Door-to-Door Taxi Service for Wheelchair Users in NYC

Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced a deal to put 2,000 wheelchair-accessible cabs on the streets of New York City, setting aside up to $54 million to retrofit vehicles for wheelchair use or buy new wheelchair accessible vehicles.  This is partly in response to judicial pressure.

On December 23, 2011, two days after this was announced, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the taxi commission had failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing sufficient wheelchair access. The judge even stopped the city from auctioning any new permits or medallions unless they are all accessible and a new plan approved by the court.

In order to achieve this great plan, it will require taxpayers and the taxi industry to foot the bill for taxis, which will most probably rarely be used by the intended ridership.  Perhaps a more beneficial alternative would be to set up a small fleet of wheelchair-accessible cabs that the disabled passengers could call on through a centralized dispatch system, at any time of day or night, as part of the city’s mass transit system.

Currently there are no options available for the 60,000 wheelchair users in New York City (and that is not counting the visitors). Most subway stations are not wheelchair accessible; many bus stops are difficult for the wheelchair users to reach and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s van program for the disabled requires registration and the need for a reservation days in advance.

The state and the city plan to sell 2,000 new taxi medallions (total is 13,237) which will be designated for wheelchair accessible vehicles and issue 18,000 permits (one fifth of them wheelchair-accessible) for a new class of cabs that will be permitted to pick up street hails in upper Manhattan and the other four boroughs (areas usually underserved by yellow cabs).

Even though this sounds like a great idea, imagine these cabs pulling over to pick up a wheelchair passenger in the middle of a heavily congested, bustling city streets.  Imagine still the insurance premiums for the drivers and vehicle owners.  When you think about all this, in the end, most disable riders would prefer being picked up at their home as opposed to an uncertain wait time on a crowded city street in the rain, or even a snowstorm. But they have to get from place to place like the rest of us, as well.

From July 2008 to June 2010, the Taxi and Limousine Commission tested a centralized taxi-dispatch system for disabled riders. When riders called the city’s 311 information line, a company dispatched one of 232 accessible yellow cabs to pick them up.

The median wait time was 22 minutes.  A total of 2,700 individuals actually used this service, and most of them for only one trip per year.  Daily, there were approximately 8 rides made. The $1 million budget for the 5,828 trips taken meant that each trip cost approximately $172.00.  The majority of the rides began and ended in Manhattan.

It is being proposed to convert the existing van program run by the MTA into a system of subsidized door-to-door taxi rides. The van system, known as paratransit or Access-a-Ride, spends more than $380 million a year. The average cost of a ride is $30-50, which can be lowered to $12-15 if the seldom-used vans were replaced with accessible cabs.  Passengers would pay $2.25 per ride (with discount cards available), the same cost as a subway trip.

The MTA has been testing a similar program and it should become permanent.  It would allow the use of custom-built vehicles instead of retrofitted ones. The MTA or the city could enforce service standards regarding wait times and properly trained drivers. As the service became more reliable, it would become more popular.  It seems attractive to offer a door-to-door taxi service for the price of a subway ride. Chicago has a similar model, where only 90 wheelchair-accessible cabs (about 1 percent of the total fleet) are efficiently dispatched through a single toll-free number.

It is possible that Congress could also help. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, exempted taxicabs, but subsequent federal regulations required taxis for the disabled to provide “equivalent service.”  Governments are not required to provide accessible cabs, but if they do, they are open to being sued (as New York City was) for discrimination.  The act should really be amended to provide incentives for disability access rather than punishing municipalities that try to do the right thing.

The Governor and Mayor are trying to do the right thing for the wheelchair bound citizens, but finding the perfect program may still take some time (and money).

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