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.


Wheelchair access ‘just not needed’ in Wokingham

The owner of a private hire taxi firm in Wokingham has jumped to the defence of drivers unhappy at the idea of being asked to drive wheelchair accessible vehicles in the future.

Paul Kennedy, owner of Bees Taxis, believes both private hire and Hackney Carriage drivers across the borough should be allowed to continue taking fares in saloon cars because it is what “people are requesting all the time”.

The businessman was responding to an article which appeared in The Wokingham Times on Wednesday, November 9, where it was reported members of the recently-formed Wokingham Taxi Association are considering industrial action amid an ongoing row with licensing bosses.

Drivers are threatening to either go on strike or perform a go-slow protest along the borough’s busiest roads in the wake of Wokingham Borough Council proposing a new rule stating all Hackney Carriages must be wheelchair accessible.

Mr Kennedy, who runs his business from the Hogwood Industrial Estate in Finchampstead, said: “We get a lot of people who go down to Wokingham Hospital or one of the local nursing homes and they only want to travel in saloon cars, yet the council is insistent on buying disabled ones.

“Around 20 per cent of our customers are older customers and they cannot get in the higher disabled vehicles, and you often find passengers with wheelchairs can actually fold their wheelchair up and get in the car.

“I can also understand the 1,000 or so people who have signed this petition the association claims to have, because people do not like driving in wheelchair accessible cars.

“I think the council should be allowing normal saloon cars to become Hackney Carriages, because this is what people are requesting all the time.

“But I do agree the cars should not be older than five years old because it is all about professionalism in this business.”

Mr Kennedy added his business has a wheelchair accessible vehicle within its fleet, however, he said he would be surprised if it was used more than three times a year.

This, he said, is because disabled passengers use local services such as Readibus and Keep Mobile to attend doctor appointments or shopping trips.

“We can have anything up to 150 jobs a day,” he said.

“We probably have three people a year in a wheelchair and up to 20 customers a day asking for a saloon car.”

Mr Kennedy did, however, say he is united with drivers angry at limited enforcement being carried out by the council to eradicate drivers operating illegally around the town, particularly at weekends, and taking much-needed fares from locally licensed drivers.

Mr Kennedy said some drivers are not using the designated ranks.

He said: “This is a huge problem and the council do not seem to do anything about it.

“It is easy for a customer, after having a few pints and leaving the pub when it is raining, to hop in the taxi which is sitting outside.

“But this could lead to serious problems because no-one knows who the driver is or where he is from.

“If the driver is licensed then we cannot stop him or her doing their job, but pulling up where they are not supposed to is a problem for the other drivers sitting on the ranks and something should be done about it.”

Neil Badley, head of corporate services at the council, said enforcement is ongoing and will be boosted over the Christmas period by the return of the seasonal safety marshals.

Cardiff cabs leader criticises disability taxis boost

A taxi drivers’ leader claims proposals to phase out saloon cars as a way to improve access for disabled people will put some Cardiff cabbies out of work. Mathab Ahmed Khan, chairman of Cardiff Hackney Carriage Association, wants the council to abandon the idea, saying it will cost drivers £8m.

Cardiff is consulting on the move so disabled people can hire a taxi “with the minimum delay or inconvenience”. Councillor Ed Bridges said: “Nothing has been agreed or dismissed.” Cardiff has around 400 saloon taxis among more than 950 in operation. Mr Khan is already working on a petition for his drivers to give passengers to reject the idea. He said more than 500 Cardiff cabs suitable for disabled passengers was sufficient.

Mr Khan said: “The disabled population of Cardiff is no more than 5% of the total population. Therefore, there is no shortage of disabled access vehicles to accommodate their needs. “If we were to replace these 400 vehicles, it would cost us something like £8m and there is no way we are in a position to stand that sort of money.”

The prospect of saloon cars being phased out as cabs was raised by a report to councillors which noted concern about the standard of the ageing taxi fleet. It noted Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester insist that hackney carriages must be black cabs, as in London, while Leicester and Southampton specify taxis must be accessible for wheelchairs.

The report noted that it is “important that disabled people have the same access to transport to ensure social inclusion, in particular that a disabled person should be able to hire a hackney carriage on the spot with the minimum delay or inconvenience, and having accessible hackney carriages makes this possible.”

Wendy Ashton, chair of Disability Wales, said the difference in people’s impairments meant a combination of cars was needed. “There are all kinds of issues around taxis. “I have spinal problems so I can’t use the London taxi-type cabs. I can get in but can’t bend to get on the back seat, not without severe pain.

“I know people who prefer a saloon car. If they are not tall then it’s easier for them to get in to from the road. “If people are wheelchair users and they have ramps to get in, sometimes the ramps are quite steep.” Some vehicles designed to carry wheelchairs did not always cater for large electric wheelchairs, she said.

