The Fight For Accessible Taxis In New York City

“Taxi of Tomorrow” has amazing amenities, including a see-through ceiling, built-in GPS navigation, ample leg room and a charging station for mobile devices. And yet, it isn’t accessible.

“Taxi of Tomorrow” has amazing amenities, including a see-through ceiling, built-in GPS navigation, ample leg room and a charging station for mobile devices. And yet, it isn’t accessible.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why New York City is slow about putting in elevators for the disabled at its subway stations. They cost a fortune to build and maintain. That’s not true of making taxicabs accessible. Since the city doesn’t own any of its huge fleet of yellow cabs, it wouldn’t cost it a penny to order owners to buy ramp-equipped minivans when they trade in their old cabs. NYC also could have insisted that the vehicles in its “Taxi of Tomorrow” program be accessible, but it didn’t. Don’t think it’s because wealthy fleet owners intimidate the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. The TLC has tougher rules than the United States Marines.

No one we talked to could explain New York’s seeming aversion to accessible cabs. “NYC transit spends $470 million a year on its Access-a-Ride service,” points out James Weisman, senior vice president and general counsel for United Spinal Association. “If the city would just require all new taxis to be accessible, they would eventually save $100 million because many people would forgo the Access-a-Ride and take a cab.”

We asked State Assemblyman Micah Z. Kellner, one of the few politicians who speaks out in favor of accessible cabs, why so few political leaders have joined him. “I think, sadly, people are often blind to the views of people with disabilities,” he said. “They think people in wheelchairs can use some other service — taxis aren’t for them.” Kellner doesn’t use a wheelchair, although he has mild cerebral palsy.

City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who is hoping to be New York’s first openly gay mayor, could end the controversy tomorrow by releasing a council bill backed by a veto-proof majority. It calls for accessible taxis. We asked her office, but it refused to tell us why she is holding it up [see sidebar, below]. We also couldn’t get a reply from NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism organization, when we asked whether it thought the lack of accessible cabs might discourage disabled tourists.

But as much as the city might like to forget about the controversy, it isn’t going away. A powerful group of energized opponents is fighting for accessible cabs. It includes:

  • The Department of Justice — the United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York is investigating whether New York’s taxi rules violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Experts say they do.
  • Both Kellner and New York City Council Member James Vacca, chair of the council’s transportation committee, have introduced legislation to force the city to change its rules.
  • A coalition of disability groups and individuals with disabilities are suing the city in federal court [see “The Fight for Access in New York City,” April 2011].

The Battle Goes to Court
This is a very important fight for people who use wheelchairs and scooters. The outcome has national implications. Unlike Las Vegas, points out New York-based Weisman, what happens in New York doesn’t stay there. If Gotham makes its Yellow Cab fleet accessible, every city will follow, he says.

Requiring just 231 ramp-equipped yellow cabs out of a fleet of 13,237 is OK with the law, the city continues to insist. Not only is it not legal, disability rights advocates say, but it also is morally outrageous. They add that the city is on the wrong side of history. It is especially ironic, they note, because both Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Quinn back civil rights issues like immigrant rights and gay marriage, but are strangely out of step — you might say tone deaf — on the issue of accessible taxicabs. They are like Southern governors during civil rights struggles of the 1960s. And like those governors, they are fated to lose, critics say.

They certainly lost the first round when U.S. District Court Judge George B. Daniels seemed doubtful that the city’s TLC is taking steps that would result in “reasonable, meaningful access” for wheelchair users. He refused to dismiss the case in a May 24 ruling.

The city’s two lawyers seemed surprised. They shouldn’t have been. They were facing Sid Wolinsky, one of the nation’s leading disability rights lawyers and a founder of Disability Rights Advocates. Wolinsky had flown in from the organization’s California headquarters just to argue this case (on the invitation of Weisman and United Spinal Association, one of the plaintiffs). One eyewitness said having Wolinsky on your team was like having Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan face batters from the local Little League.

The city’s attorneys asked if the court wanted the TLC to order taxi owners to sell their Ford Crown Victorias and buy accessible vans. The judge told them that there were many solutions short of that. The city lawyers also said that the TLC was working on plans for a new accessible taxi dispatch service — while admitting that an earlier one was a flop.

Wolinsky told the judge that, with the possible exception of London (where every one of its more than 19,000 black cabs are wheelchair accessible), New Yorkers are more dependent on taxicabs than any residents of other cities are. That’s why the issue is so important to wheelchair- and scooter-using residents.

Driving home the point, he read a short section from an article in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine: “Yellow cabs are so integral to life in Manhattan that it seems almost silly to point out their significance. People take more than 485,000 taxi trips per day in New York, and the taxi system, though minuscule compared with the MTA [subways and buses], could be considered the seventh-largest transportation system in the country. … No matter where you are or who you are — a student leaving a crowded nightclub, a brand manager in the after work-sidewalk crush, a tourist lugging too many bags — there is always, theoretically, an escape hatch: Just stick out your hand and hail a cab.”

The city’s team argued that there is nothing in the rules stopping cab owners from buying accessible cabs but admitted that only one owner has done it with one taxi. They also claimed that the lack of ramp-equipped taxis really isn’t a problem because by law drivers must stop for everyone, whether they are in a wheelchair or not. Wheelchair users, they said, can transfer into the cab while the driver folds the chair and stows it in the trunk. Then everyone can go merrily on their way.

That argument, of course, ignores reality. Many of today’s cabs are SUVs, too high to transfer into, and large numbers of wheelchair users are unable to transfer into any vehicle. Besides, power chairs and many others don’t fold.

