Thanks to the United Spinal Association, New York City is about to see a big improvement in the disabled community's access to taxi cabs. There is still a long way to go, however.
Bear in mind that, at least in this town, taxis are a primary issue. Unlike most parts of the country, New York has a smaller car culture, and in Manhattan, very little. If you're in the central borough you get around by public transit, by cab or by walking.
And if you're in a wheelchair, one of these is cumbersome. Public transportation means a subway or bus. Taking subways is problematic, because relatively few stations have elevators, and you can't tell if they're working, or what condition they're in. If you're going any distance, buses become a grind, stopping every block or so.
That leaves taxis. Which in New York are inaccessible. Even a new fleet, recently commissioned, still maintained this failure.
On December 13, 2013, the United Spinal Association announced a historic agreement with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, a result of an Association lawsuit.
The terms are complex. First the Commission has to post rules, which it plans to do quickly. Then, starting in two years or sooner, one out of every two new taxis will be wheelchair accessible, till the 50% mark is reached, a goal expected to be attained by 2020.
Amazingly, the city had fought this for years, despite the savings it portends. Jim Weisman, United Spinal's general counsel, pointed out how the city "is spending over $500 million per year on Access-A-Ride alone...The average cost of Access-A-Ride is 66 dollars. When have you paid 66 dollars for a cab ride? This agreement will completely change the equation not only for people with disabilities but for taxpayers."
This is an enormous, historic victory, but it still has limitations.
First, even after a nearly decade long wait, we'll be at 50 percent. When I groused, my buddy Allen Rucker kidded me, "What, you want 75 percent accessible? You New Yorkers are so pushy!" For the record, the American Association for People with Disabilities reacted to the news by praising the agreement, but calling for 100 percent accessibility.
This is not a ridiculous demand. New York City has 13,000 cabs, and is just starting to move on accessibility. London, however, has 19,000. How many of these are accessible? 19,000. According to United Spinal, "Successful accessible taxi services exist in more than 100 US communities, including large cities such as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Miami, Las Vegas, and Portland."
But more than numbers, the city needs to change the culture of taxi drivers. Actually, that's easily done with a little effort.
In one sense, New York has had accessible taxis for a long time. Many wheelchair users in the Big Apple know how to transfer to a car seat, and how to stow their chairs cleanly and safely. The problem was getting a taxi to stop for you.
Anyone who has tried to hail a cab from a wheelchair in New York knows the story: no cab will ever come over. My wife and I are both Bronx born and raised, and a couple of years ago we traveled back home.
Getting around was possible, but not by cab. Outside the South Street Seaport we went up to a cab stand and went down a line of about eight cars, of them each just sitting there waiting for a fare, wasting time. Every one turned us down. Later, on Fifth Avenue in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, large numbers of cabs cruised by, picking up dozens of different parties. None would stop for us. In both cases we called a car service to get back to our hotel.
This can be solved easily if the city wants to. Send out two person traffic enforcement teams in plain clothes, one in a wheelchair. It doesn't really matter if that person is actually disabled or just pretending.
The wheelchair user goes up and requests a taxi ride. When the driver turns them down, the witness/enforcer writes the driver up and issues a ticket or summons. After that happens for a while, word will get out, and habits will change. After successful trips with wheelchair-using passengers, so will beliefs.
Change is coming, all of it very good. But we still have a ways to go.