Suit casts doubt on rollout of wheelchair-accessible taxis

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A taxi cab. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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Starting in January, New York City’s taxi fleet was supposed to get a whole lot more accessible to people in wheelchairs. A lawsuit filed Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court renders that prospect more dubious.

The suit alleges city rules requiring half of all yellow taxi owners to start buying wheelchair-accessible cars in January violates a separate, earlier law requiring the city to allow at least some fuel-efficient hybrid taxis.

The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission has yet to approve a vehicle that is both hybrid and wheelchair accessible, because no such vehicle appears to be available.

“There are currently ten vehicle models that the TLC has approved for use as accessible vehicles,” the suit reads. “None of those ten vehicle models is a hybrid electric vehicle. ... None of the three hybrid vehicle models that are currently approved by the TLC is wheelchair accessible.”

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Right now, 581 of the city's 13,587 yellow taxis are wheelchair accessible.

New York City's much-lauded plan to make its taxi fleet significantly more friendly to people with disabilities may now be delayed.

“It seems like the city put themselves in a box,” said Jim Weisman, the president of the United Spinal Association who helped compel the Bloomberg administration to agree to make the fleet more accessible in the first place.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday is partially funded by the Committee for Taxi Safety. Like other yellow taxi industry groups, it’s struggling to maintain its market share in the age of Uber.

The San Francisco-based car-hail app, as both disability advocates and yellow taxi interests are wont to point out, is not subject to any wheelchair-accessibility requirements in New York City, even as its hold on the car-service market strengthens.

“They’re not protected from Uber and they’re desperate guys,” said Weisman, referring to the plaintiffs.

Should the plaintiffs get a temporary restraining order preventing the city’s accessibility plan to move forward, it’s not clear what recourse will be left to taxi owners who would otherwise have been required to buy accessible vehicles because their existing taxis had reached their mandatory retirement age.

Certainly, disability advocates don’t seem inclined to let the administration off the hook.

“The city made a deal and we expect them to live up to it and enforce the rule,” Weisman said. “On the other hand, we would love them, love them, to regulate Uber.”

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the city’s law department said, “The City is strongly committed to accessibility and will be opposing this application.”