Hybrid Taxis

September 15, 2007

“Karambir Sangha used to be an accountant, before he became a cabbie. And so in his head, he ticked off what it means to him to be the first of 10 taxi drivers in the Seattle area to begin driving a hybrid in the past two weeks.

And though he’s been driving the hybrid only since Aug. 31, he figures he’ll save $15 to $20 a day; and since he drives six or seven days a week, that’s more than $100 more for the immigrant from India, his wife and two children, 13 and 9, to live on. Rising gas prices are particularly hard on the cabbies who make airport runs because, unlike Seattle cabbies, they don’t have the benefit of a special fuel surcharge to offset gas prices.

“You give up, I suppose, the things that you have if you have more money,” said Sangha, who’s been driving a cab for seven years. “Eating out, going to the movies, shopping.” Under King County and Seattle rules, cabbies cannot drive cars more than seven years old, and Sangha said that this year it was time to replace his anyway. Though the $24,000 Toyota Prius is expensive, he figured — like a lot of drivers these days — it made more sense in the long run.

When the Port of Seattle, which contracts with the Seattle-Tacoma International Taxi Association to pick up passengers at the airport, agreed to allow up to 25 aging taxis to be replaced with hybrids, Sangha was first to buy his. So far, 10 hybrid STITA taxis are on the road, said Sheila Stickel, the taxi association’s liaison with the port. By the end of the month, all 25 should be running.

And in the taxi business, where the clicking of the meter is a reminder that time is money, not having to wait in line for gas, he said, means having time to pick up another fare very day.

And then, as is often the case, when it comes with new cars, though not necessarily with taxis, there’s the coolness factor. Amrik Singh, 38, was on the taxi line in his new hybrid taxi, showing off how he gets in. A sensor reads a card he carries and opens the door when he approaches. And there’s no ignition — just a button on the console to start the car. Another button puts it in park. A small monitor shows the view from a camera in the back of the car. There have been a few customers, he said, who have thanked him for doing his part for the environment. But ultimately, it’s saving money on gas. He was asked if the hybrid was making a difference in his life.

“$400 a month,” he said.”

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