The City Council must seize the opportunity to transition the cab fleet to full accessibility

Only 233 taxis, or 2% of the city’s current fleet, are capable of carrying the thousands of New Yorkers and visitors who use wheelchairs to try to get around our city daily.

This is an outrage. It forces disabled passengers to wait many times longer than able-bodied ones, and often to do so in the rain or the cold.

After dozens of failed starts, we finally have the chance to fix this — by passing City Council legislation that would require all cabs to be replaced with accessible vehicles when they are phased out.

It’s an opportunity we must seize.

For years, the industry, the Bloomberg administration and the Taxi and Limousine Commission have given a slew of excuses for why New York City cannot have a completely accessible taxi fleet.

They have blamed the supposed costliness of accessible vehicles, the lack of political support, even at one point floating the absurd hypothesis that accessible cabs would lead to poor tips for drivers.

Meanwhile, major cities like London and San Francisco have successfully charged ahead — proving that our goal is well within reach.

A city bill transitioning the cab fleet to full wheelchair accessibility, sponsored by City Councilman Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx), has enough support to pass. And Thursday, after strident opposition from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, it will finally get the hearing it has long been denied.

In 2011, over Mayor Bloomberg’s objections, the state Assembly passed legislation similar to the Koppell bill; it failed in the Senate. Later that year in Albany, the fight for accessibility gained real momentum following the hasty passage of a Bloomberg-backed, ill-conceived livery hail bill. The taxi industry and advocates for the disabled worked with Gov. Cuomo to craft amendments requiring the sale of 2,000 wheelchair-accessible taxi medallions, with money set aside for $15,000 grants to help offset the cost of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

The most important provision would have required the TLC to create a plan to make every yellow taxi wheelchair-accessible. At the time, Bloomberg enthusiastically endorsed all of this, but a lawsuit derailed the legislation.

All the delays have made foes’ main objection to full accessibility — that it is too costly and simply not pragmatic — far less potent. Today, the auto industry has far better options for wheelchair-accessible vehicles than it once did. Upstart manufacturers have designed purpose-built cabs; others are constantly improving technology for accessible minivans.

Passing the Koppell bill is the crucial piece of the puzzle. Meanwhile, there are other policies we must pursue to help disabled people get around the city.

We should revive the sale of an additional 2,000 accessible-taxi medallions — which would immediately increase the number of accessible vehicles on the road while raising much-needed revenue for the city. Funds from the sale of these medallions can be set aside to help offset the increased cost of accessible vehicles for owners.

If Bloomberg abandons his outer-borough street hail proposal, he should be able to gain the taxi industry’s support for a medallion sale. At the same time, wheelchair accessibility and sensitivity training must be a mandatory requirement for cabbies to earn their hack license. Current drivers should be required to attend continuing education classes.

Finally, the TLC must scrap its plan to require a one-size-fits-all Taxi of Tomorrow.

By designating a single taxi model for the next fleet — the Nissan NV200 — the TLC has restricted the taxi industry to an untested vehicle that was not initially designed to be wheelchair-accessible. When, after intense pressure, Nissan recently unveiled an accessible version of the NV200, it was more Frankenstein monster than iconic taxi. A wheelchair user must roll up a ramp into the trunk while the rear seat is folded down, leaving room for only one additional passenger to ride in the front seat.

This creates a “wheelchair tax” by forcing disabled riders traveling with more than one passenger to pay for two cabs.

If the administration insists on moving forward with the NV200s, it must require them all to be accessible — or every medallion owner will be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Failing to require a van operating as a taxi to be wheelchair-accessible is an invitation for the Justice Department to sue the city under the law.

Now is the time for New York City to have a 100% accessible taxi fleet. We can take action to do this on our own, or we can wait until the policy is forced upon us. It is up to Bloomberg and Quinn to ensure it happens the right way.

Kellner, a Democrat, represents Manhattan in the state Assembly.

Category: Blog, New York City

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