Court hands Bloomberg a win, ruling that taxis aren’t subject to ‘public’ accessibility requirements

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A taxi in Sunnyside. (chrisgoldny via flickr)
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Today, an appeals court ruled that New York City's lack of wheelchair-accessible taxis does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, eliminating one obstacle to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to remake the taxi industry.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided that even though the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission "exercises pervasive control over the taxi industry in New York City," the taxi industry remains a private one, and therefore is not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ruling doesn't deal with whether or not, as a matter of good public policy, the city should follow London's lead and require its taxis to be accessible, but rather whether the city complies with an A.D.A. provision requiring "public services" to provide access to the disabled.

It's a resonant issue in New York City, where the vast majority of the more than 13,000 taxis (98.2 percent of them) cannot accommodate wheelchairs.

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Even more galling to disability advocates, the city's new Taxi of Tomorrow, which will ultimately replace all cabs on city streets, also cannot accommodate wheelchairs.

In December, the day after the governor, mayor, and legislature reached a hard-won compromise on a Bloomberg plan to create a new fleet of taxis for the outer boroughs, and auction off 2,000 regular yellow cab medallions, a lower court judge issued an injunction on the so-called borough taxi plan, demanding that the city first provide him with a comprehensive proposal to provide taxi access to people in wheelchairs. Only after he approved that plan, could the city move forward.

The city appealed and, today, won a reversal.

It's a big victory for the Bloomberg administration, but at least one big impediment to its borough taxi plan still remains: a separate suit brought by the taxi industry, and backed by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, arguing that the city should have first gotten City Council approval for its borough taxi plan, before repairing to Albany.

It is only after that legal question is settled that the city will be able to auction off those 2,000 yellow taxi medallions and thereby close gaping holes in this year's, and next year's, budgets.

"It may be that there is a failure to provide meaningful access to taxis for persons with disabilities," wrote the appeals court. "But if so,  it is a failure of the taxi industry in New York City."

“The Court correctly found that nothing in the ADA compels the City to require that taxis be wheelchair accessible,” said Bloomberg, in a statement. “This ruling is consistent with common sense and the practical needs of both the taxi industry and the disabled, and we will continue our efforts to assist disabled riders.”

Jim Weisman, general counsel for one of the plaintiffs, the United Spinal Association, said it was only a matter of time before disabled advocates got access to taxis.

"It's hardly over," he said. "Right-thinking people agree with us. The mayor is off by himself ... and the next mayor will agree with us."

"Time marches on," Weisman continued. "The handwriting is on the wall. More and more things are becoming accessible. Not less and less."