Council officers are to discuss the review with taxi trade representatives next week. Councillor Ed Bridges said no decision was made to remove the saloon car category at the recent committee meeting.

“Instead, the committee suggested further investigation was needed into reviewing vehicle type approval, in particular having a restricted number of vehicle types in a mixed fleet – e.g. saloon, multi-purpose vehicle (MPV), purpose built. “Arrangements are being made to initiate trade consultation with regards to the [taxi] vehicle testing regime as this was considered priority by the committee. ”

Cardiff also has about 800 licensed private hire or mini cabs.

Guildford taxi wheelchair decision is delayed

TAXI drivers in Guildford are accusing decision makers of ignoring them after councillors again deferred a decision on its policy over the use of wheelchair accessible taxis. To the frustration of cabbies who had come to a meeting of the licensing committee at Guildford Borough Council on Wednesday (September 7), members decided they did not have enough information to make a policy decision to support a ‘mixed’ fleet of cars.

Sighs and other sounds of discontent could be heard from the public gallery as councillors agreed not to rush a decision, despite having been presented with report summarising a lengthy public consultation.

This latest stalling follows years of reticence by the council since it adopted a policy in 2004 that required all licensed Hackney carriages to be wholly accessible by wheelchair users by January 2010. The requirement was suspended in 2009 when it became clear that the government was considering licensing requirements in relation to taxis and that further national guidance would be issued.

The borough’s current fleet is made up of 176 vehicles, 95 of which are wheelchair accessible, but it is unclear whether the council will reinstate the policy of a wholly-accessible fleet, or settle for a percentage of the whole.

Speaking after the meeting, John Tester, a taxi driver for 26 years, said he felt licensing officers and councillors taking the decisions should work more closely with the taxi trade to get the answers they are looking for. “If they want to ask people about the wheelchair taxis, they don’t ask us and we are the ones who do the job.

“It annoys me – this chairman never met [with] a taxi driver, how do they know? “The survey was done so inappropriately – they never gave them to us to hand out. “If they asked the trade what was going on, we could tell them.”

The consultation survey was agreed upon in January this year and copies of a questionnaire was later sent to groups representative of those with disability, managers and occupiers of residential and retirement homes and handed out at the Friary and the railway station. The consultation exercise yielded around 64 responses – 50 of which said they preferred saloon-type cars to wheelchair accessible vehicles.

David Williams-Wynn, chairman of the Guildford Hackney Association, said: “The figures show in urban areas what is required is 40% wheelchair accessible taxis and 60% saloons.” However, Cllr Stephen Mansbridge said the wheelchair policy should continue to be suspended – and not ended – until further recommendations had been carried out.

“A study should be undertaken to determine what percentage of wheelchair accessible vehicles are required for the population of this borough,” he said.


Wheelchair user agrees out of court settlement with Value Cabs

Mrs Nesbit took the case because she felt she had been “treated differently” because she was disabled

A Belfast wheelchair user has agreed an out of court settlement after taking a disability discrimination case against Value Cabs.

Nicola Nesbit alleged she was charged more than a non-disabled person for using an accessible taxi. She said the firm charged her an £8 call-out fee in addition to a fare and a half.

Value Cabs paid Mrs Nesbit £2,000 without admission of liability.

Mrs Nesbit, who has cerebral palsy, said she was delighted by the outcome.

“I was outraged, as I felt that I was being treated differently because I am disabled,” she said.

“I think it is important that all disabled people are aware that it is not fair to charge a disabled person more than an able bodied person for the same journey in the same vehicle, and that is why I decided to take this to court.”

Mrs Nesbit, who usually travels by bus, needed to use taxis to travel to hospital appointments during her pregnancy.

She alleged that, because it was a wheelchair accessible vehicle, she was charged an £8 call-out charge on top of the fare and a half, bringing her fare to around £14 for the short, one-way trip.
‘Reasonable adjustments’

Her case was supported by the Equality Commission.

Director of legal services at the Equality Commission, Anne McKernan said: “The Disability Transport Regulations require transport providers to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people can have access to a service as close as it is reasonably possible to get to the standard normally offered to the general public.

“The law does not allow a transport provider to charge its disabled customers a higher price for the same journey in the same vehicle,” she said.

“The fare for the larger vehicle should be the same for everyone.

“The costs of making reasonable adjustments are part of a transport provider’s general expenses, just the same as complying with any other legislation.

“It is essential for all transport providers to make sure their staff are fully informed and operating their policies.”

Value Cabs have agreed to liaise with the Equality Commission to review their policies and procedures, which they believe to be compliant with the law, and to implement any reasonable recommendations made by the commission.

The company has also agreed to communicate its policies and procedures to its staff at all grades through a training programme recommended by the commission.


