From the Electrobat to the Nissan Leaf, a century of New York—and the world’s—flirtation with battery-powered cabs.

Editor’s note: Visual storyteller Emma Jacobs shares the history of the electric taxi’s rise and fall. Her book, The Little(r) Museums of Paris: An Illustrated Guide to the City's Hidden Gems comes out this June.

New York's first electric taxi fleet hit the streets in 1896
The electric vehicle company ran a battery-powered car, the Electrobat, created by a pair of Philadelphia inventors, Pedro Salon and Henry Morris. In New York, the EVC turned an old ice skating rink on Broadway into a station to swap the 1,200-pound batteries, which lasted about four hours. The competition, horse-drawn cabs, fared poorly during bad winters, from 1897 to 1899, when the Electrobats kept going in snow and ice that grounded the animals.
At this early stage, electric cars stil vied seriously against gas and steam-powered vehicles. About one third of vehicles sold in 1900 ran on batteries. They were fashionable and especially marketed to women in colorful ads as cleaner, quieter and easier to start -- no kneeling down to trun a crank.
Electric vehicles seemed to make great cabs. They were cheaper to maintain than horses. They were quieter in the streets. The EVC went from its original fleet of 13 cabs to more than 1,000. It expanded to other cities including Chicago, Boston, and Phildadelphia.
In fact, in the decades around the turn of the century, a number of firms had fleets of electric taxis in cities all over the world. However, the EVC never managed to replicate its profitability in New York.
Even in New York, it ran into trouble with vehicle and battery maintencne. The to-ing and fro-ing and staffing battery swap operations bit into profits. The Texas oil boom made gasoline-powered cars cheaper to run and helped them win over the larger market from steam and electric vehicles. Eventually, electric cabs were replaced by gas-powered ones... for a century at least. In 2013, New York ran a pilot with the Nissan Leaf, but when it came time to choose New York's new official taxi, the city went with a gas-powered model.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    The Problem With a Coronavirus Rent Strike

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  2. Coronavirus

    Why Asian Countries Have Succeeded in Flattening the Curve

    To help flatten the curve in the Covid-19 outbreak, officials at all levels of government are asking people to stay home. Here's what’s worked, and what hasn't.

  3. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.
    Coronavirus

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  4. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  5. photo: A waterfront park in Macau.
    Coronavirus

    Longing for the Great Outdoors? Think Smaller.

    Access to parks, nature, and wildlife is critical for physical and emotional well-being. Now some city dwellers sheltered at home must find it in new ways.  

×