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Burbank cabbies pumped about hybrid taxis

Initially skeptical, they find they appreciate the cars' thriftiness and even roominess, and say customers do too.

September 16, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Eyes rolled at the cabbies' layover lot next to Burbank's Bob Hope Airport when drivers learned about the hybrid taxi rollout.

A taxicab company applying for permission to work in Burbank was promising city officials that all new cabs added to its fleet would have low-emission hybrid engines or use alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas.

Drivers who for years have appreciated the roominess and ruggedness of retired Ford Crown Victoria police and CHP cars that have been converted into cabs wondered what was in store for them.

What came next was $4.60-a-gallon gasoline.

All of a sudden the small but efficient Toyota Prius started looking good to those who drive as much as 300 miles a day carrying around strangers in their back seats.

To their surprise, their fares appreciated the hybrids too.

"Most of my passengers really like it. Some think it's small, but I'd say 97% of them like this car," said cab driver Karen Malkhasyan.

"It's comfortable. It's roomy, even for me."

To demonstrate, Malkhasyan, 35, of Glendale, slipped his 6-foot frame into the driver's seat of City Cab No. 688, which was parked in a row of larger taxis at the airport layover lot on Cohasset Street.

The 2004 Prius is one of three that his company uses. Malkhasyan shares it with another driver. It has about 250,000 miles on its odometer.

"No major problems with it. I get around 40 miles per gallon. I think new ones get even more," he said.

Malkhasyan said some cabbies were skeptical when the hybrids began surfacing in local taxi companies' fleets. That's because distances in Los Angeles are great and the combination of fast freeway traffic and brake-riding, stop-and-go surface street congestion is tough on cabs.

"The first time they saw these they said it's like a toy, there's no room for luggage, you can't drive passengers because they won't like it," he said of other drivers' reaction to the Prius.

But they don't say that anymore.

With travelers carrying fewer bags because of increased airline charges, there's plenty of luggage space in the back of the Prius, above its hybrid battery compartment. "It's as much space as that Crown Victoria has," Malkhasyan said, pointing to a rival company's cab parked in front of his Prius.

The big Ford had high-occupancy-lane access stickers and a "CNG" decal. Malkhasyan popped open the trunk to show that the compressed natural gas cylinder takes up part of the luggage space. The remaining space for bags was about the same as in a Prius.

City Cab also owns Chevrolet and Nissan hybrids, he said.

United Independent Taxi, the company that pledged to Burbank officials that future new cabs will either be hybrids or alternative fuel vehicles, uses the Prius, Nissans, Toyota Camrys and Ford Escape hybrids, said President Melese Adamu.

"The investment is high, between $26,000 and $32,000. The drivers choose the vehicles," Adamu said.

Because United is a taxi association, its drivers buy their own cars.

Burbank officials, who in May granted United a permit to field 20 cabs in their city, closely monitor the 130 authorized taxis. They keep Burbank fares at the same rate as neighboring Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, city Transportation Department leaders are preparing to introduce an alternative fuel/hybrid taxi program of their own for the 2,303 cabs authorized to work within their city limits.

Officials say San Francisco, Seattle and New York City -- which hopes to replace its 13,000 taxicabs with hybrids over the next five years -- are ahead of them.

"We're researching the issue very carefully. We want to do it right," said Tom Drischler, taxicab administrator for Los Angeles. "We really want to get something going this year. We hope to present a program to the Board of Taxi Commissioners this fall."

One complicating factor is the Los Angeles requirement that cabs have safety partitions to protect drivers. Before the thick plastic shields were mandated in 1993, taxi drivers were being murdered at a rate of one every 18 months. Since then, only two cabbies have been killed by robbers in their car, Drischler said.

"It's hard to put a safety shield in a Prius," but surveillance cameras might be an option, he said.

Most Los Angeles cabs are retired police cars picked up at auction and refurbished for a total cost of about $6,500, he said. "With hybrids, they'll have to come up with a $25,000 investment."

At the airport taxi lot in Burbank, United cab driver Bereket Haile picked a 2008 Nissan Altima hybrid in June when he replaced his Crown Victoria at his own expense. In two months he put 4,500 miles on it, registering between 32 and 34 mpg.

"I didn't try for a Prius. There was a wait," said Haile, 63, who lives in Inglewood. "Passengers all give very good comments about this car. But I don't know how long it will last. It's not heavy-duty."

Haile cut the conversation short when he was dispatched to pick up a fare at the airport terminal.

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