Local restaurant owner Hans Hess recently delved into the taxi industy, putting a new twist on an age-old service by opening Arlington-based EnviroCAB, the county’s first exclusively hybrid fleet of cabs.
Hess and co-owner Cord Thomas have even taken carbon emission cutbacks a step further, claiming to be the world’s first carbon-negative taxicab service by purchasing carbon offset credits through Silver Spring’s Carbonfund.org. The credits fund carbon-reducing projects that promote clean-source energy productions.
“We still have to deal with the pollution that comes from the gas we do burn,” said Hess. “So, we purchase offset credits for that amount and then we simply purchase another set of credits beyond what we actually produce.”
According to Hess, for every carbon-friendly vehicle that EnviroCAB puts on the road, their offset credits compensate for the emissions equivalent to two 16 miles-per-gallon (mpg) non-hybrids. EnviroCAB’s fleet includes Ford’s Escape and Toyota’s Prius, Camry and Highlander hybrid models.
Following a cab trip in 2003 from Washington Dulles International airport to his Arlington residence, Hess marked a conversation with his cab driver that day as his “light-bulb moment.”
“This driver explained to me the economics of the whole taxicab industry and one of his complaints was that he didn’t feel he was really treated fairly, that he didn’t make enough money,” said Hess. “I knew about hybrids at the time and I thought if you could use that kind of vehicle, you’d save a lot of gas money. The drivers would get a better deal out of it and as the owner of the company, you could still make a profit. It was a win-win.”
Area taxi services are allotted a collective amount of cabs each year by the county board. The catch is that the burden of proof for needing more vehicles rests upon the company. The amount of eager drivers currently outweighs the amount of available cabs, increasing the amount of lease models. These models are financed by the driver, unlike owner-operated models that are driven by cabbies paid hourly. Most lease-model drivers also pay for their own gas.
“Right now, about two thirds of Arlington cabs are lease models. Basically, a company sells their right to drive to operators because there’s more demand to drive than there are slots, so cab drivers are going out there and financing $30,000 to lease a cab,” said Hess. “What we say is, take that $30,000 and buy a brand-new hybrid that saves you half the amount of gas money you’d spend on that seven-year-old Crown Victoria.”
Aside from getting a business license, aspiring cab companies must apply for certificates through the county and attend multiple hearings run by the county board. After the first Arlington Transportation Commission hearing in July 2007, which awarded EnviroCAB 35 hybrids, Hess anticipated the County Manager’s follow-up report via snail mail.
“I got home one day in August and saw a notice that I had missed a package. I was so upset, but I thought ‘maybe he’s still in the neighborhood’ so I got in my car and started driving around and I found him. [Laughs] I got the letter, opened it up and I was shocked,” said Hess. “He had bumped us up from 35 to 50 cabs, giving us credit in the report for pushing the industry for hybrids.”
The increase reflected the county’s commitment to its Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions (Fresh AIRE), a program started in 2007 that encourages businesses and residents to cut back on polluting emissions countywide. Hess credited the program as an inspiration in his original application.
“I’d always had the idea, but hearing about Fresh AIRE really got me digging it out again. I thought ‘OK, Arlington is the place and they’d be willing to do this. Let’s turn it into a reality,” said Hess.
EnviroCAB isn’t the only business on Hess’ plate. Born and raised in California, eating healthy was “more of a way of life” on the coast, inspiring Hess to create Elevation Burger. A year before the cab trip that sparked the idea for EnviroCAB, in November 2002, he dreamed up the Falls Church burger joint known for its organic beef and vegetarian options.
“Some people look at the taxicab service and they go, ‘What?’ But it’s very consistent with what I try to do,” Hess said. “I like to take a business that’s already out there and transform it into something that can do good for a person or society.”
There’s no question that the concern for the environment is a legitimate one for Hess and his business associates.
“For us, it’s real. I don’t want to look up code orange and red days in the summer when I want to take my daughter for a walk,” said Hess.
Other Arlington cab companies have been going green as well. County competitor Red Top Cab was the first company in Arlington to add hybrids to their fleet, with the addition of five Ford Escapes in the summer of 2007. Red Top now has 20 hybrid vehicles.
“We added the hybrids obviously because of gas prices and the fact that they’re more energy efficient,” said Charles King, Vice President of Red Top. “Carbon emissions are something we’re concerned with too.”
While the arrival of hybrids may create new competition for the industry, Hess enjoys seeing others adopting green motives. After attending the 2007 Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association’s (TLPA) Annual Convention and Trade Show, Hess saw his efforts are making a splash beyond state lines.
“It’s always really exciting to see guys who are actually doing it and not just cynically saying ‘OK, I guess I better catch this green wave because I’m going to lose my business if I don’t.’”