Traditional cabs on the way out in New York City

New York City is a rare metropolis in the United States - it is not designed for the motor vehicle.


The excellent network of underground trains and on-the surface buses sweeps over and under Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn, New Jersey and the Bronx as efficiently and as affordable as one could imagine.

So efficient and frequent is public transport that no one need worry about car ownership although plenty like to have their own car anyway, especially those on the ritzy uptown areas, and, perhaps surprisingly, those in Harlem (they seem to lean towards big domestic products).

But, scan any streetscape on Manhattan and the dominant moving colour is yellow. Cans are cheap and convenient.

Not so long ago the ubiquitous cabs were almost 100 per cent Ford Crown Victorias, the long and lumbering model that also serves the NY Police Department well.

But in 2007, the mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to transform the city's 13,000 yellow cab fleet from the creaky Crown Vics to an all-hybrid line-up. He wanted cleaner air and 30mpg taxi fleet average by 2009.

The city reached agreement with Nissan, Ford and GM to supply hybrid vehicles for taxi use.

Hybrids had been creeping into taxi fleets anyway but the mayor merely hastened the switch to a greener cab line-up...or so he thought

But the attempt to force an all-hybrid fleet on NYC operators went awry when a Fed judge last year put the deal on hold after some taxi businesses sued, claiming many hybrid vehicles were not big enough for big American backsides, or durable enough for the mean streets.

Even so, the eight-cylinder Crown Vics are slowly on the way out. Increasingly, hybrids are infiltrating. And some diesels. The Ford Escape, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry, Toyota Highlander - hybrids all - and the Toyota Sienna people mover (running on LPG), are making inroads. Diesels are led by the VW Jetta.

The drivers seem to like the new eco cabs too even though they have to be careful not to accept fares from the lard-arsed end of the American commuter market.

The broad choices among more fuel-efficient downsized cabs in NYC may come in handy in Australia in the future if and when the Falcon and Commodore head for the great parking lot in the sky.

Meanwhile, uptown types continue to rely on chauffeur-driven Mercs, older Lincoln Town Cars, and a bevy of big black SUVs. Some things never change.

What is obvious in The Big Apple is the lack of Nanny State interference.

About the only hint of bureaucratic involvement are speed signs and the occasional warning that excessively using the horn will hurt your hip pocket. Motorcyclists and cyclists don't necessarily wear helmets.

Seat belts appear to be optional. Walk/Don't Walk signs for the walking class are little more than advisory. You cross when you think it's prudent, and even then drivers are more likely to courteously pause to let you make the footpath safely.

Cops look on benignly while pedestrians use vehicular traffic as slaloms...

About the only authoritarian sign seen outside of regular speed limits was a warning that using the horn could make a serious impact on the wallet.

Buses pick up and set down where they can, and that's not always at the kerb...er curb.

People obviously cling to the right to do damage to themselves.

That one-man band, the Pedestrian Council, would be apoplectic at the scene.

Maybe he should relocate to the Bronx and work himself into a lather.

But it's not all great. Parking is a lottery and expensive.

And despite the proliferation of coffee shops across Manhattan, the quality is dreadful and the price high for Brown Water.

Postscript. In Boston, a few hours drive north of NYC, drivers text and scream into mobile phones with impunity. Seat belts hang idle.

I asked a patrolman about the laws relating to cell phone use and seat belts. He said it is permissible to use the phone while driving. And seat belts are supposed to be worn but the fine is just $25 and in any case he said he had to pull over a motorist for a more serious offence. Only then could he book him for the failure to belt up.

"Massachusetts is a very liberal state," he observed.

Too liberal.

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