Alexander Wood recently saw something in Union Square that was, to him, as rare as a unicorn. It was an accessible taxicab that Wood was able to board in his wheelchair – something he’d never done in his years living here.

For Wood, who heads the Disabilities Network of New York City, the 81 accessible taxicabs currently on the road and the additional 150 expected in the next year are good news. After all, in 2004 there were only five such vehicles operating. But he considers a total of 230 accessible vehicles, out of some 13,000 yellow taxicabs, insufficient to serve the estimated 65,000 people who use wheelchairs in NYC.

When Mayor Bloomberg announced plans this May to convert the entire taxi fleet to hybrid gas-electric vehicles by 2012, some disability advocates were stunned that none of those hybrid vehicles are required to be wheelchair accessible. Most agree that saving 22 million gallons of fuel and reducing carbon emissions by 215,000 tons, according to administration figures, is a good thing – but they wonder why such a massive transition wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity to address a longstanding complaint of people with disabilities.

“The thing is, this is a solve-able problem,” says Joe Rappaport, an advocate with the Taxis for All Campaign, a coalition that has been fighting for more accessible taxis since 1994. “It should fit in with the Bloombergian view of the world, which is that there are technological means of making progress.”

But the administration has raised objections over the cost and aesthetics of potential accessible vehicles that could meet the needs of disabled riders, he said.

In fact, the hybrid models under consideration by the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), made by Toyota, Honda and Ford, cannot be modified to include a wheelchair ramp. Regarding the absence of accessible cabs in the hybrid phase-in plan, Matt Sapolin, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, said that regular, non-hybrid vehicles that are wheelchair-accessible would be allowed to stay in the taxi fleet after the transition.

In terms of adding more accessible vehicles to the fleet, administration officials say they are still searching for a solution that meets everyone’s needs. There’s nothing to prevent medallion owners from buying or retrofitting accessible vehicles, but TLC standards and regulations make it costly to do so.

“Our ultimate goal is to see the design and manufacture of a vehicle that satisfies the TLC’s ‘wish list’ with such attributes as accessibility, clean fuel, pleasing aesthetics, iconic design, sturdiness,” and more, said TLC Deputy Commissioner Allan Fromberg.

To maximize the use of the 230 accessible vehicles expected to be on the road by next year, the TLC favors a dispatch system that would allow callers to call 311 or another central number and request a car that can accommodate a wheelchair or scooter. That’s a contentious proposal among disability activists. Some think it’s the only reasonable solution right now, because there are such limited options – even though wait times can take up to an hour. Members of the Taxis for All Campaign, on the other hand, are wary, arguing that a dispatch solution lets the administration off the hook on the long-term goal of getting more accessible vehicles on the road, and eventually converting the entire fleet to universally-accessible vehicles.

For a commuter like Edith Prentiss, who lives in Washington Heights and uses an electric wheelchair, the dispatch system offers little progress. “If I had an hour to wait for a taxi to turn up, why would I be bothering?” she said. “I might as well take the bus.” Prentiss believes these transportation obstacles contribute to the “horrendous unemployment rate” among people with disabilities, over 30 percent nationwide.

Resistance to accessible taxicabs sounds familiar to those who fought to make public buses accessible in the 1970s and 1980s – and they’re now a vital transit link. Some officials argue that not enough people with disabilities ride taxis to make it worthwhile. And, by now, disabled riders know they have to depend on other modes of transportation.

Users find those other options leave something to be desired, however. There are about 54 accessible MTA stations out of 468 subway stations citywide, and half of those are in Manhattan. Elevators are often out of service, and the MTA hotline updating their status can be inaccurate.

There’s a car service called A Ride for All that people were optimistic about when it began in 2003, offering for-hire vans with wheelchair lifts. The service was popular at first but then became kind of a “subscription service” for people who could reserve for regular appointments. The cars are rarely available on short notice, and fares have increased to a minimum of $45 per ride.

Then there’s Access-a-Ride, the city’s transit system that provides vans for people with disabilities, which is often criticized for being slow, late, and difficult to use. With Access-a-Ride, riders must call well in advance and share rides with several others.

This leaves the majority of people with mobility disabilities taking the bus, which is slower than the subway and may require several transfers.

Despite some small gains, some say that the situation won’t really improve unless New York City pressures the auto manufacturing industry to create a “purpose-built” – i.e. custom-made – vehicle that’s fuel-efficient and accessible. A model of one such vehicle, the Standard Taxi, was displayed at the New York International Auto Show this March, earning rave reviews from disabled riders and elected officials who tested it.

At least one hack was impressed by it, too. “In my opinion, the best wheelchair car they had, the city turned it down,” said taxi driver Beresford Simmons. He’s familiar with current technology, because he acquired a discounted accessible medallion in 2005 and has been driving a minivan with a wheelchair ramp ever since.

Simmons said he picks up passengers with wheelchairs as often as he can, but that many more accessible cabs are needed. He worries that drivers who work for large fleets can’t afford the time to do special pick-ups through a dispatch system like the one proposed. As an independent owner, he’s able to set his own schedule and can work beyond the usual 12-hour shifts, he said.

One solution Simmons and others mentioned would be to provide incentives to drivers picking up disabled passengers. Another solution would be to put a better quality vehicle on the road that doesn’t require as much assistance from the driver – like the Standard Taxi.

Fromberg said nothing is on or off the table, but that the Standard Taxi is not yet being manufactured yet, so there’s nothing to consider. News accounts say the company expects to start production in 2008.
Disability activists are pushing for a bill in City Council (Introduction 378), that would require accessible vehicles to be phased in over time as old cabs are retired. Despite one hearing in the transportation committee, and thousands of postcards in support mailed to City Hall, the bill doesn’t appear destined for passage. “There’s not enough support for an immediate mandate on the industry right now,” said Councilman John Liu, chair of the transportation committee. “A universal mandate [for accessible vehicles] could double the cost of a taxi to $40,000 a year,” he said.

An earlier Council bill, passed in December, required the TLC to present a plan and schedule within 180 days for increasing the numbers of green and accessible taxis. Those 180 days have passed, and the TLC has provided little information on increasing accessible yellow cabs, and no information at all on plans for “for-hire vehicles” – livery cabs, black cars and limos.

Fromberg, of the TLC, said the city’s Economic Development Corporation issued a request for proposals for a consultant who can design an “iconic” New York taxi that meets the needs of all riders. He said that the goal is to have a design for a purpose-built vehicle by next spring, but the TLC doesn’t make any commitments or set any standards for accessible cars.

“Obviously, we are optimistic,” said Fromberg, but “I could not commit to it as a guarantee.”

In the meantime, the Disabilities Network of New York City, Easter Seals, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and other organizations are planning to hold forums on accessible taxis and for-hire vehicles in each borough in the next few months, which participants hope will lead to some long-term solutions.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which had its 17th anniversary on July 26, says that taxis cannot deny service to disabled riders who are capable of getting in and out of a cab, and it regulates the features of accessible taxis (a certain amount of space for wheelchairs, tie-downs, etc.), but it does not mandate that cabs be modified to be accessible.

People with disabilities say there’s just not enough incentive right now for auto makers to produce the vehicles they need. Manufacturers would respond to a clear demand for accessible vehicles, just like they did in the past with safety glass, seatbelts and airbags, technologies they once insisted would be a hardship for the industry. And they say cost and durability concerns are overblown and that if the vehicles were bought in bulk, they would be affordable to medallion owners. Other cities have been able to provide more accessible cab service, such as Chicago, Montreal, Las Vegas and London, where the entire fleet is accessible to wheelchairs.

– Heather Appel