New rules could force conversion of Crawley taxis to take wheelchairs

TAXI drivers whose cars are not wheelchair-accessible could be required to convert them under new proposals being considered.

Crawley Borough Council is asking for the views of drivers and the public as it looks at changing its policy on taxi licensing.

crawley taxi
Drivers have told of their fears that converting their cars would be too expensive

Two proposals are being considered, with the first limiting the number of taxis in the town after a survey showed there were enough in the town to meet people’s needs.

The other is to require all taxi owners to provide wheelchair access, meaning vehicles which do not already comply would have to be converted by a set date.

Current policy requires all new licence applicants to have wheelchair access but only about 40 per cent of existing taxis are wheelchair accessible.

Most drivers the News spoke to this week agreed the number of taxis needs to be limited to ensure there is sufficient business to go round.

Ryan Grice, 39, from Ifield, said: “The amount of taxis in Crawley should be restricted. Today I’ve been sat here waiting for an hour for a job.”

Ken Trussell, the council’s cabinet member for environmental services, emphasised that no decisions have yet been made.

He said: “The main part of the proposal is limiting the number of taxis in the borough but wheelchair accessibility is something else we are considering. At this stage it is a consultation.”

A spokesman added that the council would not subsidise the conversion of taxis with taxpayers’ money.


Cardiff cabbies fail the wheelchair test

A Cardiff Council licensing worker using a wheelchair to test how taxi drivers treat wheelchair users found that only one out of four drivers correctly performed his duties.

The test was to establish whether the cabbies had vehicle ramps and that they were used properly, how they secured the wheelchair and whether they were overcharging wheelchair users.

Of the four vehicles approached for a hiring one refused to take the wheelchair user and two made an additional charge, one of whom also did not correctly secure the wheelchair.

Only one out of the four correctly performed his duties. The other drivers will be reported for disciplinary action.

The exercise came about following an increasing number of complaints to the Licensing Section from wheelchair users claiming taxi drivers do not treat them fairly and are reluctant to accept fares.

They are often refused fares, overcharged or are not secured correctly.

Councillor Ed Bridges, Chair of the Council’s Public Protection Committee, said, “We expect taxi drivers to comply with the legal requirement to transport passengers in wheelchairs safely and in reasonable comfort.

“It is disappointing and concerning when we see any driver not living up to that expectation. The Public Protection Committee is here to protect the public – and we will take strong action against those drivers who shirk their responsibilities to assist the most vulnerable passengåers.”

Charles Willie, CEO of The Cardiff and Vale Coalition of Disabled People and Chair of the Cardiff’s Access Group, ,said: “It is vital that all hackney carriage drivers understand their duties and do not discriminate against disabled persons.

“We are very supportive of the action taken by the licensing authority and will be assisting in whatever way we can.”

The Licensing Section will continue to work with Cardiff Council’s Access Team to ensure that taxi drivers are up to date with knowledge, law and the correct treatment of people with disabilities.

Due to the disappointing level of compliance in this small operation further education initiatives and similar exercises are planned by licensing officers.


Mercedes to take closer control of its black cab maker

Mercedes-Benz is to take closer control of the manufacturing of the new-style London black cab that has won a quarter share of the market in new vehicle sales among London cabbies from rival maker Manganese Bronze.

Eco City Vehicles, developer of the taxi based on modifications to the Mercedes Vito light van, said it was reviewing its manufacturing arrangements as it conceded that sales in the first half of 2011 had been subdued because of tough trading conditions facing London cabbies and the launch of an upgraded model.

But Peter DaCosta, chief executive at ECV, said plans by the London’s mayor Boris Johnson to force up to 3,000 taxis older than 15 year off the road by next January should boost trade.

Many London cabbies credit themselves for helping propel Mr Johnson to victory against incumbent Ken Livingstone in the mayoral election of 2008, after he backed their calls end to costly mid-year inspections.

But the mayor is now risking the ire of some of his cabby supporters with plans to retire more of one in eight black cabs in a bid to help improve air quality in the capital.

Mr DaCosta added that the roll-out of its latest Vito black cab model would help it compete with the TX4 model offered by market leader Manganese Bronze, which until 2008 held an effective monopoly in the London market.

The Vito cabs, modified to meet the tight 25ft turning circle requirements historically stipulated for vehicles used for hackney carriage hire in the capital, are made under licence for ECV.

But talks are under way to transfer responsibility from ECV to Mercedes-Benz for the modification of Vito vans into taxis by contractor Penzo. The Coventry-based supplier is coincidentally based minutes away from the factory of rival Manganese Bronze in the Midlands.

Mr DaCosta said the transferring of contracting responsibilities to the German automotive group would help “de-risk” the Aim-quoted business. ECV owns a majority stake in One80, which holds the patent and intellectual property rights to the rear-wheel steer used in the Vito taxis which allows them to meet the turning circle requirements.

