Since assuming the city's highest office, Mayor Sheila Dixon is usually driven around town in a bulky Ford Expedition, a bodyguard at the wheel.
And yet there she was yesterday in the back of a taxi. A cost-cutting measure?
Not quite. The cab was unusual, the first of its kind. It was a green-and-yellow Toyota Prius taxi, an environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient, gas-and-electric compact vehicle that is to be one of many such cabs on Baltimore's streets.
"Nice ride," Dixon said as she stepped out of the Prius at a trail entrance in Druid Hill Park, where she announced a series of events tied to Baltimore's Green Week, which kicks off Friday.
A second Prius cab was parked outside City Hall, where Dixon began her ride, and Yellow Transportation is converting an additional eight cars to taxis for rollouts in coming weeks. The company hopes to have 20 on the road by the end of the year.
Eventually, Veolia Transportation, which owns about 600 cabs in Baltimore under several subsidiaries - as well as hundreds more cabs in other cities, including Denver and Kansas City - plans to replace all of them with environmentally responsible cars.
The very first was the one ridden by Dixon, said Mark L. Joseph, chief executive of Veolia. As the car pulled up and stopped, there was a brief hitch in unlocking the rear doors so Dixon could emerge. She hit a button she thought was the lock and the window rolled down instead. Finally, someone reached in and released the door.
Asked whether she had planned to pick up any fares, Dixon responded, "I could have, I would have - I drive."
Joseph, a Baltimore native whose family started the Yellow Cab Co. - now a subsidiary of Veolia - in the city 99 years ago, said, "You'd need a taxi license if you're going to pick up fares."
"Damn," Dixon replied with a smile. The job, she added, would have meant "extra money."
Technically, the mayor was the car's first fare, although, Joseph said, "she got a free ride."
The car's driver, Joe Matthews, a 12-year veteran of Yellow and a local tour guide, said the three-passenger Prius was comfortable but not quite as large as the Ford Crown Victorias he normally drives, which can carry four fares.
"But this one has more leg room up front and more knee room in the back," said Matthews, who was getting used to some new gadgets, including a push-button ignition and a computer screen on the dashboard that shows the performance of the car's two propulsion systems - one run by gasoline, the other by electricity.
The car's rear bumper announces it as a "Clean Air Cab," a reference to its standing as one of the three cleanest-burning vehicles on the market. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency lists the 2008 Prius as the most fuel-efficient car sold in the United States. Joseph estimated the car will get 45 miles to the gallon, whereas a typical taxi will get "less than 20."
Dixon and other city officials used the introduction of the hybrid cab to highlight not just the new, 2.75-mile extension of the Jones Falls Trail at Druid Hill Park but the city's other "green" initiatives, including today's citywide neighborhood cleanup and the fifth annual EcoFestival on April 26.
At the festival, also in Druid Hill Park, residents will be able to sample "green" products from more than 100 exhibitors and vendors, take a free yoga class, take part in guided nature walks and pick up one of 1,000 free birch and redbud trees, part of an effort to double the city's tree canopy within 30 years.
On April 28, Dixon will outline her plan for a cleaner, greener Baltimore during a panel discussion titled "The Sustainable City" at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. Other events that week include an April 29 meeting at the Patterson Park Library, at which community associations will be invited to learn the fundamentals of creating environmentally healthy neighborhoods.
"I just purchased a tree," Dixon said yesterday at Druid Hill Park, "but I haven't had a chance to plant it. I did water it yesterday, though."