Taxi drivers face legal duty to carry wheelchair users

Taxis are to be given a legal duty to carry wheelchair-using passengers – 20 years after the law was first approved by Parliament.

Transport Minister Andrew Jones said he aimed to implement anti-discrimination measures by the end of the year after bowing to pressure to end two decades of inaction.

The move came hours before the publication of a House of Lords report about disability which was expected to strongly criticise his failure to commit to the measure.

Rights for guide dog and wheelchair users not to be refused access to taxis and other private hire vehicles were first put into legislation in the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

But only the guide dog sections were ever brought into force, despite the wheelchair provisions being included in the Equality Act of 2010.

They say a taxi must carry a passenger in their chair at no extra charge and “take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the passenger is carried in safety and reasonable comfort”.

Drivers must also transport the wheelchair if the passenger wants to travel in a passenger seat and ” give the passenger such mobility assistance as is reasonably required”.

In evidence to the Lords committee examining the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people, Mr Jones had declined to commit to the move.

He said the Government wanted to avoid unnecessary regulation on business and “need to consider whether there are alternative ways of improving driver behaviour and the service the public receives before implementing legislation” but that he was ” quite supportive of the basic principle”.

The committee found his reasoning “entirely unconvincing”.

The move will be welcomed by disability campaigners but doubts will remain about the enforcement of the rules as many guide dog owners complain that they are still refused by some drivers.

Mr Jones said: “Everyone has the right to access public transport. We have made progress but there is a long way to go before there is equal access.

“We are in the process of strengthening the law, placing a clear duty on taxi drivers to assist passengers with wheelchairs and making it a criminal offence to charge them extra.

“We are also working with transport operators to improve access to buses and train stations across the country and will continue to work with disability groups and local authorities as we make further improvements.”

Baroness Deech, who chaired the committee that examined the Act, said: “I am very pleased that the imminent issue of our report, in which they must have realised they were going to be severely criticised, has jolted them into action.

“But I will only be satisfied when I see it actually happen.

“Our report says that taxi drivers should be trained and that local authorities should not give them licences unless they comply with the terms of the Equality Act.

“If they breach it they should be sanctioned.”

source: http://www.theargus.co.uk/

Taxi wheelchair rules in North East Lincolnshire changed

Taxi drivers in North East Lincolnshire will no longer be required to buy wheelchair friendly vehicles.

The council voted to change its regulations and allow a “mixed fleet” of cabs.

It means that drivers with existing saloon cars can replace them with similar models without wheelchair access.

A local disability rights campaigner said all taxis should have wheelchair access.

The local authority said it had made the change after consulting with drivers and taxi users.

Currently there are 103 wheelchair-accessible hackney carriages in North East Lincolnshire, which make up 43% of the total.

‘Best way forward’

The Labour leader of North East Lincolnshire Council, Chris Shaw, said having 43% of taxis with wheelchair access was “all the market can bear”.

Mr Shaw said: “We think that by having a mixed fleet policy, that’s possibly the best way forward.”

Mark Bagley, of the Choices and Rights Organisation which helps disabled people in the region, said wheelchair-accessible taxis could be used by anybody.

Taxi driver Derek Grant said many owners had already bought wheelchair-adapted cabs due to the existing guidelines.

“Some of the guys have spent a lot of money on buying these wheelchair-converted vehicles, which we’ve had no choice in,” he said.

The council also decided not to force the area’s taxis to be painted the same colour.

source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-19316211

Taxi victory for campaign group

Tom Walsh, who campaigned against higher taxi charges for wheechair-users

Taxi drivers who are charging up to double the normal fare for wheelchair users have been warned they face prosecution.

Private hire companies are being told by Bradford Council they have six months to comply with equality regulations and stop charging the higher rates.

It follows a campaign by a Keighley disability group People First, which claims many local private hire companies are charging up to double for the larger vehicles that can carry wheelchairs.

Companies charge more for the adapted vehicles because they can carry up to seven people instead of the four carried by normal taxis.

People First, which is run by people with learning disabilities, said this amounted to discrimination against the physically disabled.

Members of the group met with Bradford Council taxi officers and representatives of private hire firms.

