‘Why even bother doing this?’: A question the Taxi of Tomorrow hasn’t quite answered

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Taxi of Tomorrow (via taxioftomorrow.com)
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Apart from those who proposed it, designed it, and made it, nearly everyone who testified at a Thursday hearing on the Taxi of Tomorrow had only bad things to say about it.

"The so-called 'Taxi of Tomorrow' is a misnomer," said Ethan Gerber, executive director of the Greater New York Taxi Association, which represents some of the city's wealthiest and most powerful fleet owners. "There is nothing 'tomorrow' about it. Let's call it Taxi of Yesterday. It is not accessible. It is not clean-air. It is a non-accesible, non-hybrid, non-clean air, old-fashioned combustion engine."

An attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council called the city's decision to phase out thousands hybrid taxis, which represent more than 40 percent of the fleet, in favor of one uniform taxi model that runs on a combustion engine, "a significant missed opportunity, from an environmental perspective."

G. Oliver Koppell, who chair's the City Council's disability services committee, called the taxi, which is not accessible to people in wheelchairs, "a civil rights issue."

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"It's long past time to make sure that those who have mobility impairments can participate in the society with everybody else," he said, to applause from the crowd at the Taxi and Limousine Commission's Beaver Street headquarters.

The purpose of the meeting was to hear testimony on the Taxi of Tomorrow, a new vehicle that, assuming the commission approves it on September 20, will begin to replace most of the city's more than 13,000 taxis starting next Halloween.

The idea for the Taxi of Tomorrow is to establish a new standard of excellence for the city's taxi fleet. But almost no one at Thursday's hearing thought that idea was well-executed.

Not that there were many people around to listen to their complaints.  

The hearing was standing-room only, but just two of the Taxi and Limousine Commission's nine commissioners bothered to show up, and one was the chairman, David Yassky, who kind of had to. Even he departed toward the end, as Gerber got up to speak.

When Gerber got back to his seat, he joked that he felt "just like Clint Eastwood."

The hearing began on a slightly more positive note.

"I think the first question that a lot of people have asked is, 'Why even bother doing this?" said David Klahr, the TLC's executive director of financial planning and analysis. "Why should we have a Taxi of Tomorrow'?"

"Good question," grumbled Robert Nemeroff, the marketing director at a credit union that underwrites taxi medallion sales, from the second row.

"The simple reason is, is that for the first time we'll have a taxi vehicle built specifically for New York City, for our roads, for how a taxi operates in our city, for our owners, our drivers, and our passengers," said Klahr.

The boxy, minivan-like taxi, known as the NV200, will come with all sorts of amenities designed to vastly improve the customer experience: easier-to-open sliding doors, passenger airbags, climate control systems and reading lights, a transparent 'skyroof' through which to view the skyscrapers above, and lots of legroom, too.

"This vehicle is not about the exterior," said Nissan's Peter Bedrosian, on Thursday.

Meanwhile, drivers, who spend more time in taxis than anyone else, will get ergonomically designed chairs to help combat the lower back pain and kidney problems endemic to the profession.

But even Bhairavi Desai, the head of the Taxi Workers Alliance, the closest thing drivers have to a union and which has a generally good relationship with the administration, was not particularly enthusiastic.

That's because the commission is simultaneously proposing slightly higher lease rates for drivers, even as many of those drivers will be paying more for gas in their new, non-hybrid vehicles.

In some ways, the Taxi of Tomorrow represents a stark departure for the administration.

In 2007, both Yassky and Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed the creation of completely hybrid taxi fleet by 2012, a move they described as intrinsic to the greening of New York City.

And though the Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn signed their names to a 2009 report in which accessibility for wheelchair-users was described as an explicit goal of the Taxi of Tomorrow, the actual Taxi of Tomorrow does not accomodate them.

(The city has said it will instead set up a dispatch system.)

Quinn, who hasn't allowed a vote on a Koppell-sponsored bill mandating full taxi accessibility, recently criticized the mayor on both those fronts.

"I"m hoping to move it in the City Council," said Koppell today. "There are some political obstacles, notably the opposition of the mayor and this commission."

On Thursday, the commission said that should the Council act, the city will respond.

"Nissan has also partnered with Braun...to produce and sell as many wheelchair-accessible vehicles as desired," said Klahr, referring to a company that specializes in wheelchair accessibility. "Up to 100 percent of the fleet. And I want to be perfectly clear about this. If the City Council, for example, were to pass a bill mandating that every single taxicab in New York City must be wheelchair accesible, Nissan and Braun are ready to deliver that."

Asked today why she had declined to allow a vote on Koppell's bill, a Council spokeswoman sent over a joint statement from Quinn and Transportation Committee chairman James Vacca: “The Council is committed to ensuring that every new medallion is available only for accessible taxis. Given the current state of the taxi industry and the status of available technology, we think this is the most sensible approach at this time."

Asked if that meant Quinn would allow the bill to come up for a vote, the spokeswoman never got back to me.