This is not a frivolous lawsuit. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a supporting brief.
The financial implications of the case are dramatic. Making all taxis wheelchair accessible is likely to add almost $200 million to the cost of new taxis, and then again when they wear out in five years.
The larger taxis are generally about 800 pounds heavier and use about 20% more fuel – raising costs and polluting the air. Stretched taxis have harsher suspensions, and are therefore less comfortable for most users, as well as more dangerous (because they are less maneuverable and harder to stop). While the expenditures would not cripple the taxi industry – a taxi medallion recently sold for $1 million – the city estimates that an all-accessible taxi fleet would add $935 million in operating cost every five years.
That’s an increase of 10%, or $1 on a $10 fare. That cost, plus environmental and safety costs, will be borne by users.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit point to the serious difficulties of getting around the city in a wheelchair. It is easy to be sympathetic. While regular taxis are required to stop and help a wheelchair-bound person put the chair in the trunk, many taxis speed past. There are also 231 taxis that are licensed specifically to accommodate wheelchairs, a higher percentage of taxis (2%) than the wheelchair-bound public (which advocates estimate is half of 1%, or 60,000 people), but that’s little consolation to someone waiting on a corner.
Private taxis should be like public transit, argue the advocates – equally accessible across the board – because they are licensed by the city. Indeed, every city bus is now wheelchair-accessible. Meantime, the subways are spending $60 million per year to try to make stations wheelchair-accessible. The MTA also provides a door-to-door Access-A-Ride van service, at a cost of $420 million annually. In total, the federal mandate to provide wheelchair access to public transit is already costing the MTA more than $500 million per year.