The Future of Accessible Transportation: The New York City Taxi

Edward uses a smartphone app to take an Access-A-Ride trip in a taxicab.

In a city as culturally rich as New York, there is never a shortage of interesting and fun events people can take part in. Whether it is attending a Broadway show in the city or catching a ballgame in the Bronx, New Yorkers and visitors alike can always find something new to do on any given day. However, getting around the city to take advantage of everything it has to offer can be a challenge for the always-growing population of approximately one million New Yorkers who self-identify as people who have disabilities.

People with disabilities, New York City’s largest minority group, depend on reliable transportation to go to work, school, and anywhere else that they choose. Unfortunately, traveling in the city with a disability hasn’t always been easy.

Since 1990, the primary mode of transportation for someone with a disability has been paratransit. As is typical of New York’s leadership in accessibility and inclusion, paratransit service pre-dates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) as the State legislation that served as the basis for the start of the paratransit service was the result of a lawsuit settlement from the mid-1980s that went on to be the model for the ADA requirements. Paratransit service, as mandated by the ADA, is designed to provide eligible people with disabilities with door-to-door or feeder service that is comparable to mainstream public transportation.

New York’s Access-A-Ride is by far the largest and most expensive paratransit provider in the nation, currently providing more than six million trips annually to approximately 150,000 eligible New Yorkers. Access-A-Ride users are taken from pickup to destination anywhere in the five boroughs and certain parts of nearby Nassau and Westchester counties for the same price as the subway or bus — currently $2.75 per ride. While the service has been a saving grace for many people with disabilities who are otherwise unable to travel, it is still difficult for the disability community to go about their days in the same manner as their nondisabled peers.

Unfortunately, as the number of people with disabilities continues to rise, so too does the demand and cost of the Access-A-Ride service. Passengers sometimes have a less than ideal experience because their trips must be booked by 5 P.M. the day before, with limited flexibility. The current shared-ride system often leads to people either arriving to their destination: (1) very early with no place to wait, or (2) too late after spending a significant time in a vehicle that was dropping off or picking up other people around the City. The service is costly for the State as well, with the average cost per ride estimated at approximately $59.

Edward uses a green taxi for an Access-A-Ride trip to work.

As a native New Yorker and a person with a physical disability myself, I have relied on Access-A-Ride to fulfill the lion’s share of my day-to-day transportation needs. While the overwhelming majority of my trips have gotten me from pickup to destination efficiently, the common pitfalls of the service are sometimes unavoidable. For example — as a college student — my classes would sometimes get canceled at the last minute, and I would have no choice but to wait for my previously-scheduled Access-A-Ride vehicle with no same-day booking option. Conversely, I often had to book my daily trips to college with an appointment time that was at least an hour before my class actually began in order to ensure that I arrived with time to spare — a commute that was significantly longer than that of the average nondisabled New Yorker.

The hardworking administration and staff at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which has overseen Access-A-Ride since 1993, do all that they can to mitigate these day-to-day challenges, and ensure that the customer experience is as pleasant as possible. The original paratransit paradigm was designed over thirty years ago, and an update is needed to the system to reflect today’s increasingly faster-paced, customer-centered transportation options. Recently, I have been proud to work with the MTA on its efforts to explore innovative ways to provide more efficient service to paratransit customers.

Wheelchair accessible taxis give New Yorkers greater mobility and flexibility in their travels.

One of the new developments that has the potential to truly revolutionize the Access-A-Ride service involves using my personal favorite mode of transportation — the New York City taxi. In recent years, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) has steadily increased the number of accessible vehicles in the yellow and green taxi fleet for people with disabilities. To date, there are approximately 2,100 wheelchair accessible yellow taxis on the road, and the TLC is committed to reaching fifty percent of the fleet — or approximately 6,800 vehicles — by 2020. Additionally, there are approximately 240 wheelchair accessible green taxis on the road, as a number of Street Hail Livery licenses have been set aside for wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Building on the experiences of other cities like Boston, the MTA has rightfully began leveraging the increasing accessibility of the taxi fleet to provide some paratransit trips. In addition to using taxis to provide direct, rather than shared rides, as part of the existing paratransit framework with advance bookings, a portion of Access-A-Ride users have been provided with same-day, on-demand direct taxi service as part of an MTA-led pilot program. Access-A-Ride pilot users like myself are able to obtain a taxi through either the Curb mobile application or a dedicated call center as a same-day, direct service for a subsidized cost of $2.75. Curb covers the rest of the metered fare, and then the MTA reimburses them.

Same-day paratransit service via taxi has dramatically improved my customer experience as I now have this flexibility to go where I want when I want — without having to book a ride in advance. Back-to-back meetings at different offices, once impossible to schedule using the conventional Access-A-Ride model, have suddenly become something that I am able to do on a regular basis through its on-demand taxi service. The taxi drivers with whom I interact have also had positive things to say about the program, which has boosted their business over the last few months. The TLC is consistently working with our colleagues at the MTA to improve the availability of taxis around the city, particularly in the outer boroughs, to ensure that the program can flourish beyond the pilot phase. While there will likely have to be some restrictions, including a potential limit on trips per day, the proof of concept in the pilot has shown that taxis can truly change the face and experience of paratransit service.

It is important to note that the rise in the number of accessible taxis affects more than just the Access-A-Ride service, as many people with disabilities do not use paratransit and prefer to instead have other mainstream transportation options available to them. To further ensure that all New Yorkers and City visitors have equal access to taxi service, the TLC recently expanded our previous Accessible Dispatch program, which required trips to begin in Manhattan, to provide service for trips that start in all five boroughs. Residents and visitors alike can now order a wheelchair accessible yellow or green taxi from anywhere in New York City with booking available by calling a dispatch center, dialing 311, scheduling a trip online, or through the “Accessible Dispatch NYC” app. Upon request, the dispatcher sends a wheelchair accessible taxi to the pickup location, and passengers simply pay the metered fare when they reach their destination. Drivers receive a dispatch fee payment from the TLC’s Taxi Improvement Fund to compensate them for traveling to the pickup location.

Taxis are filling a transportation void for New York’s disability community who are eager to access the City just like everyone else. As we work diligently to increase accessible transportation options, we will slowly but surely change the way people with disabilities are able to go about their daily lives. Disability is a universal human experience that will come to affect all of us in due time, and I am truly humbled to be working to ensure that the best city in the world becomes the most accessible city in the world. The availability of accessible taxis in both paratransit and mainstream use plays a significant role in this effort.

Edward Friedman is the interim Disability Service Facilitator at the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Born with cerebral palsy and a native New Yorker, he is proud to be playing a small part to increase transportation access for the disability community.

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