In Amman, some yellow cabs are going green

Story and photos Eryn Carlson

AMMAN, Jordan – Taxicabs are usually associated with the color yellow, but with a recent push for hybrid vehicle–friendly incentives by Jordan’s Land Transport Workers Association, certain Amman-based cabbies are looking to go green.

Besides the obvious environmental impacts of such a movement, there are significant cost savings for drivers in the form of tax exemptions and lower gas prices.

Taxi drivers are starting to buy hybrid cars to save money on gas. Also, Jordanians are beginning to care more about the impact of exhaust on the environment.

“I would like a hybrid car so I can save money on gas and other costs. I pay for all my gas, and (the cost of it) is getting higher and higher. I’m broke,” taxi driver Laith Al-deen said through a translator.

There is another incentive besides the high gas prices. Hashem Masaeed, Jordan’s minister of transport, is considering a proposal to exempt taxi drivers who have fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly vehicles from paying certain taxes and fees. The proposed dismissal of a customs tax alone – costly because all vehicles are imports in Jordan – would amount to savings equal to the original cost of the car in some cases.

In 2008, the government repealed these same fees for private hybrid vehicle owners to encourage the purchase of eco-friendly cars – but revoked the offer two years later, in 2010.

“Two years ago, they reinstated customs duties for up to 55 percent on hybrids because of deficits in the government budget. That makes owning [hybrids] so much more expensive than regular cars,” said Abdelkarrm Shalabi, head of the Environmental Impact Assessment branch of Jordan’s Ministry of Environment.

The reason for that, he said, is two-fold. Hybrid cars are already expensive, and there aren’t many mechanics here who can deal with such sophisticated machinery, making their upkeep costs potentially exorbitant.

Cost savings is clearly the most important factor motivating taxi drivers to want the changes, but many acknowledge the fact that more hybrid cards on the roads would also improve the air quality in this dusty hot city where the smell of exhaust often hovers over the roadways.

“We are very keen about air quality, and have invested a huge amount of money in environmental protection,” said Hami Falah, general manager of the Jordan Environmental Company, a privately funded group whose objective is to establish environmental solutions in the Middle East. His company also works in collaboration with the Jordan Environment Society, a non-governmental organization, or NGO, committed to creating a bond between economic growth and the environment by promoting practices of sustainable development. JES has launched many projects based in recycling, waste management, water conservation and general ecological practices.

“We are trying to comply with environmental standards that exist in the U.S. and Europe. Such a thing needs a lot of cooperation between government and private sectors. And it’s up to the people, too. You in your home and me in mine,” said Falah.

Just as critical as policy changes and projects by private bodies, though, is environmental awareness – or even acknowledgement of its existence – by the general population, experts say.

“A lot of people just don’t care about the environment,” said Shalabi, who owns a hybrid Prius because he wants to set an example for his colleagues at the ministry, who are encouraged to do the same. “People just throw garbage from windows or burn waste and don’t care about harmful, unhealthy emissions and pollution. In the city, it’s OK – maybe 60 to 70 percent of people are at least aware of the environment – but in rural areas, not so much.”

Shalabi is confident that this lack of awareness is dwindling, though. By reforming governmental standards and policies, people will hopefully become more aware of the implications their actions have on the environment. This is especially true when such changes are rooted in something everyone makes use of: transportation.

Currently, Amman’s public transportation system is extremely limited by Western standards. There is no railway, and the bus system runs only between Amman, a city of about 3 million people, and other large Jordanian cities. There is no inner-city network.

“A lot of people use the buses, of course. They need the buses to take people from where they live to where they work,” said Ali Odaibat, a spokesman and chief of public relations for the Ministry of Transport. “And we are trying to expand this system. We are trying to get a project to get a railway between Amman and Zarqa,” a large industrial city located in northeast Jordan.

“We are trying to find someone to finance projects like this…[since] we don’t let people pay taxes towards the transport system,” Odaibat added.

In addition, a lack of public transport negatively impacts the job sector, especially in rural areas where people tend not to own cars. Due to limited access and existence of public means of transportation, employers are less likely to create jobs in these areas, and people seeking employment are denied the opportunity to find jobs outside their communities. Plus, communities miss out on the likely possibility of stimulating their economy through the existence of public transport.

Nevertheless, the “green movement”– both in terms of political actions and the public’s awareness – is gaining momentum here and around the Middle East. There are no numbers available, but at least anecdotally, experts say the number of hybrid cars on Amman’s streets is clearly growing. “It is just beginning now but I think it will increase,” said taxi driver Ali Alqaq. “I definitely want a hybrid taxi when I can get a new car. I think they are good, for being healthy and for the air here,” he said.

Falah, of the Jordan Environmental Company, feels encouraged by comments like that. “The green movement in Amman is heading in the right direction,” he said. “It may be slow, but it’s happening.”

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