The company estimates it now accounts for over one in four of new black cabs sold in the capital.

The revised arrangements would still allow ECV to benefit from any increase in production volumes for the taxi even though they effectively transformed the company from the maker to the seller of the vehicle, he said.

Revenues at the company held steady at £24.7m in the year to December, as a move into a small operating profit helped trim pre-tax losses from £393,000 to £265,000 for the year.

Sales of new Vitos increased from 398 to 477 last year, while sales of second-hand vehicles also rose.

Shares in the company, which have declined by a quarter to 4.13p over the year, were suspended on Friday following the failure to secure a sign-off on its annual accounts by auditors as required by the June 31 deadline under the terms of its Aim quotation.

Mr DaCosta said he hoped the “embarrassing” delay would have been rectified by the end of Friday, allowing its shares to resume trading.


Should rear-access taxi get a licence?

LICENSING chiefs are to have talks with disabled groups about whether to license a cheaper, rear-loading taxi.

Most hackney carriages are side-loading and a rear-loading taxi would need at least three metres at the back to allow people in wheelchairs to get in and out, even though rank spaces are at a premium in Worcester.

The rear-loading Peugeot Premier does not conform to existing rules which say new licences will only be granted to side-access taxis.

A taxi driver applied to Worcester City Council to license a Peugeot Premier on Wednesday, April 27, but concerns were raised at a licensing committee meeting.

Niall McMenamin, senior licensing practitioner, said: “Rear-loading vehicles require three metres to the rear. It’s a question for safety for members of the public and space required behind for other vehicles.”

He also said that, in the event of an accident, side-loading taxis had two doors, one at each side but for a rear-loading taxi there was only one way to get in or out of the vehicle.

Mark Kay, the licensing manager, said a consultation with disabled groups would prevent a legal challenge if the committee declines to license rear-loading taxis.

Mr Kay said he understood rear-loading vehicles were cheaper than side-loading.

Coun Stephen Hodgson said: “It’s difficult enough getting our taxis on the ranking space. When we have a licensing policy we should not go for the cheaper option just because people can buy cheaper vehicles.”

The committee agreed to start a 12-week consultation with both the taxi trade and disability groups.

Taxi options paper suggests it’s the end of the road for saloon cars

Dundee councillors could make operators of all saloon-type taxis in the city change to wheelchair-access vehicles — a step which could cost the trade as much as £6.5 million.

Conversion to wheelchair cabs is a feature of both options being put to the licensing committee at its meeting on Thursday.

Attached to one of the proposals is also the return of a cap on the overall number of taxis in Dundee — a measure demanded by the Dundee Taxi Association to cut what they think is a surplus of cabs to make it easier for drivers to make ends meet.

The number and type of taxis on Dundee’s streets has been a thorny issue for many years. For some time the number was capped but this led to criticism of the standard of the service and of unmet demand.

Opponents of the cap felt the trade enjoyed a closed market and there was little pressure on operators to invest in new vehicles. Frustrated aspiring taxi drivers also pointed to queues of customers waiting at ranks.

Legislation like the Civil Government Scotland Act and the Disability Discrimination Act led to the limit being scrapped, with councillors deciding the level of business from customers should determine the number of taxis.

The council also lost a test case on appeal, with a sheriff taking the view that a limit should not be binding if it was historic, and that unmet demand should be measured each time there were new applications for licences.

Although the committee decided to abolish the limit, it decided to only grant new licences to wheelchair-access vehicles. This has seen the number of taxis in Dundee rise from 507 to 603 with 269 (44.6%) wheelchair accessible. The period also saw a rise in the number of private hire vehicles, which are not subject to a cap, from 70 to 178.

In May last year, however, the DTA and the Unite union called on the committee to consider re-imposing a cap as they believed the situation had got out of control, and the committee agreed to produce a report.

DTA secretary Tony Waters said earlier this month, “The taxi trade is at a saturation point and the price of fuel is rocketing. There is no space on the ranks so drivers are using more fuel to drive around until they can get on a rank.”

He said taxi drivers were at breaking point. Their marriages were being ruined and drivers were becoming a safety risk to the public by having to work longer hours.

In her report to the committee, depute chief executive Patricia McIlquham makes clear that controlling taxi numbers is a complicated issue. Along with pressure from the trade there is anti-discrimination legislation which aims to promote equality for users — strengthening the case for all taxis to be wheelchair accessible. There is also evidence, however, that not all disabled people use wheelchairs and some prefer saloon cars.

Miss McIlquham concludes her report by inviting councillors to choose between two options:

► Surveying demand and re-imposing a limit but setting a programme for existing operators with saloon vehicles to change their vehicles to wheelchair-access vehicles.
► No survey and no limit, grant applications for wheelchair-access vehicles and agree a programme for saloon vehicles to be changed to wheelchair-access vehicles.