The New York Taxi and Limousine Commission announced on Wednesday, Jan. 24, that it would be expanding its Accessible Dispatch Program. The program, which offers a 24/7 service connecting riders with wheelchair accessible taxis via telephone or smartphone app, had operated only in Manhattan, but will now be accepting pick-ups and drop offs in all five of New York City’s boroughs.
Alex Elegudin, one of New Mobility’s 2017 People of the Year, and the accessibility program manager for the TLC, says that the expansion is huge for New Yorker’s with disabilities. “We know that over 80 percent of people with disabilities live in the outer boroughs, so it opens taxis up to a whole new pool of people,” he says. “You could only get picked up in Manhattan before, but it could take you anywhere in the five boroughs. But if you’re home and you miss a ride, or somebody doesn’t come for you, you have no options. There are no other taxi options if you live in Brooklyn, for example, where I live.”
He says that the program is not just expanding, but improving. “It’s a better service, there’s a better app now, better technology and a new call center. So there are a lot of programmatic improvements as well.”
The expansion of the Accessible Dispatch Program marks another step forward in what has been a 20 year long fight to increase the accessibility of the NYC taxi industry. United Spinal Association has been at the forefront of the battle, helping to form the Taxis for All campaign in 1996, along with a coalition of New York disability-rights organizations. They sought to bring New York more in line with the taxi accessibility progress that had been achieved in London.
“All that time every cab in London was accessible, since 1989 they’ve only allowed accessible taxis. So it’s not like we were talking about some mythical objective, or unattainable objective, or a different planet,” says Jim Weisman, president and CEO of United Spinal Association. “We were talking about London.”
Progress was minimal until 2012, when the campaign won a major legal settlement, which mandated that Yellow Cab fleets increase their number of wheelchair accessible vehicles to 50 percent by the year 2020. The settlement also set up a fund, paid for by a 30-cent surcharge to all taxi fares in the city, to help defray costs associate with the expansion of accessible taxi service. The Accessible Dispatch Program was started in 2012, and along with a steady increase in wheelchair accessible vehicles, has helped to dramatically reduce wait times.
“With dispatch, the waits are down to less than fifteen minutes, some of them are as low as three minutes in Manhattan. When it first started, it would be an hour, or never,” says Weisman. “So it’s gotten dramatically better, and if we ever get to 50 percent, it will be even better.”
A big part of the reduction in wait times for accessible taxis has been because drivers have begun to see the benefits of providing accessible service.
“A lot of what we’ve done at the TLC is very driver focused, getting drivers to engage more: new technologies are driver friendly, drivers are getting incentives to pick up passengers in wheelchairs,” says Elegudin. “We’re getting a lot more driver engagement with the new changes we’ve made. It’s really gone from where, years ago drivers were not accepting trips, or trying to get out of providing accessible service. Now, drivers are more welcoming and understanding that there are significant trips and money to be made.”
For United Spinal and the other organizations that have been involved in the two-decade long process to make taxis accessible for all, New York taxis still might not be as accessible as London’s, but Wednesday’s announcement was an important step in the right direction.