People First co-ordinator Hanna Bennet said members were delighted the council had told taxi firms they must charge the same amount for both kinds of vehicle.

She said the companies were being given six months to comply or face prosecution.

She said: “The council was really supportive. Companies can charge what they like, but they can’t discriminate against disabled people.”

The new rules apply to private hire vehicles which passengers book either over the phone or by walking into the taxi office.

Hackney carriages, which queue in taxi ranks, have meters which already charge everybody the same fare.

The re-pricing is the first success for People First Keighley and Craven’s campaign group, which was formed last September.

Wheelchair-user Tom Walsh acted as a “mystery shopper”, phoning several Keighley firms one day to ask simply for a taxi, then the following day to ask for a taxi for a wheelchair- user. He said each firm quoted vastly different prices, with several charging double for the use of an adapted vehicle, adding more than £20 to the price of trips between Keighley and Bradford.

Tom said: “There’s a feeling that taking taxis is a luxury, but for some disabled people it’s a necessity. I have to take a lot of trips in a taxi.

“Some disabled people have more taxi trips than others because of health appointments. It’s not just about going to the bingo.”

Stuart Hastings, boss of Metro Keighley Taxis, in Church Street, said although companies were given six months to make the price change, he asked his drivers to comply immediately.

He said the company recently paid £25,000 for two adapted taxis, which he said were specialist vehicles that cost more to run.

Mr Hastings said a journey normally taking 10 minutes would take half an hour due to the extra time needed to get a wheelchair in and out of the vehicle, including helping the user and putting down a ramp.

He said this would mean taxi drivers losing money. He added: “A large firm like ours will subsidise the money or stand the loss, but a one-man band won’t be able to take the job.”

Mr Hastings pointed out that some disabled people received extra benefits through the mobility allowance specifically to pay for the higher costs of getting around, including taxis.

Carol Stos, Bradford Council’s fleet and licensing manager, said the council could regulate the charges made by hackney carriages (public hire vehicles) but private hire companies were able to set their own charges.

She said: “Regardless of this, all operators must comply with equality legislation.

“We have recently held a meeting with representatives of the private hire and hackney carriage operators to discuss equality and disabled passengers.

“The meeting was very positive and we are confident that progress will be made on any arising issues.”

source: http://www.keighleynews.co.uk/

Fears voiced over rear loading taxi decision

OBJECTIONS to a council decision to allow the use of rear-loading vehicles as taxis have been voiced by a disability group.

The move, passed by Slough Borough Council on Monday last week, allows rear-loading vehicles to operate as taxis, whereas previously only side-loading vehicles were licensed.

Daphne White from Disability Together, in Apsley House, Stratfield Road, Slough, said: “I would never use one if I was disabled, I just don’t think it’s safe.”

She added taxi drivers are not trained to work with wheelchair users and that

special providers such as Out And About, a door-to-door service for people in Slough with difficulty using public transport, are better adapted to helping people with disabilities.

Ms White said Disability Together, which works with organisations, community groups and individuals to promote the inclusion of disabled people of Slough and the surrounding area, was not made aware of the motion.

Charities such as RADAR and SCOPE have raised concerns that users would be seated in the ‘crumple zone’ at the back of the vehicle, risking serious injury.

In a letter to Slough Borough Council, Secretary of Slough Taxi Drivers Union, Mohammed Mustafa, said: “The safety of the customer is paramount for all taxi drivers in Slough.”

He added the Union believes rear-loading taxis are safer than side-loading taxis, as well as being cheaper to buy and maintain.

Bracknell Forest, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and West Berkshire have already licensed rear-loading vehicles as taxis.

Slough Borough Council’s Licensing Manager Mick Sims said the Council had discussed the move with a number of groups, including organisations supporting the elderly and the disabled, and the safety of passengers was taken into account.

http://www.sloughobserver.co.uk/news/

Prepared to take the Risk?

Prepared to take the Risk?

