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A Little Movement Toward More Taxis for Wheelchairs
Published: August 25, 2004

Four years ago, taxi officials raised the possibility of making all the city's yellow cabs accessible to wheelchairs. But the idea never went anywhere, apparently fading into the ranks of other well-intentioned public accommodations that never seem to become reality in New York, like public toilets and direct train service to the airport.

Today, only three of the city's 12,487 yellow cabs are accessible, meaning that someone in a wheelchair has about one chance in 4,162 of hailing an accessible minivan.

In contrast, other major American cities, including Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, have significantly expanded the availability of the vehicles in recent years. In London, every cab has been wheelchair-accessible since 1989.

“New York is grossly behind,” said Diane McGrath-McKechnie, a former chairwoman of the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission who has become a proponent of making cabs wheelchair-accessible since leaving office several years ago. “These other cities have been out there far in advance of New York. I think it's outrageous.”

There is movement now, however hesitant, on a matter that to some New Yorkers is as basic as being able to get across town without a major ordeal.

“The issue with yellow cabs is spontaneity,” said Edith Prentiss, an advocate for the disabled and a Manhattan resident who uses a motorized wheelchair. “I don't need to make a plan like I'm invading Europe, which is really what it often feels like.”

The Taxi and Limousine Commission is expected to vote today to modify the rules of its next medallion auction to try to encourage the purchase of medallions specifically designated for wheelchair-accessible cabs, something it tried but failed to do in the last auction.

Although only 27 medallions would be so designated, the commission's chairman, Matthew W. Daus, said the move would be progress.

“This is something we're tremendously committed to,” he said last week.

The taxi commission is also finally enforcing a three-year-old rule requiring that all black car and livery cab companies, more than 700 in all, either buy their own wheelchair-accessible van or contract with another company to provide it on demand.

In what would be a much more radical shift, a bill that would require the eventual conversion of the entire yellow cab fleet is being considered by Councilman John C. Liu, chairman of the City Council's Transportation Committee. The bill is being vigorously opposed, just as the commission's proposal was four years ago, by fleet owners and others in the industry with high-powered lobbyists. Over the last year, Mr. Liu has met repeatedly with them and with advocates for the disabled who have banded together under a group named Taxis for All.

“There's no doubt that yellow cabs will be accessible for people in wheelchairs in the future,” Mr. Liu said. “The question is whether it will be 20 years from now, 10 years from now, or 3 years from now.”

Taxi industry representatives argue that a blanket requirement would be disastrous.

“Being demanding and destroying an industry to help a group of people at this time isn't the proper thing to do, either,” said David Pollack, president of the Committee for Taxi Safety, a group that represents leasing managers. The organization hired a former speaker of the State Assembly, Mel Miller, now with the firm Bolton-St. Johns, to lobby against the bill.

Ms. McGrath-McKechnie, however, described the industry's objections as mostly “bogus.”

“This is an industry of world-class whiners,” she said. “The bottom line is they do not want to spend an extra penny.”

Ms. McGrath-McKechnie said she regretted not pushing ahead with the wheelchair requirement back in 2000. Instead, the board passed the livery bill, which was to go in effect in October 2001, but officials issued a moratorium after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

When the city finally began enforcing the rule earlier this year, fewer than a third of 613 companies inspected were found to be in compliance. The proportion rose to about 80 percent after the commission began issuing warnings and then summonses, but most of the companies are signed up with a single organization, A Ride for All, which has only four vans to serve the entire city.

Census data and estimates by advocates for the disabled put the number of people who use wheelchairs in New York City at 60,000. Because of the lack of elevators at many subway stations and the gap between trains and platforms, many of them depend on city buses, which transport wheelchair-bound passengers about 64,000 times a month. The buses are often slow, especially if multiple transfers are required. Another option is New York City Transit's Access-a-Ride program, a shared van service that handles 10,500 riders a week but has been dogged by complaints of unreliability and inconvenience.

In October 2003, city officials helped start A Ride for All, a livery company that specializes in wheelchair passengers. Although many disabled New Yorkers praised the concept, the company and its limited resources were quickly overwhelmed. Reservations often need to be made up to a week in advance, several people interviewed said.

Industry representatives cite three main obstacles to making cabs wheelchair-accessible: the cost of conversion, the durability of the cabs and high insurance premiums.

Although advocates for the disabled have contested them on each point, this much is not in dispute: the workhorse of the yellow taxicab fleet right now is the Ford Crown Victoria, which costs about $23,500. Initially, industry representatives put the price of an accessible minivan at $33,000 to $39,000, but after soliciting bids from several companies, they conceded that the vehicles could be bought for as little as $27,500.

Even this difference of a few thousand dollars per cab, however, would cost fleet owners “hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Michael Woloz, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, an organization of fleet owners.

Making matters worse, minivans do not last as long as Crown Victorias, Mr. Woloz said. Fleet garages, which operate 24 hours a day and account for about 30 percent of the taxi industry, use Crown Victorias almost exclusively, because owners learned long ago that minivans do not hold up, he said.

Timothy Jans, chief executive officer of Cook Dupage Transportation, a paratransit operator in Chicago that has about 110 accessible minivans in its fleet, said in a telephone interview that he generally kept his vans on the road for four years, and that they average about 220,000 miles before being retired but occasionally get up to 250,000 miles. That is comparable to the mileage of typical fleet vehicles before they are retired, according to a 2003 industry report.

But Anthony Bottalla, the owner of a taxicab fleet in Chicago who was among the first to put wheelchair-accessible cabs on the road there several years ago, said minivans were much more costly to maintain. Several years ago, officials in Chicago began requiring fleets to buy one wheelchair-accessible vehicle for every 15 vehicles they own.

After 125,000 miles, he said, his minivans have invariably needed major repairs, much earlier than Crown Victorias, which can sometimes go twice that long.

Advocates for the disabled argue that the difference could be made up with incentives from the taxi commission, like extending the mandatory retirement age of minivans a year-and-a-half.

“Durability is not an excuse for exclusion,” said Joe Rappaport, the former head of the Straphangers Campaign, who was recently hired by the United Spinal Association to help lead the taxi campaign.

The insurance issue is fiercely contested as well. Edward McGettigan Sr., president of American Transit, the yellow cab industry's major carrier, declared in an interview that his company would not insure wheelchair-accessible yellow cabs. He cited the extra training that he said would be required of taxi drivers, the danger of trying to load such passengers in traffic, and the possibility of fraud. If someone were to write a policy for a wheelchair-accessible cab, he estimated that it would cost twice what one for a standard cab costs.

But advocates for the disabled say the State Department of Insurance polled several insurance companies and concluded that wheelchair accessibility should not affect cost.

So what to make of the claims and counterclaims? Mr. Liu said that he was still studying the issue, but that he thought it would have to be all or nothing.

“The whole point of a yellow cab is you go on a street and you can hail one,” he said. “If only 3 percent or a ludicrous percent of yellow cabs are accessible, well, what are you doing?”

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