NYC had electric taxis in the ’90s—the 1890s, that is

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New York City’s iconic fleet of taxis once included some EVs—but you have to look back more than a century to find them.

As National Geographic explains in a recent article, electric taxis had a brief moment of popularity in the city in the 1890s. The fleet quickly grew from a dozen vehicles in 1897 to over 100 by 1899. It’s an important reminder that battery-electric cars are not a new invention. The technology has changed significantly, but many of the qualities that make EVs appealing have remained consistent throughout.

A 19th century model called the Electrobat has considered ideal for taxi service because of its quick acceleration and noiselessness, according to National Geographic. The instant torque of electric motors and lack of exhaust noise have also created many a modern EV enthusiast.

2013 Nissan Leaf electric car tested as taxi in New York City, April 2013

However, electric taxis are also responsible for two unfortunate historical firsts. In May 1899, taxi driver Jason German reportedly became the first operator of an automobile arrested for speeding after being clocked at a heady 12 mph on Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue.

That same year, another taxi driver struck a person in what is thought to be the first pedestrian fatality involving a car. Concerns that pedestrians might not hear quiet electric cars resurfaced in the 2010s, leading to regulations requiring pedestrian sound alerts on both EVs and hybrids.

New York’s 1890s electric taxis were a product of the early, experimental age of the car, when electric power competed with both internal combustion and steam. Both steam and electric cars were relatively popular until gasoline cars and their fueling infrastructure became reliable enough to take a clear lead in convenience.

First Nissan NV200 New York

First Nissan NV200 New York

As EVs re-emerged as a viable alternative to internal combustion in the 2010s, New York City thought about bringing them back. The city council began pushing for electric taxis around 2012, but concerns over charging led officials to consider hybrids instead. The ill-fated “Taxi of Tomorrow” project, which sought to enshrine the Nissan NV200 van as the default New York taxi, was also being implemented at this time but without discussion of hybrid or all-electric versions of the taxi.

Nissan never did achieve a monopoly on New York taxis with the NV200. The fleet now features lots of hybrids, as well as some EVs, although the latter may be less attractive to cab operators now that a proposed EV exemption from the city’s new congestion pricing appears to have fallen through.

It’s also unclear, under the current administration of Mayor Eric Adams, how much progress New York is making toward a goal set by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in an executive order of making all NYC municipal vehicles electric by 2040.

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