You can’t use an app to ride this in DC. Photo by goldberg on Flickr.

Earlier this week, the DC Taxicab Commission approved a new set of regulations for hired cars, placing new restrictions on size for vehicles in the fleet. As a result, many fuel-efficient hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius, won’t be allowed.

These regulations seem to be a direct response to Uber, a service where people can order black cars and limos, and UberX, which uses smaller cars and is less expensive. After UberX launched, DCTC sought to update its rules for sedans, which previously had no size requirement. Now, cars must be at least 95 cubic feet in volume. When asked what sort of fuel-efficient vehicles qualify for the sedan fleet, DCTC released this statement (emphasis added):

The sedan definition would include more than 40 hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles, just among the EPA sedans, and not including any qualifying SUVs, nor any vehicles able to use alternative fuels . . .

Therefore, although it would not be appropriate to add in the Prius or other basic, economy cars here, it is also patently untrue that no hybrids could be operated as sedans under the new rules. Thus, the definitions, as written, directly serve the need to conserve fuel and protect the environment, without compromising other important interests at stake in the definitions.


Not appropriate to add in the Prius? The Commission argues that since they only ban the most well-known and most well-tested hybrid sedan on the road today that their standard is still pro-environment. That doesn’t make any sense.

I’m a firm believer in global warming and think we should be doing all that we can as a society to cut down on pollution. Hybrid cars are one way people are reducing the amount of climate-changing emissions they create and taxis are no exception. From a public policy standpoint, I want to see us moving as much of our transportation system to clean, renewable, or at least hybrid options as possible.

So I reached out to the DC Taxicab Commission to learn what specific “hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles” could be licensed as sedans under the new rules and which would be banned. I emailed a Public Information Officer at DCTC and received with a sample list of vehicles that were 95 cubic feet or larger and were hybrids or ran on alternative fuels. The list included some vehicles that were just a touch up-market from the Prius, including the Bentley Flying Spur, Mercedes 350 and Jaguar XJ:


List from the DC Taxicab Commission.


Looking at this model list, what stands out is how expensive most of them are, as well as how fuel inefficient they are compared to the Prius.

According to FuelEconomy.gov, the 2013 Prius hybrid gets a combined 50 MPG. Meanwhile, some of DCTC’s recommended vehicles do much worse. The 2014 Mercedes E350 gets 18 MPG combined on flex-fuel, the 2014 Ford Taurus gets 16 MPG combined on flex-fuel and the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur gets a Hummer H3-like 11 MPG combined on flex-fuel. This is a great example of how flex-fuel vehicles are not, in fact, fuel efficient.


Screen capture from the US Department of Energy.


To be fair, these are just examples cited by the DC Taxicab Commission’s press staffer. There are certainly other hybrid vehicles out there that are larger than 95 cubic feet and therefore eligible to be part of the sedan fleet. They apparently didn’t merit being used as examples of fuel efficiency.

Leaving aside the relative absurdity of these fuel inefficient and hyper-luxury vehicles as models for fuel-efficient transport in DC, the 95 cubic foot threshold for passenger volume is key, as most Toyota Prius models tap out at 94 cubic feet.

There’s a debate to be had about how DC should regulate Uber. There’s a totally different debate to be had about whether or not the DC Taxicab Commission is creating nonsensical, punitive regulations aimed to prevent Uber from using fuel-efficient vehicles as part of the DC sedan fleet.

Most importantly, as a city near the water facing the impact of catastrophic climate change, we shouldn’t miss opportunities to reduce pollution through regulatory choices. Institutions like DCTC should be seeking to increase fuel efficiency in the sedan fleet. Allowing Priuses and other smaller hybrids to be part of it would do that, while Bentley Flying Spurs do quite the opposite.

Ethical.org, the campaigning arm of Ethical Electric (the progressive renewable energy supplier for whom I work), has set up a petition calling for the DC Taxicab Commission to allow hybrids like the Prius to be part of the sedan fleet. You can sign it here.