Wayne Casey

The views expressed in this column are not those of the National Taxi Association

 

The taxi trade owe an awful lot to unsung heroes. I am relatively lucky, I can write an article in this magazine and extol my excellence, others, who do infinitely harder work, never get reported on properly. For example, somewhere down the line in the early 1990’s, someone was so upset about buying electrical appliances, getting home and then being faced with fitting a plug, he changed the law and the Plugs and Sockets etc. (Safety) Regulations 1994 (S.I. 1994/1768) came into being (actually it was one of those nasty euro directives – but don’t tell the Daily Mail). Of course, I may have made that bit up. Irrespective, my point still stands, very often it is one person who sees a problem and goes about business quietly gathering the facts and developing an irresistible argument.

So what has the above paragraph got to do with taxis? Well a colleague of mine sent me and various others some rather interesting findings on the loading of wheelchair’s into taxis, whilst some of it has been around for a while, the Edinburgh Taxi Trade did a degree of research a few years ago, the depth of this particular investigation is astounding, citing various legal cross references and giving a quite astonishing insight into the risks many of you perform each day. For this I must offer my thanks in being permitted to borrow research gathered by Les Reid and MR Blackcabs, Manchester’s leading Cab Co.

Okay, the accreditation is now over and on with the article.

The Law

You will all hopefully be aware of RISK assessments. The HSE have on their website a RISK assessment guide for private-hire but none for taxis.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommend 5 basic steps (these are explained more deeply in HSE document INDG163(rev3). A web version can be found at: www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg163.pdf)

The five steps are;

  • Identify the hazards
  • Decide who might be harmed and how
  • Evaluate the risks and decide on precaution
  • Record your findings and implement them
  •  Review your assessment and update if necessary

Of course, you may well believe I am making all of this up, the law states;

“It is a legal requirement for every employer and self-employed person to make an assessment of the health and safety risks arising out of his work. The purpose of the assessment is to identify what needs to be done to control health and safety risks. (Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999)”

Although I’ll flirt on this now because I’ll embellish later, you should also try to make yourself aware if the wheelchair is safe to carry in a taxi when the wheelchair bound passenger is still seated in the chair. The majority of wheelchairs have not been crash tested.

Basically, whatever your byelaws may say about offering ‘reasonable’ assistance, you must consider the risk, and you must consider it for all situations you believe will arise. If you wish to be the proverbial ‘knight in shining armour’ you must consider the law will not necessarily protect you if things go wrong.

Okay, so lets get to the issue of loading a wheelchair into a taxi, the first thing a driver must do after doing the aforementioned risk assessment is getting the ramps out. Research suggests vehicle ramps are governed by BS 6109 part 2, the British safety standard. This says that amongst other things ramps should:

  • Ramps should be fixed to a vehicle at one end, minimum.
  • Ramps should have 20 mm edges fitted to the ramps to stop wheelchairs going off the edge.
  • Ramps should be weight tested at least annually to show they can withstand a force of 250 kilograms.

So provided your ramps conform to the BS standard, and have been tested so they can withstand the weight of the wheelchair and occupant under load, we face the task of physically moving the passenger up the ramp (which we are certain wont collapse) and into the vehicle.

Of course now you must, for health and safety purposes, assess the amount of force in Newton Meters you need to move the combined weight of wheelchair and passenger up the ramp.   Obviously, to do this you need to know the gradient, well my erstwhile colleague advises the LTI TX vehicles load at an angle of 19 degrees from a flat surface. The Mercedes vehicle loads at an angle of 22 degrees from a flat surface, I know it would be useful, but I cannot advise on the gradients of every wheelchair accessible vehicle, so I apologise for the laziness of my Mancunian friend, although in fairness, they don’t license any other type of Hackney Carriage in Manchester. Although documents do suggest that it should be noted that the maximum gradients for loading wheelchairs on buses should not exceed 7 Degree’s, even at this paltry level Accidents still happen (Transport for London have had 228 accidents over a four year period, loading wheelchairs on board buses, 47 have resulted in Hospitalisation)

For those of you who have stayed with me to this point here’s what my colleague sent me when I sent him the original draft of this article;

The mathematics for other vehicles is easy to do, it consists of a couple of variables and the fixed sum of 9.81, which is Newton’s calculation for the force of gravity at the earth’s surface. I give you the following example when calculating a LTI TX vehicle.

H = the height you need to reach to the vehicle surface, where the W.C finally rest. (On the TX vehicles that is 15 inches)

RS = the length of the SURFACE area of the ramp, along which the W.C. is pushed. (On TX and Vito’s that is 49 inches )

W = the combined weight of the passenger and the W.C. added together.

