9:00 am Sep. 14, 20122
At 6:45 am on a recent summer morning, Victor Calise called the largest taxi company in Connecticut, and about 15 minutes later, a New York City cab pulled up in front of his Upper West Side home.
Calise, who uses a wheelchair and is the new commissioner of the city’s office for people with disabilities, rolled into the vehicle and took it to a doctor’s appointment.
The car he took was one of 233 wheelchair-accessible cabs, a mere fraction of the 13,237 yellow taxis that roam city streets. Some disability advocates argue not only that the paucity of accessible cabs is an inconvenience preventing the sort of spontaneous travel available to able-bodied New Yorkers, but that it's immoral, and they have called upon the city to make the every taxi accessible, just like in London.
The city has taken a different approach. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has argued that it’s dangerous for people in wheelchairs to hail cabs on from the street.
Instead, his taxi and limousine commissioner, David Yassky, has set up a dispatch system, which is launching today.
It's supposed to give disabled people in Manhattan several different ways to solicit taxis: calling 311, which will connect the customer with a cab dispatcher at the Connecticut-based taxi company providing the dispatch service; requesting a cab at accessibledispatch.com or via the Wow Taxi app; or calling (or texting) the Connecticut company directly.
Metro Taxi, the company, will have at least one dispatcher dedicated to New York City accessible cabs 24/7, according to its owner, Bill Scalzi.
The dispatcher, in turn, will take down all of the customer’s information (repeat customers' information will be stored in the system), and, using satellite tracking, determine the closest available accessible cab. The dispatcher will then will offer the fare to the driver, who, using a computer that’s been installed in the cab, can accept it. All of the information for the trip is then downloaded into the driver's computer.
“Our dispatchers can literally see every accessible taxicab in Manhattan,” said Scalzi. “They can see what street they’re on, how fast they’re going.”
If the driver in question gets stuck in traffic, and another available cab that’s closer to the customer becomes available, the dispatcher will offer that cab the ride instead.
When the cab arrives, the driver presses a button on a console, generating a call alerting the passenger to his arrival.
"We’ve had a total of 164 test trips and 73 percent of those were successfully completed," said Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission. (One of those trips was Calise's.)
In other words, 73 percent of drivers arrived within the half hour. In 92 percent of requests, the trip successfully took place, within the half hour or not.
The city has tried this sort of thing before.
In 2008, then-taxi commissioner Matthew Daus announced that the city would launch a two-year pilot program to test a wheelchair-accessible dispatch system. Wheelchair-using taxi riders would call 311, and get transferred to a dispatcher, who would then match the passenger with a vehicle.
That program was not considered a success.
In 2009 Assemblyman Micah Kellner released a report finding that, of 20 attempted calls to the dispatch system, "only six customers were told a cab was available" and "just two had confirmed pickup times that matched the request.”
"I was one of the original testers three years ago, and that phase was very disastrous, because a lot of things were, sort of, not organized properly," said Ronnie Ellen Raymond, an advocate for the disabled and a wheelchair user herself.
This time, says the city, things will be different.
For one thing, this dispatch system is restricted to Manhattan. The city is still relying on its plan, now tied up in court, to bring 18,000 green taxis to the outer boroughs, one fifth of which will have to be accessible. Those taxis will all have relationships with livery companies and be accessible via dispatch.
The plan will also put 2,000 accessible yellow cabs on the street, which, if the new system is a success, should help address any over-utilization problems.
"I think that 230 cars is not enough," said Yassky.
Also, this time around, the taxi drivers are incentivized to participate.
"What’s different this time is that drivers in that pilot program never got paid to go to that pickup," Ashwini Chhabra, the Taxi and Limousine Commission's deputy commissioner for policy and planning, recently told me.
Now, drivers asked to travel (and pass by other potential customers on the street) to get to their destination will be paid $6 for half a mile, $10 for between a half mile and a mile, and $15 for more than a mile. Drivers also get a "no show" payment of $5 for a passenger that doesn’t materialize.
Compared to the old system, this one, "is like night and day," said Raymond, who's tested out the new system, too.
"I think that it's been organized very professionally," she said. "They've chosen a professional dispatch company...and they are incredible."
Edith Prentiss, another wheelchair user and chair of the Taxis for All Campaign, which advocates for full fleet accessibility, said she thinks some people will use it.
"There are plenty of people who are very willing to wait 20 or 30 minutes," she said. "I know I’m not going to get a 20- to 30-minute wait time. I’m in Washington Heights."
Nevertheless, she thinks the dispatch system does not suffice.
"I philosophically do not believe we should wait longer than anyone else," she said. "And that’s my stand. For me, it’s a civil rights issue."
But Yassky calls the system's launch "a big step forward toward getting people in wheelchairs first-rate taxi service," one that will only be augmented, once the aforementioned borough taxi plan (and its 2,000 new wheelchair-accessible yellow cabs and 18,000 borough taxis, one fifth of which will have to be accessible) gets moving.
"I think even the most ardent advocates for people with disabilities agree that we need 311 to be part of the solution," he said. "Because even if we started phasing in a much bigger number of wheelchair-accessible taxis, it would take years to get there. We need to get service to people today, and that’s what 311 will do."