New York City’s first motorized taxis were electric vehicles.

  • Electrobat electric car
Electrobat electric car
Old Books Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

At the turn of the 20th century, gas engines hadn’t become the standard yet; electric, gas, and steam-powered vehicles each held around one-third of the U.S. automobile market. Electric vehicles stood out from the pack because they didn’t produce unpleasant pollution (sound familiar?) and because they were much quieter than their gas or steam counterparts. The big disadvantage was that they didn’t have great range, something that drivers still worry about today. 

One of the very first electric cars in America was the Electrobat, a heavy, utilitarian carriage powered by an adapted ship’s motor and built specifically for rough city roads. It had to safely lug around a 1,600-pound lead-acid battery, but it was the ideal vehicle to make short trips throughout the city. It became the basis for the first cab company in New York City, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, founded in 1896. The founders also came up with a clever way of working around the battery problem: a battery-swapping station made from an old skating rink on Broadway. 

The Electric Carriage and Wagon Company reported 1,000 trips in April 1897, its first month of service, and the electric cab system was a success in New York. But public opinion — and the service itself — soured once it tried to expand to other markets. The new facilities were poorly managed, with undertrained drivers and badly maintained batteries. The taxi company, later called the Electric Vehicle Company, shut down in 1907, and electric cabs didn’t return to the Big Apple until 2022.

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