If we take the median weight of the sample taken from 750 Wheelchair bound disabled at the Birmingham conference i.e. 117 kilo’s combined (chair and person) we get the following;

w= 117 x N=9.81 x H 15 = 17216.55 we divide that answer by the length of the ramp surface;

17216.55 / 49 = 351.35 (approx to point 2 of the decimal).

The force required is therefore 351 Newton’s, three and a half times the safe average.

This calculation can be used on any vehicle using these variables, online force calculators are available if you wish to check. I got this method from a long lost ancestor who used it to design the Pyramids, while on a short break in Ancient Egypt.

As advice goes, the HSE advice, combined with a diploma (with honours) in mathematics would be quite useful, the HSE document “Getting to grips with Manual handling” [1] (page 11) gives more information on that given above. It shows the amount of sustained force which can be safely used to push a wheelchair up a slope. That limit is equal to 100 Newton’s (10 kilos). Evidently to assess the force required you’ll need to know the gradient of slope you’re pushing up – as well as the weight of the passenger in metric (nothing like imperial / metric measurements to confuse you during these periods).

Obviously, you need to extract using all possible tact, the weight of the customer. If you follow the route of my colleague in Carlisle, using the ratio of Cream Cakes consumed by the passenger, a cream cake to weight type conversion scenario, this may lead to a 1 month suspension. So it may be worth using a little diplomacy at the time of the risk assessment, for example, suggest you’ve been going to weight watchers – tell them your weight, keeping the calculator out of sight when politely enquiring as to theirs.

As my colleague from Manchester points out, it is not what you can lift, it is what you can safely lift.

I don’t really want to get deeply into the ‘duty of care’ arguments here, space is limited and the topic is worthy of an article in its own right. You do have a ‘Duty of Care’ to the passenger in the case of loading a wheelchair, and sometimes this duty will extend (at some point) to not being able to accept hires – thus throwing you into a contradiction with your byelaws which insist you must offer reasonable assistance – however byelaws are not primary legislation unlike Health and Safety law.

More worryingly the HSE state; “Employees should enlist help from another worker whenever necessary if they have to negotiate a slope or ramp, as pushing and pulling forces can be very high.” Unfortunately, unless you start to employ someone specifically to follow you around each time you drive your cab – I can’t see this particular bit of advice being useful. Indeed, to fully understand their booklet, you may need to take a few night classes – because I looked at it and instantly start crying.

If you wish to weep yourselves, you should consider the DfT commissioned ESRI and Ricability to undertake research on the ergonomics of taxi design and the features that would make taxis accessible to the largest number of disabled people. This research was undertaken in two phases and both Phase 1 (literature review and pilot evaluation trial) and Phase II (full scale evaluation trials) reports are available together with a summary leaflet. The findings will help inform the development of a technical specification on which future taxi accessibility regulations will be based, although this stuff is pretty old now.

To further complicate the issue, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) published Guidance on the Safe Transportation of Wheelchairs – DB 2001(03). I do actually recommend the MRHA document to you all.

Presuming all of the above has been done correctly you now need to secure the wheelchair according to the vehicle manufacturers instructions. All vehicles are inherently different, and a good number utilise so many belts it would keep a dominatrix occupied for a week. Presuming you’ve then tied the wheelchair passenger in securely, you need to drive to the destination, and presumably hope, through your skill and knowledge, you don’t have an accident on route.

Sadly the majority of wheelchairs are not designed for carriage in vehicles whilst the passenger is still seated in the chair; you should perhaps worry about what will happen in the event of an accident. About this time you may wish to read two further documents, firstly the 214 page report by the Transport Research Laboratory from 2008, the imaginatively titled “The safety of child wheelchair occupants in road transport vehicles” and the 144 page by the Transport Research Laboratory from 2003, “The safety of wheelchair occupants in road transport vehicles”.

The test for children states on page 84; “most manufacturers will say that their wheelchairs should be used forward facing only”, it states on page 90; “Some wheelchairs deformed or failed which suggested that a child would be at risk of injury”.

