Taxi Accessibility Resurfaces in City Council

By Kristen Meriwether, Epoch Times
April 22, 2013 6:46 pm Last Updated: April 23, 2013 6:31 pm

NEW YORK—The clock is ticking on a bill, which would require all yellow taxis permitted by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission to be wheelchair accessible. The bill would affect more than 13,000 taxi medallion owners.

The law, which has the support of 37 City Council members, is politically complicated, involving a web of council politics and the Taxi of Tomorrow—the design all Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) permitted cabs will be required to purchase, as well as the powerful taxi lobby.

The Transportation Committee of the City Council has until May 18 to vote on the bill, which has been stalled in committee since December 2010. If the committee does not take a vote, lead sponsor Council member Oliver Koppell can force the bill out of committee to be voted on by the full City Council if he obtains a discharge letter signed by seven other council members, something he said he will do if necessary.

People who use wheelchairs in the city don’t see the issue as being that complicated. They just want to get around easier.

“It is about being able to be like everyone else in terms of getting a cab. It is so simple,” said GG deFiebre, 24, from Manhattan.

For three years deFiebre has navigated New York and longs for the day when she can raise her hand on the street and hail a cab like everyone else. “It is a clear-cut case of discrimination. Most people can just go out and hail a cab,” deFiebre said.

DeFiebre often relies on the MTA’s Access-A-Ride program to get around. Fare is $2.50, the cost of regular subway ride. She says to make sure she will be on time for appointments, she has to call the day before going anywhere. Making spontaneous plans are difficult.

In September 2012 the city introduced the Accessible Dispatch service, which dispatches the 233 wheelchair -accessible taxis to pick up riders in Manhattan. Riders are charged a regular taxi fare, and wait times are 12 minutes, according to the TLC.

DeFiebre says the wait time is typically closer to half an hour for her when she uses the Accessible Dispatch service, depending on the time of day.

“It is better, but I still don’t know if I am going to get somewhere on time if I need to take a cab on the fly,” deFiebre said.

Taxi of Tomorrow
As the bill sat stalled in committee, the city moved forward with its plans for the Taxi of Tomorrow and began the process of selecting the winning design. Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted a hybrid; advocates wanted it to be wheelchair accessible. The winning design was neither.

Nissan won the contest in November 2010, submitting the NV200, a van with a panoramic roof. The contract guarantees Nissan be the provider of taxis for the city for 10 years. At the time, the NV200 did not have a wheelchair accessible model and was not fuel efficient.

Upset at the poor gas mileage, a group advocating for taxi drivers sued to block the Taxi of Tomorrow, due to it not being a hybrid. Disability rights groups sued due to its inaccessibility. Comptroller John Liu refused to certify the contract on account of the inaccessibility, saying the city would open itself to lawsuits.

Current federal ADA laws require any taxis that are vans must be wheelchair accessible.

At the New York Auto Show in early April, Nissan unveiled a wheelchair accessible option. The accessible version costs $14,000 more and will not be required by the TLC.

Requiring Accessibility
The Taxi of Tomorrow is set to hit the streets this October, assuming two pending lawsuits are cleared up.

Koppell’s bill would have forced the Taxi of Tomorrow to be accessible. Because the bill was held in committee for so long, Koppell was forced to modify his bill.

Introduced at the hearing on April 18, the bill now states the law requiring accessibility would not go into effect until two years after the bill is passed.

“They are ready to do it if we require it. It is up to us to require it,” Koppell said at a rally on the steps of City Hall on April 18 before the hearing.

Koppell said he has been in talks with Nissan and they vowed to make the accessible version available before the law goes into effect.

At the hearing, TLC Commissioner David Yassky said that, even with the waiting period, they would not support the measure, citing cost, a currently in-place effective program, and a strong resistance within the taxi fleet.

Yassky was adamant about his displeasure with the inaccessibility of the fleet, however, he said he could not support changing the entire fleet. Yassky said that, while the current Access-A-Ride program is not perfect, he believes adding 2,000 more accessible cabs to the fleet would sharply improve the quality of the program.

Koppell said the life of a taxi is three years, meaning the additional cost of modifying the vehicles ($14,000) would be approximately $4,600 per year more, and only 29 cents more per ride when averaged out.

Richar Kay, president of the League of Mutual Taxi Owners said the costs would not just be in the cab itself, but the insurance as well. Kay said the insurance would rise from $3,072 per year for single-shift insurance to $9,645.

Many Groups Unhappy
Finding middle ground in this issue has been difficult. Taxi drivers are upset at the rise in costs. Wheelchair users are upset because of limited access. City Council members in support of the bill are upset it is not being passed. Mayor Bloomberg is upset at the bill, vowing to veto it.

“It seems to me everyone is upset. We are now all in court and there is nothing moving,” Council member Gale Brewer said at the hearing.

For New Yorkers in wheelchairs like deFiebre, the politics cloud the real issue—accessibility.

“I would be really proud to be a New Yorker in a city that has fully accessible cabs,” deFiebre said.

In the original online version of the story, the Access-A-Ride program was mistaken for the Accessible Dispatch system as the company that dispatches handicap taxis. The Epoch Times regrets the error.