused many drivers to complain that they were being charged extra to drive a hybrid, Gillespie said that soon changed when fellow taxi drivers noticed they were saving between $20 and $40 a day on fuel alone. 

In fact, over the 90,000 miles or so every San Francisco taxi is driven annually, fuel costs in a car like a Toyota Prius taxi total around $7,000. To make the same number of miles in a gas-guzzling Crown Vic would cost more than $20,000.

The lower fuel costs for the drivers -- combined with lower maintenance costs for taxi owners -- meant that the hybrid taxis became a no-brainer for San Francisco taxi operators. 

Good For San Francisco, Good For Everywhere?

With the majority of San Francisco’s fleet now based on hybrids like the Ford Escape, Toyota Prius and Toyota Camry Hybrid, San Francisco probably has one of the cleanest taxi fleets in the world.

But with San Francisco’s taxi fleet halving its gasoline consumption while doubling in size in just 15 years, we can’t help but wonder how long it will take other cities to follow suit. 


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