While many New Yorkers worry that they may no longer be able to afford to take a taxi cab with the 26 percent fare increase that went into effect this month, a whole group of citizens here have to wonder if they will ever be able to hail a cab.
April was the cruelest month for disabled New Yorkers. Half the drivers of the Access-a-Ride vans on which so many people with disabilities rely for public transportation went on strike. When medallions for 300 new taxis were auctioned, no one who was willing to deploy a wheelchair-accessible vehicle made a high enough bid to secure a medallion, despite the hope that nine percent of the new cabs would be accessible. And a bill to make all new cabs accessible has yet to have a hearing, despite having attracted 38 sponsors out of the 51 City Council members.
While all Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses were made accessible by 1995 after a concerted campaign by disability rights groups, the 100-year old subway system has been slow to install the elevators necessary to make it accessible. In addition, the Transit Authority has not solved the problem of bridging the gap between the platforms and subway cars that make boarding them difficult and dangerous for those in wheelchairs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require that all taxis be wheelchair accessible if a city provides an alternative for the disabled. In New York, that "paratransit" alternative is Access-a-Ride, private van services that contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to transport people with disabilities from point to point in the city for the price of a bus or subway ride. It must be booked "one to four days in advance" and can involve long delays as many riders use the same van and are picked up from different points.
Many people who use wheelchairs can use conventional taxis, albeit with difficulty. The first problem is getting the cab to stop. It is a violation for cab drivers to refuse to stop for a person with disabilities, but some risk it. I've witnessed cabs speed up after pausing and seeing that the potential fare was in a wheelchair. I once hailed a cab for a colleague in a wheelchair and when the driver was loading the chair into his trunk, he was muttering curses at "you cheap handicapped people who don't tip." My colleague bore the insults, as he desperately needed the ride.
I'm 50 and temporarily able bodied, but at 6 feet tall I have trouble getting in and out of the older New York cabs-and I do not mean the sorely missed Checker cabs that could sit five comfortably in the rear. Maneuvering out of a wheelchair into a cab is infinitely more difficult and many disabled people cannot manage it, even with help from the friendliest of drivers. They need to be able to stay in their chairs and roll them into the cab.
In London, where the taxis have always been more consumer-friendly, all taxis have been required to be accessible since 1989 and the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 added the requirement that new taxis had to be designed so wheelchairs could roll right into the car. As the New York Times reported in a Travel Section feature in April ("Rolling Along in London"), accessibility is not perfect among London cabs due to some ramp malfunctions, but they are light years ahead of New York.
In New York, just five out of more than 12,000 cabs are fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. In these van-like cabs, a person in a wheelchair can roll right in through the back door using a ramp.
Local Law 496-A enacted by the City Council and Mayor Mike Bloomberg in July 2003, authorized 900 more taxi medallions (in part to close a budget gap) and was billed as "mandating alternative fuel and fully accessible taxis." "By providing that nine percent of the vehicles from each sale are accessible, we are reaffirming our commitment to providing transportation to persons with disabilities," said Bloomberg at the time. But there was a loophole in the law that resulted in none of the first 300 new medallion cabs being accessible. That's because none of the bids for accessible cabs were less than ten percent of the lowest winning bid for the non-accessible cabs. Ryan of Disabled in Action called the promise of accessible cabs under this law "a sham."
Even before this failed plan was passed, Councilmember Margarita Lopez introduced a bill to require that when a taxi is taken out of service--as it must be after 3-5 years with rare exceptions--a wheelchair accessible vehicle must replace it. This bill, Intro 84, now has 38 sponsors but does not yet have the endorsement of Council Speaker Gifford Miller or Transportation Committee Chair John Liu (D-Queens).
"People believe there is a lot of money to be made" from owning a taxi, said John Gresham, an attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest who is fighting for the passage of the accessible cab bill. "They have access to cash and medallions are going for record prices, so now is the time to do this bill." When asked why his group has not sued over the lack of accessible taxis, Gresham said, "We believe the most direct way to get where we need to go is through action by the Council."
Advocates have met with Liu, but he said that he has "severe issues" with the bill, while acknowledging that the lack of accessible taxis is something "that should not be." He said, "I don't think you can make a requirement to force a manufacturer to make" accessible taxis. "If the manufacturer makes them, New York City should lead the way" in deploying them, he said. Wouldn't manufacturers produce them if New York required them? "I think we have to be reasonable when we make these kind of requirements," he said.
After speaking with Gotham Gazette, Liu told the Daily News, "The City Council will be putting together legislation that will require yellow cabs - as the older vehicles retire - to be replaced with new vehicles that will be accessible to people who use wheelchairs." But he later said that he is not in support of Intro 84 because it doesn't deal with "clean air" issues and it is a "total renouncement of the budget agreement."
While he told the News that full accessibility could be accomplished "in a matter of three to four years," he later said he was not sure "how quickly" it could be done.
"We want this bill within a few weeks," said Ryan. Liu has agreed to continue to meet with advocates of the accessible taxi legislation to see if a compromise can be worked out.
Gresham noted that Chicago has made one in fifteen cabs accessible, "but you can call for a cab there." Similar progress has been made in Boston, Las Vegas, Denver, Boulder, and Ann Arbor.
"We've learned one very important lesson from the wealthy New York City taxi medallion and fleet owners: it's going to be one hell of a fight," wrote Terry Moakley of the United Spinal Association as well as the Taxis for All Campaign. He was one of the leaders in the fight in 1985 to make New York the first city in the world to make all its buses accessible.