Disabled New Yorkers who use wheelchair accessible yellow cabs to get around Manhattan are reporting that wait times in the borough are increasing, and industry experts predict the problem will only worsen with pressure from ride-hail apps like Uber.
“What I’ve seen is that it’s very unreliable,” said Ronnie Raymond, a disabled woman who lives on the Upper West Side and uses a wheelchair. “Sometimes I call and they send someone within 10-15 minutes. And other times an hour will go by and they’re not able to send anyone.”
Before the advent of Uber, Raymond said she used a wheelchair accessible cab three or four times a week. So far this month, she’s used a cab about three times.
“If they were reliable I would take a taxi almost every day,” she said.
Bill Scalzi, president and founder of Metro Taxi, which is responsible for dispatching the borough’s 581 accessible yellow cabs through a contract with the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s accessible dispatch program, said the problem is that many traditional yellow cab drivers have defected to Uber and similar companies, creating a surplus of non-wheelchair accessible cabs for lease, which are more attractive to drivers.
“What’s happened is there’s vehicles that aren’t shifted each day, and when drivers come in to lease a vehicle, they’re just saying ‘give me a (regular yellow cab) because I don’t want to be bothered with an accessible vehicle,’” said Scalzi. “So accessible cars are now sitting there unleased.”
Scalzi said according to TLC rules, the driver of a wheelchair-accessible cab may pick up non-disabled fares, but must always respond to calls for a disabled pickup if they’re the closest wheelchair-accessible cab to the call and are dispatched. As a result, drivers sometimes travel multiple unpaid blocks to pick up a disabled fare.
“If you have to say no to a passenger on the street and drive three, four blocks to pick up a disabled person that called in for a ride, you’re losing money,” said Scalzi, who estimated that of the city’s 581 wheelchair-accessible yellow cabs that pick up fairs from Lower Manhattan to the top of Central Park, maybe 200 are on the road at any given time.
“So that’s become very difficult to us to provide the service level that we have in the past,” he said. “There’s a lack of available, accessible vehicles on the roads for us to dispatch, absolutely.”
He estimated that in the past six months, response times for wheelchair-accessible vehicles have gone from 13 minutes to 19 minutes. Scalzi said accessible dispatch gets 180-200 calls for service in Manhattan per day, mostly via telephone, and that the program is regarded as a success by both the TLC and advocates for the disabled.
“Everybody says the service is good and it’s growing, we just don’t have enough cars,” he said. “Uber in particular has done a number on medallion taxis. The medallion owners are finding it difficult to fill their shifts with drivers. There’s a shortage of drivers because a lot of the drivers are now driving for Uber.”
Michael Higgins, a longtime city cabbie who hosts a weekly podcast centered on issues facing the yellow cab industry, said the profit margin for drivers operating wheelchair-accessible vehicles is razor thin, if it exists at all.
“It’s almost like we’re doing it for charity,” said Higgins. “Rarely does a cabbie come out being profitable picking up the wheelchair dispatch calls. And God forbid we say anything — then we’re monsters.”
Higgins said he’s tired of cab drivers being demonized at TLC hearings by disability advocates who blame them for the shortage of accessible cabs in Manhattan.
“It’s this horrible visual where we’re portrayed as these monsters,” he said, while adding that it’s been a boon for those elected leaders who accessible cab programs in New York, but less so for drivers and fleet operators.
“As far as the people that actually do the legwork and the implementation, [they] don’t make money on it and actually lose money on it,” said Higgins. “It’s a burden and an unfair competitive advantage, especially for the Uber knuckleheads.”
James Weisman, president of the United Spinal Association and an advocate for the disabled who helped craft the Americans with Disabilities Act, sympathizes with Higgins.
“I’ve heard from medallion owners that they can’t get accessible cabs on the road, and that waiting times are going to go up because drivers are being taken up by Uber,” said Weisman. “And the (yellow) cabs they want to drive are the hybrids, not the accessible ones.”
According to Higgins, the disabled community in New York worked out a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo three years ago for 2,000 new taxi medallions, all of which would require wheelchair-accessible cabs. However, only 400 have been bought to date, he said.
“There’s no market for the other 1,600 medallions,” said Weisman, who believes wait times will continue to go up, “because they’re not getting (accessible) cars on the road.”
