With a knee problem and a chic all-black walker, I have found more and more New York City cabs inaccessible. The new hybrids are good for anti-pollution but are perilously high off the ground, with difficult sliding doors. Drivers are as helpful as they can be—many come from immigrant cultures friendly to older people—but, spotting my walker, many pass me by, knowing that I can’t safely climb in or out. So, as the taxi fleet moves more and more to hybrids, phasing out the more accessible, tank-like Crown Vics, I have found it harder and harder to get a taxi that I can use. At night, I try to calculate the height of approaching headlights, but I’m not very good at it. All in all, one of the glories of New York, mobility, is increasingly lost to me.
Subways, with only a sprinkling of elevators, are pointless: many of the elevators don’t work, so if you can get into the subway, you may ride forever neath the streets of New York without escape—it’s Charlie on the MTA. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the United Spinal Association has brought suit against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for inaccessible subway stations: “It is an absolute disgrace that twenty years after the ADA was passed, more than 80 percent of the subway stations in New York are inaccessible,” says attorney Julia Pinover.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission (hereafter, ironically, TLC), must have approved the design of the hybrid cabs (in other disability-related areas, I have found the NYC Commission on Human Rights useless). This is unspeakable, and may turn out to be illegal under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA exempts private cab companies). In a city with cut-out curbs, ramps and kneeling buses (which show that it’s possible to design accessible hybrids), this is a surprising and unacceptable anachronism. Better designs should be developed and scrutinized, with accessibility as a criterion.
How does New York compare with other cities? In few US cities are taxis so integral a part of the transportation system as in New York, so comparisons are not easy. Boston requires any taxi company with fifteen or more vehicles to buy accessible cabs, and the subways seem to be better equipped than New York’s with elevators, etc. (the same is true of Washington, DC, subways). Boston taxi drivers with passengers aboard are required, on sight of a person in a wheelchair, to radio in a first-priority call to a wheelchair-accessible cab from the driver’s company and, if necessary, from other companies. The Boston Police Department states that there is an “affirmative obligation” to do this. Chicago and San Francisco have wheelchair-accessible cabs available by phone. I don’t know how well this works, but it hasn’t worked well in New York.
The most telling comparison is with London. All of the famous London “black cabs” must be wheelchair (and walker) accessible. In addition—get this—London regulations state: “Unless exempt on medical or physical grounds, the D[isability] D[iscrimination] A[ct] requires taxi drivers to assist disabled people in accessing the vehicle and help them with any luggage that they carry. Specifically in regard to wheelchairs, able taxi drivers and their vehicles must be prepared to carry the passenger whilst they remain in their wheelchair and not add any additional charges for the service. If they choose to sit in the seat and not the wheelchair, the driver must carry the wheelchair and offer assistance where needed. New taxis must be modified to contain the facilities of access ramps, handrail supports and swivel seats to allow easy mobility for as many passengers as possible.”