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.”

One New Yorker, “Cripbabe 111,” writes: “why the hell can’t NYC be like London and make ALL the damn cabs accessible?”

For some years, two organizations have been active in the campaign for accessible taxis: Disabled in Action and the Taxis for All Campaign. Now we have a fine new ally in Disability Rights Advocates. DRA is a Berkeley-based nonprofit “dedicated to securing the civil rights of people with disabilities…through high-impact litigation, as well as research and education.“ (They do not charge clients.) DRA is now opening a New York office and is diligently gathering information about inaccessible taxis, preparatory to taking action. I have found them easy to talk with, knowledgeable and respectful of confidentiality for those who want it.

It is urgent that critical voices be heard right now: the TLC is considering three new designs, from which, early in 2011, they will choose one as the “Taxi of Tomorrow” to replace all current cabs. But only one of the three finalists is described as “fully accessible,” so accessibility is clearly not a mandatory criterion. TLC, you obviously don’t get it. The new taxis will infest the streets by 2013 or 2014.

As I write this, the TLC is openly throwing in the towel on wheelchair accessibility in livery cabs. Commissioner David Yassky said, “While I want to reiterate the TLC’s ongoing commitment to our longtime goal of full accessibility…the practical reality is that it does not make sense to have each car service company maintain its own wheelchair accessible fleet as our regulations now provide.” So Yassky proposes a Rube Goldbergesque (and Orwellian) “Accessible Dispatch Program”—essentially, candidates for a ride can call in advance for one of the 240 wheelchair-accessible cabs that now serve this city of 8 million, including an estimated 60,000 wheelchair users, not to mention an uncounted number of others, like myself, using walkers or other such contraptions. A pilot program, which TLC did nothing to publicize, indicated that cabs showed up an average of thirty-four minutes after being called; the proposed program would insist that cabs show up in less than one hour! (Advocates for accessible taxis have criticized such phone-in schemes as unwieldy separate-and-unequal systems.) Meanwhile, the TLC is suspending a rule requiring livery cab bases to provide accessible service. This seems in accord with the current national frenzy for labeling retreat as “reform.” This shameful press release is co-signed by Commissioner Yassky and Matthew Sapolin, Commissioner of Mayor Bloomberg’s Office for People with Disabilities.

On December 13 New York City Council Member Oliver Koppell and others introduced a bill to require wheelchair accessibility in any new taxicab design accepted by the TLC (Intro 433). January 13 was the due date for “Taxi of Tomorrow” designs. On that date, Disability Rights Advocates brought suit in federal district court on behalf of United Spinal Association (which has sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority regarding subway accessibility) and other organizations, including Taxis for All and Disabled in Action, charging “pervasive and ongoing discrimination” by the TLC and Bloomberg’s TLC Commissioner Yassky. In a timely allusion, DRA attorney Julia Pinover says: “New York experiences extreme and hazardous weather conditions. [Inaccessible taxis leave] vulnerable populations such as people with disabilities and the elderly out in the cold, snow, or rain for intolerable periods of time.”

If you have had first-hand experience with inaccessible cabs, I urge you to contact the DRA: in New York City, 212-644-8644, mpuleo@dralegal.org, or jpinover@dralegal.org; and in Berkeley, kwerner@dralegal.org, 877 603-4577. I would appreciate cc’s of emails that you send them, my email address is jesse.lemisch@verizon.net.