To some in the courtroom, Wolinsky’s most surprising point was that the ADA clearly says that minivans used as taxis must be equipped as wheelchair accessible. According to Wolinsky, this means that most of the 1,100 plus Toyota Sienna minivans already in service as yellow taxis in New York are out of compliance with the law.

Weisman, who has been fighting NYC on transportation issues on behalf of disabled residents and United Spinal Association (formerly EPVA) for decades, said he knew the city was violating the ADA with the Siennas, but he had been too busy with other cases to pursue it. “We’re swamped,” he said. So last summer, when Disability Rights Advocates, with its main office in Berkeley, Calif., opened an office in New York City on the 20th anniversary of the ADA, a powerful new advocate joined the fray. “When Sid Wolinsky came to New York and said what do you want to do,” said Weisman, “I suggested accessible taxis. It is a pleasure to have him here,” he added.

NYC Ignores Public Sentiment and Law
The United States Attorney’s office hadn’t taken any action on the taxi issue until recently, when Kellner lodged a detailed complaint with the Department of Justice. Now the Feds are on the case big time.

The TLC first enraged the disabled community four years ago when it asked automakers to submit proposals for a new yellow cab — the “Taxi of Tomorrow” — without requiring that it be wheelchair accessible. The city wants to have the first of the new hacks on the road next year, and it hopes to have them replace the rest of the yellow cabs by the end of the decade.

When the TLC included the Karsan V-1, a Turkish minivan with a built-in ramp, as one of its three finalists, wheelchair users were hopeful. And not only wheelers were impressed with the Karsan minivan. A poll found that New Yorkers in general favored it over the competition. It was the only vehicle designed as a cab from the ground up, and the public liked its iconic cab design. But the city ignored its own residents, nondisabled and disabled alike, and picked the Nissan NV200 as its first choice. It’s a minivan, now sold only in Asia and Europe. The TLC claims it cannot be equipped with a ramp. However, disability rights groups say they have learned that in Japan some of these vehicles do have ramps.

The TLC may have forsaken wheelchair-using passengers, but it is making Nissan include a long list of creature comforts for everyone else. These include phone and laptop power outlets; a transparent roof for city views; exterior lights to warn cyclists and pedestrians about opening doors; and custom climate controls for each seat. What’s more, the entire cab will light up, outside and in, whenever its horn sounds. It will help police track down noisy cabbies.

Supporters of accessible cabs seemed confident that Nissan will soon be adding ramps to those future taxis. “This will end either by legislation or by a lawsuit,” predicted Kellner. “We are going to have accessible taxis in New York City,” he declared.


How to Dodge a Reporters Questions

Trying to pin down politicians and other public officials when they don’t want to give an answer can be frustrating and, sometimes, even funny. Below are New Mobility contributing editor Bob Samuels’ attempts at getting a response from New York City officials.

June 7: Samuels sent the following e-mail to the press office of New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, a civil rights advocate, who apparently is not a supporter of accessible taxis:

Subject: Wheelchair accessible taxis

Message:
I am a contributing editor to New Mobility, a national monthly magazine for wheelchair users. I am working on a story about the struggle for wheelchair accessible taxis in New York City.

I have several questions for Speaker Quinn about this issue:

You have a well-deserved reputation as a defender of civil rights. Isn’t denying wheelchair users the same access to city taxis a violation of their civil rights?

Why is it any different than denying taxis to any other minority?

Do you know that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all minivans used as taxis must be wheelchair accessible?

Why hasn’t the city enforced this law?

Why have you blocked the Transportation Committee bill that calls for the “Taxi of Tomorrow” to be wheelchair accessible?

I look forward to your answers.
Sincerely,
Robert C. Samuels

From: McShane, Jamie
[mailto: @council.nyc.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, June 07, 2011 2:37 PM
To: ‘Robert Samuels’
Subject: RE: Wheelchair accessible taxis

McShane: I’ve got this? (McShane is communications director for Quinn and the City Council).

Samuels: I don’t think this was meant for me.

McShane: Sorry Robert, that was meant for my colleagues. Let me ask, what is your deadline?

Samuels: I need it by noon Thursday. I hope that’s doable.

Shirley Limongi (same office as McShane), Wednesday, June 8: Robert, our apologies for responding late. When is your deadline?

Samuels: You guys did get back to me. As I emailed Jamie McShane yesterday: “I need it by noon Thursday. I hope that’s doable.” Thanks for your help.

There was no further response from Quinn, McShane, or anyone else in the press office.
Samuels also contacted NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism organization. He recited the facts about NYC’s lack of accessible taxis and contrasted that with London, whose 19,000 cabs are 100 percent accessible, commenting: “This makes it very hard to recommend New York as a desirable destination for our readers.”

Samuels then asked the following questions: How does NYC & Company feel about the lack of accessible taxis for disabled visitors? Have you spoken with the TLC about its position? Will you? I would appreciate any comment your organization cares to make.

Emily Mayrath, senior manager of communications for NYC & Company, finally responded, phoning Samuels and apologizing for not getting back to him sooner. Was there still time? she asked. “Yes,” Samuels told her, “if you can get back to me today.”

His answer arrived by e-mail that afternoon:

Mayrath: Hi Bob — Thanks for speaking with me this morning regarding your piece on wheelchair taxis. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide a comment, but I do recommend you reach out to Allan Fromberg at the TLC.
All the best,
Emily

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