The standard test from the 2003 document states on page 32:  “In general the wheelchair seated occupant was at a greater risk of injury than the vehicle seated occupant. All injury criteria showed an increased level of risk up to double that of an occupant seated in a baseline vehicle seat with a head restraint

Before you say, accidents in taxis with wheelchairs rarely happen, there have been numerous incidents and accidents, some involving injuries and at least one fatality.

  • In Hartlepool in 2005, the operator of a dial a ride service was prosecuted for negligence following fatal incident where the passenger sustained fatal head injuries in fall from rear tail lift of welfare bus.
  • Staffordshire County Council were fined £83,000 in 2008 after a 90-year-old woman was fatally injured when her wheelchair rolled off the back of a minibus. An HSE investigation revealed that council staff had never checked that the wheelchair was safe and the council had no checking procedure.
  • A charity was fined £15,000 in 2006 after a pensioner died after from being thrown from wheelchair on a minibus. The HSE commented; “The seatbelt laws have long been established in British law. The charity was aware that people transported in wheelchairs should have these effectively secured and the wheel chair user should have an adequate seatbelt.”
  • In Calderdale in a boy was thrown from his wheelchair inside a taxi, in a long line of errors the prosecution against the driver was eventually dropped when it went to trial. The driver secured the wheelchair in the taxi but forgot to fasten a seatbelt.
  • In February last year Age Concern Westminster, (were found guilty of) breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,000. After a wheelchair bound pensioner died in one of their vehicles.
  • A 14-year old boy was tragically killed in Birmingham in 2009 after his wheelchair tipped over after being loaded incorrectly.

Of course the point of this article isn’t to instigate training courses, because as my colleague from Manchester points out, no amount of training is going to allow you to load a wheelchair if you are unable to push the chair up the ramp.

Bearing in mind the above……is it worth the risk?

Aberdeen Council to re-regulate numbers and go 100% WAV?

The licensing committee of Aberdeen council is to meet on Tuesday 17th April to discuss and resolve taxi numbers and taxi licensing policy within the area.

At its November 2011 meeting the Licensing Committee considered a presentation and a Taxi Demand Survey  by the Transport Research Institute, Taxi Studies Group, Edinburgh Napier University.

The committee during November accepted the report pending clarification of certain details, these include a review of taxi ranks within the area and the consequences of changing the policy towards 100% wheelchair accessible vehicles.

The 100% WAV policy is being recommended as fairer the best option to comply with the Council’s public sector equality duty.

Councillors are being reminded that the case Wilson v Aberdeen City Council, recommended that the Council would best meet the equality aim of its wheelchair accessible vehicle policy by setting a date by which all vehicles required to be accessible. Some have cited the unfairness of only some drivers being required to provide a wheelchair accessible vehicle, which can be more expensive to purchase. It is also suggested the policy will eliminate the unofficial market in the hiring of saloon taxis.

In a recent survey 50% of members of the public advised that having a wheelchair accessible fleet would positively encourage them to use taxis more often (whether or not they themselves had a disability).

Councillors are being asked to cap taxi numbers and set a date of April 2017 for all licensed taxis within the area to be wheelchair accessible.

Manchester taxi driver refuses wheelchair passenger

DEGRADED’: Brian Gaskell and girlfriend Vanessa Daley were snubbed by taxi driver Winstion Bourne (right) in Manchester city centre who refused to take the couple because Brian was in a wheelchair

A cabbie could lose his taxi licence after refusing to take a passenger because he was in a wheelchair.

Winston Bourne, of Gorston Walk, Wythenshawe, was waiting in his black cab in the city centre when he was approached by Brian Gaskell and girlfriend Vanessa Daley.

Former mechanic Brian, 47, was left permanently paralysed after a severe stroke last year.

But Bourne, 57, refused to let him in the taxi – despite having the special ramps and fittings necessary to carry a wheelchair.

Brian and Vanessa were able to get in the taxi behind Bourne’s but took the details of his cab and complained to Manchester council.

Bourne was asked to explain himself by council officers and invited to interview under caution. But he failed to turn up and did not respond to reminder letters.

He eventually came forward after being issued with a court summons and claimed he was unable to accept the couple because he had a bad back.