The city appears to be aware of the problem. Starting in 2015, a 30-cent surcharge was added to all metered fares for a Taxi Improvement Fund, which is designed to ease the burden for medallion owners who must pay to convert vehicles for wheelchair access and help the city reach its goal of a 50 percent accessible fleet by 2020.
According to Greg Gordon, a TLC spokesperson, it costs around $14,000 to convert a regular cab to one that is wheelchair accessible. But money from the Taxi Improvement Fund surcharge has yet to be doled out.
“Funds haven’t been disbursed yet because there was no regulatory framework in place for the manner (and) process by which funds should be distributed to owners and drivers,” said Gordon. “At the outset, the plan was to begin collection of funds in 2015 so that necessary funds would be available to begin disbursements in 2016.”
The TLC is proposing changes to the Taxi Improvement Fund, including increasing the amount paid to medallion owners for converting cabs and individual drivers who operate wheelchair-accessible cabs, as well as dispatch fees paid to drivers for completing a wheelchair-accessible trip. The commission is holding a hearing Sept. 17 on the proposed changes.
“The program is operating effectively in Manhattan under its current model, however, there is always room for improvement,” Gordon said. “With our sights on lowering existing wait times and making such a service available citywide, the more wheelchair-accessible vehicles on the road, the more efficient the program will run and the better service it will provide to those passengers in need.”
In May the city released a request for proposals for a vendor to administer a citywide accessible dispatch program, which the city says will significantly expand the level of service available to passengers who use wheelchairs. In addition to dispatching accessible yellow cabs, the new program will also dispatch the 1,200 accessible green cabs that operate north of Central Park and in the outer boroughs. (According to Scalzi, who currently holds the contract for the accessible dispatch program, the service only dispatches accessible yellow cabs.)
The TLC’s current system for increasing the amount of accessible cabs is based on a lottery system and tied to the retirement of older cabs and their replacement by medallion owners. Gordon said there is no mandate on how many accessible cabs must be on the road at any given time and that the commission does not track response times for disabled fares.
Raymond, of the Upper West Side, said she noticed the drop in reliability about a year ago.
“All the (accessible) taxis that were out there were on the street. Now they’re not because so many of the drivers are driving for Uber now. (Accessible cabs) sit in parking lots at garages because the drivers don’t want to take them. So the taxis exist but they’re not being used,” said Raymond. “I used to use them a lot more often than I use them now, because I can’t rely on them really.”
Weisman said the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require sedan-sized vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible, and that he’s not holding out hope Uber will begin implementing their own wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
“Either they voluntarily do it, or the state or the city mandates it,” he said. “Why should a mode a transportation that everyone loves be completely off limits to people that use wheelchairs?”
Weisman said the mandate should require at least half of Uber drivers’ cars to be wheelchair accessible.
“At least half, because if they want to replace the yellow cabs, which they do, they should have to meet the same requirements,” he said, referring to the city’s 2020 goal. “Right now they only drive people with smart phones and credit cards. If they didn’t have to take black people or gay people, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. People aren’t ready to call them bigots, but we are.”
A spokesperson for Uber said the company currently dispatches wheelchair-accessible rides through their uberWAV option, which boasts an average response time of five minutes and completes 600 to 800 accessible trips per week.
However, that program coordinates their accessible rides with the TLC’s accessible green cabs, and does not include the smart phone payment integration that’s a big draw of Uber’s main app. According to Weisman, not a single Uber car is in and of itself wheelchair accessible.
Uber’s accessible app is also bound by the TLC’s Manhattan Exclusionary Zone, and cannot pick up fares below West 110th Street or East 96th Street. The spokesperson said Uber is currently working on a deal to service disabled fares within the exclusionary zone.
Despite the increase in wait times, Scalzi things are set to improve as the city makes good on its commitment to convert 50 percent of their cab fleet to wheelchair accessible, which is good news for drivers and disabled passengers alike.
“I’m not sure how the whole Uber thing is going to shake out in the end, but if you’re lessening the number of trips that are available to yellow and green taxi cabs, then drivers will be more apt to accept trips from whatever source, whether it be e–hails, accessible trips or contract work,” Scalzi said. “So they’re going to be hungry to take anything. I see this as everything getting better for the drivers.”