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New York's next-gen taxis: moonroofs and phone chargers

New York City unveiled the ‘Taxi of Tomorrow’ on Tuesday – the Nissan NV200 van, which will replace the city’s 13,000-plus fleet of yellow cabs. Will other cities follow suit?

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduces the new Nissan NV200 van during it's unveiling in New York on Tuesday.

Adrees Latif/Reuters

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As many travelers know, it isn’t the airport that usually makes the first impression when arriving in a new city, or even the view from the airplane. It’s all about the taxi ride.

And New York is hoping to make a good first impression.

New York City unveiled the “Taxi of Tomorrow” on Tuesday. The new Nissan NV200 van won a design competition to replace the city’s 13,000-plus fleet of yellow cabs.

This is the first time since the Checker Cab that New York is using a vehicle designed specifically for taxi use. The $29,000 vehicle will feature amenities such as overhead lamps, phone-charging jacks, antibacterial upholstery, and moon roofs, as well as practical features such as passenger air bags, sliding doors to eliminate the dangers of doors swinging out and hitting others, and a “low annoyance” horn that includes a light.

“This taxi was designed from the inside out, and the result is the safest, most comfortable, most passenger-friendly cab to ever ride our streets,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the unveiling. “For the first time, our city will have a cab designed for those who matter most – the passengers and drivers.”

The new vehicle is not a hybrid, although Nissan is rolling out a small pilot program of electric cars for the taxi fleet and says that the other vehicles can be retrofitted to be electric or more fuel-efficient in the future.

The Nissan contract, estimated to be more than $1 billion, lasts for 10 years. The new cabs will be phased in starting next year, and by 2018, the entire fleet will be Nissan NV200 vans.

Although the Taxi of Tomorrow was designed with specific New York issues in mind, will other cities follow suit?

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“We put a lot of work into designing a taxicab that’s as good as we could get it for drivers and passengers,” says Taxi & Limousine Commissioner David Yassky. “I expect that other cities will take a hard look at it, and I’m sure that they will be impressed.”

In Washington, the Taxicab Commission is working on modernizing the city’s 6,500 vehicles for hire – although there is no one model that the city uses, and most of the vehicles are independently owned by the drivers.

Still, Ron M. Linton, commission chairman, sees fuel-efficiency and service-quality improvements that need to be made.

“We look at everything New York does,” Mr. Linton says. Although he hasn’t studied the Nissan extensively, it’s “definitely forward-thinking,” he says.

Right now, Washington is working on installing a system that will accept credit cards, and on increasing the number of wheelchair-accessible cars in the fleet.

In 2010, Los Angeles began an initiative to make 80 percent of the taxi fleet greener by 2015. So far, 25 percent of the city’s 1,700 cabs have been replaced by with green taxis. In the first year of the program, the initiative reduced smog by an estimated 3,700 pounds.

In Boston, a federal judge struck down a mandate in 2009 that would have required a complete switch to hybrid vehicles. The ruling found that the mandate violated the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, which instituted fuel-economy standards and banned local officials from setting their own standards.

Still, many Boston taxi owners have switched to hybrid vehicles voluntarily because of gas prices. About 800 vehicles in the 1,850 fleet are now hybrid, says James Hunt, chief of environmental and energy services for the City of Boston.

As part of Boston's taxi program, drivers are required to replace old cabs with new rather than used cars. “Not only has this improved the comfort and appearance of the fleet, but it’s been important for reducing pollution,” says Mr. Hunt.

A little more than 40 percent of Boston’s fleet is hybrid, and passengers can request the environmentally friendly cars when they call a cab.

Taxi commissioners say they share ideas from various cities.

“We collaborate with New York and have worked closely with other cities to advance sustainable solutions,” Hunt says. “We have worked closely with Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.”

Still, there are some things that may be New York-specific.

Asked whether people will take cabs just to charge their phones, Mr. Yassky pointed to the quirky nature of New Yorkers.

“Nothing surprises me anymore about New Yorkers,” he says. “You think of something strange and unusual, and New Yorkers have done it.”

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