Gotham Gazette

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12,000 NYC Taxis; Five Are Accessible

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.

"There's lots of prejudice and discrimination and that's why our issues are neglected," said Jean Ryan, vice president of Disabled in Action and a leader of the Taxis for All Campaign.

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.


















MetroCard Discounts


The transit system’s fare discounts helped produce rapid increases in subway and bus ridership in the late 1990s. But has the success of the fare incentives, which include 30-day and 7-day passes and discounts on bulk purchases, become too much of a good thing

That was the implication last month as Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members discussed a projected $500 million-plus deficit next year. Channel 2 reported that “transit sources” say the MTA is considering another fare hike, which would take effect in January 2005, less than two years after fares rose last May. Channel 2 reported that 30-day unlimited MetroCards could be going up $3 to $73 per card, and weekly passes by $3 to $24.

The MTA has promised not to touch the $2 base fare until 2007 at the earliest. But the promise of a stable $2 base fare leaves room to increase the cost of discounted fare cards.

The news reports last month may have been a trial balloon to test public reaction to an increase in the price of unlimited ride passes. If the base fare stays the same, how do riders and the press react to an increase in just pass prices?

Press reports on this development focused on the average cost per ride. The MTA expected the average cost per ride to increase from just over $1.00 before the fare increase to $1.30 after the fare hike. Because more riders moved to discounted fare cards than the MTA expected, the average cost per ride increased to only $1.25 instead of $1.30. The MTA had to adjust downward its projection of fare revenue for 2004 and subsequent years as a result.

But the terms of this discussion about the fare are as antiquated as the token since riders no longer pay by the ride. The “per ride” in these costs include every time riders board a bus or swipe through a turnstile. Counted this way, “free transfers” are not free at all but are “costing” $1.25 each. And anyone who borrows a family member’s unlimited ride card for a weekend trip is not getting a “free ride” at all but is “paying” $1.25 per swipe.

An example illustrates how the per ride figure can be distorted by the way people take advantage of the fare incentives. Take a rider who normally makes 21 round trips a month using a bonus per-ride card and then switches to the 30-day card and makes 25 round trips a month. The cost per ride drops from $1.67 to $1.40. But MTA revenues? No change.

In the big picture, the MTA may be better off signing up as many 30-day card users as it can. Many New Yorkers are more and more orienting their life to use the subway and bus, not only to work but also for shopping and leisure trips. Most of the gains in ridership in the 1990s came on the weekend, not weekdays. Those folks are seen walking the streets in SoHo and shopping at the new big box retailers on Sixth Avenue instead of hopping in the car and going to New Jersey. This has all the look and feel of building a loyal customer base.

These loyal customers may produce benefits for the city as a whole in other ways as well. In 2002, the number of cars registered in the city experienced its largest decline in a decade. Isn’t that a good thing?

The new fare policy question, then, is what someone who has unlimited use of the transit system should pay in fares, as compared with those who buy a la carte. There are issues of equity and fairness here, as the frequent-users include some of the more affluent people in the city and the per-ride folks include students and part-time low-income workers.

There are also issues of cost. It matters when the new trips are taken. If you ride in the off-off-peak when the trains are relatively empty, the additional cost imposed on the transit system of that trip (the “marginal cost”) is nearly zero. If you ride at the peak when the MTA runs as many trains as it can, the marginal operating cost is about zero to the MTA, although there is a pretty fair price in crowding to others on the train or bus. If you ride in the “shoulders” when the MTA adds service as ridership expands, then the marginal cost of riding is well above zero.

Finally, there is the issue of to what extent riders should pay versus the general taxpayer. The MTA has loaded up on debt to finance rebuilding the transit system, buying new trains and buses, etc. That is forcing upward pressure on fares. Should riders pay, or should the city government, Albany or the feds be more forthcoming with dollars.

Results of the Fare Increase:

The MTA set the relative prices of passes and other parts of the new fare last May to encourage riders to “buy up” to 7-day and 30-day passes, and to move away from small-value MetroCard purchases. The proportion of fare revenue from 30-day passes increased to 22.5 percent of fares paid in January 2004 compared with 12.0 percentearlier. That is a big change, and more than the MTA expected.

The fare increase not only made the 30-day pass more attractive, it also made boosted use of the pay-per-ride bonus by increasing the size of the discount from 10 percent to 20 percent, reducing the threshold purchase amount from $15 to $10. As the graph below shows, the 30-day pass and bonus card increased market share, while the 1-day pass (which increased greatly in price) lost share and the token was eliminated.

Bruce Schaller is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation, and is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

















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