Opinion

How to fix New York City’s failing accessible taxi program

By Graham Hodges |  

November 12, 2017 |  

(Shutterstock)

New York City’s yellow taxi industry is engaged in a long-term accessibility program that was supposed to be a boon to tens of thousands of people with disabilities who need more reliable transportation options. But that program – which aims to make the yellow taxi fleet 50 percent accessible by 2020 – is failing and will never achieve its goal unless the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission acts quickly to support drivers of wheelchair-accessible taxis who are unable to make ends meet.

One of the most fundamental problems with the taxi accessibility program involves the very same tool the city has been using to try to incentivize drivers. This financial incentive, with cash from a pot of money known as the Taxi Improvement Fund (TIF), is used by the TLC to persuade yellow taxi drivers that their earnings will increase if they drive an accessible vehicle.

That claim has proven to be false, and the TLC knows it. The reality is that the TIF does not provide nearly enough financial incentive to enable drivers of accessible taxis to make a living wage – and it certainly does not increase their earnings beyond what they made while driving a non-accessible taxi. Among other things, this is due to the much higher cost of operating an accessible taxi – the Nissan NV200, also known as the Taxi of Tomorrow – which is less fuel efficient than other taxis and costs more to maintain.  

Those of us who care about the iconic yellow taxi industry – and its role as a source of wheelchair-accessible transportation – have listened with sadness to story after story from accessible taxi drivers who were misled by the TLC and are now suffering.

It is time to fix this problem by quickly increasing the size of the Taxi Improvement Fund and its ability to support accessible taxi drivers. This would be an easy move for the TLC to make – and one it should have made a long time ago.

Right now, the Taxi Improvement Fund’s only source of funding is a 30-cent-per-ride fee tacked on to every taxi trip in New York City. This means that ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft – which collectively have more than 90,000 cars on the road in New York City, but have no accessibility program of their own – currently pay nothing to support the fund. That should change.

Since companies like Uber and Lyft – both worth billions of dollars – do not have to bear the cost or responsibility of operating a large-scale accessibility program, there is no reason why they cannot begin paying into the fund. In fact, the massive ridesharing companies should have no problem paying far more than 30 cents per ride to contribute to these vital accessible transportation options.

If the TLC were to follow this commonsense path forward, the Taxi Improvement Fund would quickly become a more powerful and effective financial incentive for accessible taxi drivers. In other words, it would actually do the job it was always intended to do. Instead of being misled and left to struggle with financial hardship, these drivers would get the support they need to keep doing their jobs, earning a living wage and serving tens of thousands of New Yorkers in wheelchairs and those with other disabilities.

The TLC can talk about accessibility all it wants, but if it does not save the yellow taxi industry’s accessibility program, any other efforts on this issue will be meaningless. This is a no-brainer – it is time to expand the Taxi Improvement Fund now.

Graham Hodges is a Colgate University professor and former taxi driver.

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