Parking Authority hears dueling remarks on wheelchair accessibility rule

Yesterday morning’s Philadelphia Parking Authority board meeting was a pretty staid affair, with a few updates on issues we’ve been tracking.

Earlier this year, the PPA proposed a rulemaking order (126-11) that’s been wending its way through the state Attorney General’s office and the Public Utility Commission, which would require all new medallion cabs to be wheelchair accessible.

We’re now in the middle of a 30-day public comment period on that rule, which will run from June 13th through July 13th. And as one would expect, the public comment period at the start of yesterday’s meeting featured commentary from the Pennsylvania Taxi Association opposing the rule, and disability rights advocates supporting it.

Danielle Friedman, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Taxi Association, said the proposed rule “completely ignores consumer choice” and would be too expensive to comply with. She said this would redound to the advantage of illegal ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. 

“For better or for worse, not all riders want to ride in wheelchair-accessible vehicles,” she argued, “The public wants to be able to choose from sedans, SUVs, and minivans, and these regulations would cause the industry to lose more and more customers to illegal actors. Secondly, medallions owners cannot afford to comply with the regulations, given the high costs of new vehicles and insurance…The high costs and decreased revenue will lead to industry bankruptcy. Not only will there be no wheelchair-accessible vehicles on the street, there will be no taxicabs altogether.” 

Alex Friedman, the owner of Checker Cab and All City, added that despite the 44 new WAV medallions that have been issued so far, there are only 12 drivers in Philadelphia certified to operate these vehicles, so more WAV medallions won’t immediately put more such vehicles on the street.

Matthew Clark, representing the advocacy group Taxis for All which supports the rule, countered that the rollout of wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) in the Philadelphia market has been far too slow, and the rule is necessary to speed up the pace. 

“When I hear your defense that the public wants choice, we’re part of the public. As our segregated system stands right now, the percentage [of WAVs] is 0.5%,” he said, “It’ll be 7.5% with the new medallions, and in the span of 10 years, will be at 8%. That’s still a segregated system. Whether or not it’s illegal under the ADA, discrimination is still discrimination.”

Clark acknowledged the higher cost of purchasing WAVs, and suggested potential avenues for compromise.

“The fact is that not driving us around is costing society,” he said, “Because your business is not fully accessible, we have to have alternatives out there like paratransit. Paratransit bills taxpayers $37 for every ride on average. Because private businesses are allowed to exclude us, public monies have to go subsidize that. So what we’d like to see, and we’ve been talking with PPA and City Council about this, is if we had a taxi industry willing to provide accessible vehicles, maybe we can do what some other cities have done and use paratransit money to cover the balance of a fare, rather than pay the $40 that SEPTA charges.”

Clark clarified afterward that he was referring to the MTA’s Access-A-Ride program in New York City as a potential model. 

Once the public comment period closes, the PPA will amend the proposed rule, and send it to the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission for final consideration.

Ride-hailing enforcement was another hot-button issue at the meeting, with taxi industry representatives pleading for a more robust crackdown on Uber X and Lyft, as well as illegal street hails from limousines and Uber’s black car service.

“Uber is out there bragging that they’ve provided over 1 million rides in Philadelphia,” said Danielle Friedman of the Taxi Association, “meanwhile PPA has towed about 50 cars. Only a handful of cars have been towed in the past three months. The PPA is not doing all it can to stop these illegal actors and protect medallion owners’ property, which is what it is mandated to do.”

Alex Friedman noted that just the night before he saw an Uber X vehicle in Center City with a New Jersey license plate pick up a passenger, which is illegal. Drivers can take passengers into Philadelphia from New Jersey, but they can’t pick up hails here. 

PPA Executive Director Vince Fenerty defended the Authority’s record, pointing out that because ride-hailing vehicles are unmarked, the law is very difficult to enforce, and the PPA has been more focused on achieving a legislative solution at the state level.

He said the Authority has “held the line against TNCs (transportation network companies) as long as possible” but acknowledged there is “overwhelming support for them in Harrisburg” among lawmakers, thus making it politically impossible to eradicate the services for good. Instead, PPA has been tactically focused on negotiating a statute that legalizes TNCs in Philadelphia while balancing all interests. 

Following the public comment segment of the meeting, the PPA board approved the sale of 22 WAV medallions (some to hilariously-named companies like Download Taxi, and Big Data Taxi), approved a recommendation to purchase several vehicles through the Coast Guard, taking advantage of their bulk buying power, and voted to eliminate a requirement that the new taxi cameras directly transmit video footage to the PPA. That feature has been glitchy, and incidents are rare enough that the board decided relying on stored footage would suffice.

The board expects to be able to offer guidance at their next meeting for companies wondering how the security procedures for Pope Francis’s visit will impact their business. Executive Director Vince Fenerty said he anticipates Secret Service guidelines will shed more light on the situation in about two weeks. 

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