The bill comes just weeks after the TLC and Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose three design finalists in a plan to adopt a single vehicle as the exclusive replacement for the city’s taxi fleet over a period of ten years. City officials say accessibility is a goal but not a requirement for the Taxi of Tomorrow, and only one of three finalists submitted an accessible design (see related story.)
The bill, Intro 433, is co-sponsored by 22 Council members. If the Council passes the bill, the TLC will likely have to scrap the Request for Proposals (RFP) that the finalists had responded to.
The Council heard from disability rights advocates, taxi industry representatives and one accessible taxi driver in a four-hour meeting that Council Member Oliver Koppell compared to debates from the 1980s about bus upgrades, where he said opponents made similar arguments about issues like expense.
TLC Chairman David Yassky offered a renewal of the central dispatch system that performed poorly in a pilot program ending in June instead of full accessibility, which Council Member Daniel Halloran compared to Access-A-Ride.
Yassky said the new taxi could include a host of accessible features like hearing induction loops and door opening signals but that a requirement for wheelchair accessibility would lead to the sacrifice of other criteria and increase the cost of vehicles.
Koppell dismissed that argument, saying, “If it costs more, so be it. It costs more. I will not support anything to do with the new taxis unless it has a requirement that over time it will be accessible.”
Gabriela Amari of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled said full taxi accessibility is also a safety issue. She cited an incident in which she saved her cat’s life by taking her to the emergency room in a livery cab before becoming more dependent on her wheelchair.
“Believe it or not, people in wheelchairs have emergency situations that crop up like anybody else in life and we are left with no recourse. It is imperative that all taxis become accessible,” she said.
State Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who sponsored a similar bill, said the central dispatch system should only be used in transition to full fleet accessibility.
“We should be the world leader on this,” Kellner said. “It can be something we look back on and say ‘I can’t believe there was ever any other way.’ If you mandate it, someone will build it and they will build it well.”
There are currently 240 accessible taxis in a fleet of more than 13,000 vehicles serving about 700,000 people per day.
The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade and the League of Mutual Taxi Owners, Inc. (LOMTO) spoke against the measure, citing concerns about the reliability and cost of accessible vehicles.
“These modified vehicles have not proven themselves to be as reliable as the automobiles that are now in use,” said LOMTO Managing Director Vincent Sapone. “These modified vehicles are also not as comfortable as conventional taxis for almost all passengers.”
Council Member David Greenfield told Yassky that the current fleet denies wheelchair users equal opportunity to compete in the business world when they are unable to travel quickly between meetings.
Terrence Moakley, a board member for the United Spinal Association, spoke in support of the bill. He urged the Council not to take any steps that would prevent the taxi and livery industries from purchasing the new Vehicle Production Group’s MV-1. That vehicle is fully accessible but the manufacturer did not submit a bid in response to the Taxi of Tomorrow RFP.
“Apart from giving wheelchair users and other persons with disabilities the ability to move around our city more easily, just think of how much transportation dollars might be saved if the taxi and livery industries could provide more Access-A-Ride and Medicaid transportation trips – at significantly less cost,” Moakley said.
This article was published in the January 2011 issue of Able News.