It’s Earth Day, and for Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City that meant slipping quietly into Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan in a Nissan Leaf, one of six ultra-quiet electric cars that the city will be putting on the road soon.

Joe Castelli, Nissan’s vice president of commercial and fleet vehicles, told me in New York that the Leafs were provided to the city at no cost. Clearly, Nissan appreciates Bloomberg’s love of electric taxis, though actually making them happen beyond the pilot program could prove difficult. Some New York taxi drivers don’t like electrics, because they’ll somehow have to fit charging sessions into their day. And when they’re not driving, they’re not getting paid.

It has to be said that Bloomberg seems very earnest about electric cars. He’s not only buying plenty of electric fleet vehicles, but also installing 480-volt fast charging (for the taxis and the public), and creating regulations that will ensure 20 percent of all new parking spaces are pre-wired for charging. In his State of the City speech in February, Bloomberg said the parking regulation would result in “up to 10,000 parking spots for electric vehicles over the next seven years.”

One of the two fast chargers in Manhattan will be at the Seward Park Coop on the Lower East Side, and is open to the public. The second will be at the Con Edison Building on Irving Place, and accessible only by the taxis. That’s critical, because there can’t be a lot of waiting around if this experiment is going to be at all successful. The media sure got excited about the new Leaf taxis (see below).

Nissan Leaf taxis in NYC

Bloomberg also deserves credit for introducing a lot of hybrid taxis (Nissan Altimas, Ford Escapes, Toyota Prius and Camry) into the fleet, but his plan to require gas-electric cabs was stymied by a lawsuit from the powerful Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade. The MTBT argued that only the feds can establish fuel efficiency standards, and that hybrids aren’t safe (whatever that means). The result for New Yorkers is a Taxi of Tomorrow, the Nissan NV200, which is conventionally powered, though an all-electric version is coming.

Although big fleets of Leaf taxis won’t happen in New York, the electric e-NV200 would make sense — if it could possibly happen. At the New York Auto Show early this year, Nissan’s Andy Palmer said the NV200 will be available to the city in both hybrid and battery electric versions, though there’s no timetable on U.S. versions. Nissan said the e-NV200 will be built in Barcelona, Spain, beginning in fiscal 2013. Under the skin the NV200 is virtually identical to the Leaf, so the charging issues aren’t significantly different. But the compact van will be much more accommodating to taxi passengers.

Nissan Leaf taxi in NYC, side view

Paul Gillespie, the former head of the taxi commission in hybrid-loving San Francisco, thinks the New York Leaf experiment is a cynical greenwashing ploy. “I think the real reason for this PR effort is to generate dozens of media stories about how ‘green’ the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) is, thus diverting attention away from what is actually being proposed,” he wrote in an email. “On the one hand, the TLC is poised to give an exclusive, monopoly 10-year contract to a gas-powered cargo van and make hybrid taxis illegal, while the PR machine is touting a small handful of Leafs, which have failed as taxis elsewhere and caused an unneeded backlash against EVs in general.”

Gillespie points to the California Clean Cab Partnership he helped found as a better alternative. San Francisco’s taxi fleet is now completely converted to hybrid and compressed natural gas cabs, he said. “Los Angeles is approaching 50 percent, well ahead of schedule, and San Diego has 122 Prius Vs in the fleet and growing rapidly. Sacramento and San Jose and Silicon Valley taxi fleets are next in line.”

Related on MNN: I left my hybrid taxi in San Francisco

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