When you think of Manhattan, vivid images spring to mind: skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, and thousands of yellow taxicabs—thirteen thousand to be precise. Because of their ubiquity, residents and tourists alike hail them day and night to move throughout the city. But for thousands of people who use wheelchairs, taxis are simply not available. The reason is simple: because there are less than one hundred wheelchair accessible taxis, you almost never see one that is available to hail, and you cannot phone for a cab in New York.
But if a group of New York disability rights advocates has its way, the number of wheelchair accessible taxis will grow further. This group, known as Taxis for All, began as a project of United Spinal Association in New York in the mid-1990s. Since then, Taxis for All has advocated with state, city, and taxi officials within New York to increase the number and availability of accessible taxis. From 2004 to 2007, it successfully argued for a more than tenfold increase in the number of accessible taxis in Manhattan, from three to thirty-five, and the number continues to grow. (See www.unitedspinal.org/advocacy/taxisforall.)
To support the expansion of accessible taxis in New York and throughout the nation, the Federal Transit Administration, in conjunction with United Spinal Association/Taxis for All, organized a national Accessible Taxi Summit in New York City on April 10 and 11, 2007. These dates were chosen to coincide with the 100th anniversary celebration of the New York Yellow Cab, highlighted in Taxi 07, an enormous trade show of taxi models and future prototypes at the Javitz Center in Manhattan. At Taxi 07, a company, Standard Taxi, displayed its unique prototype that will be purpose-built as an accessible taxi but will cost roughly the same as a nonaccessible fleet taxicab.
Seventy people participated in the summit, including members of the taxicab industry, members of the disability community from across the country, and municipal representatives from Manhattan and the other boroughs of New York. After viewing the Standard Taxi prototype, participants returned to the hotel to hear from representatives from San Francisco and Chicago, who reported on best practices for accessible taxi programs that have worked in their communities. In San Francisco, transportation advocates have worked to obtain one hundred accessible taxis that can either be requested by telephone or hailed on the street. And in Chicago, Equip for Equality (the local Protection and Advocacy chapter) and the Chicago Transit Authority collaborated on a program in which residents can call a single number from anywhere in the metropolitan area to request a wheelchair accessible taxi. Both cities share two areas of focus: (1) monitoring the program to ensure that accessible taxis are available to those in wheelchairs, and (2) training drivers on disability awareness and proper techniques to secure wheelchairs to ensure positive customer service experiences by riders with disabilities.
After those presentations, summit participants worked on strategies for developing accessible taxi programs throughout the country. They identified five topics of particular concern: (1) universal design features for taxis, such as interior space that can be utilized both by passengers in wheelchairs and by passengers with excess luggage; (2) financial and marketing incentives for taxi companies and drivers who may wish to operate accessible taxis; (3) the training of drivers and the monitoring of accessible taxi program operations; (4) models of accessible vehicles that are currently used for taxis and their cost; and (5) what the future holds for accessible taxis nationwide.
Two powerful speakers closed the summit by offering hope for the future. Both James Simpson, the Federal Transit Administration administrator, and Matthew Daus, New York City Taxi and Limousine commissioner, made strong commitments to use their influence to support the continued increase in the number of accessible taxis in Manhattan and around the country. But it is incumbent on accessible transportation advocates to ensure that these commitments are kept.