It’s inexcusable that New York City is still without an accessible taxi fleet. But there is a glimmer of hope. The voices of reason may slowly be creeping into the thick heads of some of our politicians.

The Justice Department recently sided with four disability-rights groups––United Spinal, the Taxis for All Campaign, 504 Democratic Club, and Disabled in Action–– that filed a lawsuit in January accusing the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) of discrimination on the basis of disability.

The suit brings much needed attention to the fact that most of New York City’s taxi fleet is inaccessible to wheelchair users and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The City has approximately 230 accessible taxis out of its fleet of 13,000. In 2011, in a city such as New York, this shouldn’t be the case.

Mayor Bloomberg and other City officials could’ve set a precedent in the production of standard taxis that are accessible to all. In 2009, Bloomberg requested proposals from auto manufacturers and designers to submit “their best ideas for a purpose-built vehicle to serve as a New York City’s “taxicab of tomorrow.” Accessibility wasn’t one of the prerequisites for submission.

Bloomberg’s brilliant choice: Nissan’s NV-200––a vehicle that basically snubs all wheelchair-users. What was the official response from the City in choosing the inaccessible NV-200? It was safe, comfortable, fuel efficient and had a built-in GPS navigation system. Wow, a GPS system. Now, that’s state-of-the-art!

Before deciding on the winner, the TLC put together a web poll for people to vote on which Taxi of Tomorrow finalist they liked the most. An accessible vehicle––the Karsan V1––received 76 percent of the votes. Nissan’s winning design got just 2 percent. Way to listen to the voice of reason NYC.

That’s why the recent Justice Department decision means so much to the disability community and all who advocate on its behalf. It alienates the poor choices of Bloomberg and City government and their blatant disregard for the needs of all New Yorkers. It’s a pretty terrible way to do business and it’s embarrassing for many of us who love this great City. Maybe Bloomberg is too busy planting a million trees around the City to focus on accessibility issues affecting its residents and visitors.

When asked about the lawsuit and Justice Department decision during a recent radio interview, Bloomberg said, “I think the cab industry will fight that tooth and nail. When the cabs are big enough for a wheelchair a lot of the cab drivers say the passengers sit farther away, they can’t establish a dialogue, and they get lower tips.”

Bloomberg added, “The cabs that we picked so far are easier for handicapped people that are not wheelchair bound and if you are in a wheelchair . . . you just cannot generally take a wheelchair into the street and hail a cab. It’s dangerous and a lot of the cab drivers would pretend they didn’t see you. It’s very hard to get them to stop and pull over and safely get you and your wheelchair in.”

So rather than addressing these discriminatory practices, Bloomberg has chosen to live with them–finding alternative means in dealing with “handicapped” New Yorkers.

Bloomberg’s solution is to create a dispatch program that people could call to get an accessible taxi to come pick them up. During the radio interview, Bloomberg actually had trouble recalling it. The City has been fumbling to establish such a program for a few years now.

When the City tested out the program they found that many drivers avoided purchasing accessible cabs altogether because that meant they were required to enroll in the program. Drivers also skipped mandatory training programs––some of which were hosted by United Spinal–– on operating wheelchair ramps. They also ignored calls for rides, preferring instead to be fined.

This dispatch program sounds promising, doesn’t it? Is such a program really in the best interest of New York City? United Spinal and other disability organizations believe that making the entire fleet accessible would make the most sense. It would also substantially reduce the MTA’s staggering $450 million Access-a-Ride per year cost as trips could be made using taxis at far less cost to MTA than their current $66 fare.

There are factory-built accessible vehicles out there with great potential as taxi fleet workhorses, such as the MV-1. Built from the bottom up to be fully accessible to wheelchair users, but also welcoming to people without disabilities with a spacious interior offering ample room to stretch out your legs, the MV-1 is the type of vehicle that should’ve been selected as NYC’s Taxi of Tomorrow. It’s made in the U.S.A., and comes equipped with a deployable ramp that fits snug under the vehicle, multiple grab handles, anti-slip surfaces, and a wheelchair restraint system. The MV-1 is also the only mobility vehicle of its size to offer Compressed Natural Gas direct from the factory. From the outside, it looks sleek and modern. Compared to mini and econoline vans that play the part, the MV-1 disguises itself well as an accessible vehicle.

Hopefully someday soon we’ll see vehicles like the MV-1 picking up wheelchair-users on the streets of New York City…and maybe even in other cities across the country. Until then, we’ll continue to fight the good fight.

Tom Scott
Web Editor