Bourne was found guilty of a ‘refusal to hire’ charge at Manchester magistrates court and was fined £100 and ordered to pay £350 costs plus a £15 victim surcharge. Bourne will also have to attend a licensing review hearing where he could lose his licence.

Brian said: “I felt humiliated and degraded.

“It’s been very frustrating since I had the stroke and this has just made me more wary of going out in my wheelchair.

“We had been shopping, I felt a bit rough and it was raining.

“I asked him will you give us a taxi and he just said No. I thought he was joking – I’ve never been refused one before.

“I kept thinking he was going to get out but then he said ‘there’s no point sitting there you may as well get another one’.”

Coun Nigel Murphy, executive member for the environment, said: “Every licensed black cab operating in Manchester is designed and adapted to ensure they are accessible for wheelchair users and drivers are expected to help their passengers when and where necessary.

“There is no excuse for not accepting a disabled passenger and we would urge other people who feel they have been discriminated against in this way to make a note of the vehicle registration number and contact the council on 0161 234 5004.”

source: http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/

Chichester cabbies unhappy at change to taxi rules

Taxi rank outside Chichester railway station

Moving away from a set of licensing conditions for hackney carriages after 25 years could put public safety at risk, taxi drivers in Chichester have warned.

The district council’s licensing committee voted to remove the London Conditions of Fitness (LCOF) that all hackney carriages currently comply with and form a group to set new conditions.

But there are fears moving away from the LCOF, first put in by the council in 1987, will make it harder for people to distinguish between licensed and unlicensed taxis in the future and could therefore endanger public safety.

Hackney carriage driver Jim Rendall said: “The hackney carriage partition protects the passenger and the driver. Moving away from the LCOF would be unsafe for other vehicles.”

He said moving away from the conditions would allow any vehicle, so long as it met the new conditions, to get licensed to pick up people in Chichester.

During a consultation into the LCOF, The London Taxi Company warned: “If the council moves away from their present conditions, this will allow converted vehicles to be taxis – lowering standards and putting public safety at risk. As many of these vehicles are operated by private hire companies, the distinction between licensed and unlicensed vehicles will be lost. This could endanger the public.”

A Chichester District spokesman said: “We would like to reassure residents that public safety is one of our key priorities and will continue to be so. Any new conditions will make sure that any licensed vehicle continues to be clearly identifiable as a taxi. Until the new conditions are approved the London conditions will remain in force.”

http://www.chichester.co.uk

Taxi drivers want to end ban on non-disabled access cars

Hackney carriage drivers calling for an end to a ban on non-wheelchair accessible vehicles have been told they will have to wait for the results of a national review.

Wokingham Borough Council’s licensing and appeals committee discussed a request from drivers of hackney carriages to change the current policy of having a fleet of wheelchair accessible vehicles at a meeting on Monday.

Drivers say the requirement is costing them more money, as the larger wheelchair accessible cars are more expensive to buy and run. They also say customers are booking private hire vehicles instead as they prefer saloon cars.

The council has found that West Berkshire, Reading and Bracknell all require hackney carriages to be wheelchair accessible, however Windsor & Maidenhead and Slough have mixed fleets.

In a report on the issue, Wokingham council officers write: “The hackney carriage fleet is made up of 100 per cent wheelchair access vehicles.

“Many drivers have paid substantial sums of money to buy purpose built vehicles or have vehicles modified such that they are fit for purpose.

“These drivers would fee aggrieved if saloon vehicles were allowed to be brought on to the fleet as generally they are less expensive than wheelchair access vehicles and this may result in requests for compensation.”

Wokingham has decided to keep the existing rule, as the Law Commission is reviewing the existing framework of taxi and private hire vehicle regulation.

source: http://www.getwokingham.co.uk/news/

New York: Hailing the Wrong Taxi?

 

Milagros Franco of Manhattan tries out the VPG 2011 MV-1 taxi

WHEELCHAIR users have long been deprived of a quintessential New York City experience: riding in a taxi. So after years of discussion, litigation and experimentation, the governor and the mayor of New York last month announced a deal to put 2,000 wheelchair-accessible cabs on the streets, setting aside up to $54 million in subsidies and loans to retrofit vehicles for wheelchair use or buy new wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

The plan is well intentioned but might not achieve the desired results. Rather than improving access for the disabled, it will require taxpayers and the taxi industry to foot the bill for taxis that will in all likelihood rarely be used by the target ridership. A more sensible alternative would be to set up a small fleet of wheelchair-accessible cabs that disabled passengers could call upon, through a centralized dispatch system, at any time of day or night, as part of the region’s mass transit system.

Advocates estimate that there are about 60,000 wheelchair users in the city — and that’s not counting out-of-town visitors. No one doubts that getting around New York in a wheelchair can be daunting. Most subway stations are not accessible; many bus stops are too distant for wheelchair users to reach; and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s van program for the disabled requires registration and making a reservation, usually days in advance.

ACCESS: Advocates for wheelchair accessible taxis gathered at U.S. District Court in Lower Manhattan

In response, the state and the city now plan to sell 2,000 new taxi medallions (the current total is 13,237) that will be designated for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and issue 18,000 permits — one-fifth of them wheelchair-accessible — for a new class of livery cabs that will be permitted to pick up street hails in upper Manhattan and the four other boroughs, areas traditionally underserved by yellow cabs.

But simply putting more accessible vehicles on the street is impractical and, for many, unaffordable. Drivers of accessible cabs would find it difficult to find space in the middle of heavily congested streets to accommodate wheelchair users; insurance premiums for drivers and vehicle owners are likely to rise; and many disabled riders would far prefer home pickup to an uncertain wait on a corner in bad weather (though advocates for the disabled are loath to admit it).

The new plan put forward by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is partly a response to judicial pressure. On Dec. 23, two days after the deal was announced, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the taxi commission had failed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act by not providing sufficient wheelchair access. The judge even stopped the city from auctioning any new permits or medallions unless they are all accessible and until a plan is approved by the court.

There is a better approach: a centralized taxi-dispatch system for disabled riders. From July 2008 to June 2010, the Taxi and Limousine Commission tested such a system. When riders called the city’s 311 information line, a company dispatched one of 232 accessible yellow cabs to pick them up.

The results were not promising, but also not conclusive. The median wait time was 22 minutes. Only 2,700 individuals used the service — and most of them for just one trip per year. Only about eight rides took place each day. The $1 million budget for the 5,828 trips taken meant that each trip cost, on average, $172. The overwhelming majority of the rides began and ended in Manhattan (as is typical of cab usage in the city).

However, I believe the disappointing results were more a reflection of the high cost of riding a cab — a particular deterrent for people who are on fixed incomes — than of the challenges of a dispatch system.

My proposal is this: convert the existing van program run by the M.T.A. into a system of subsidized door-to-door taxi rides. The van system, known as paratransit or Access-a-Ride, spends more than $380 million a year. The average cost per ride is $30 to $50, which I believe could be lowered to $12 to $15 if the little-used vans were replaced with accessible cabs. The system would rely on usage patterns to determine the right number of cabs — instead of setting them by fiat. Passengers would pay $2.25 a ride (with a discount for purchasers of certain fare cards), the same cost as a subway trip.

The M.T.A. has been testing such a program; it should become permanent. It would allow the use of custom-built vehicles instead of retrofitted ones. The M.T.A. or the city would enforce service standards to ensure that wait times were reasonable and drivers properly trained. Over time, as the service became more reliable, demand would rise — after all, door-to-door service for the cost of a subway ride is far cheaper than hailing a retrofitted yellow cab. One model for this is Chicago, where only 90 wheelchair-accessible cabs (about 1 percent of the total fleet) are efficiently dispatched through a single toll-free number.

Congress could also help. The Americans With Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, exempted taxicabs, but subsequent federal regulations required cabs for the disabled to provide “equivalent service.” So governments are not required to provide accessible cabs, but if they do, they are open to being sued (as New York City was) for discrimination. The act should be amended to provide incentives for disability access instead of punishing municipalities that try to do the right thing.

Putting thousands of accessible cabs on the road looks good in theory, but how it will work in practice is a different matter. Quite possibly, the result will be further irritation — not enhanced mobility — for disabled New Yorkers.

Matthew W. Daus, a lawyer, was the chairman of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission from 2001 to 2010.

source: http://www.nytimes.com/