Philly taxi drivers resist forced conversion to wheelchair accessible cabs

There are now only a handful of taxis in Philadelphia that are wheelchair accessible. The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which regulates cabs, wants hundreds by the end of the year. Cab owners, drivers and passengers all got to weigh in on the plan at a hearing Wednesday.

Under the draft proposal, 300 of the city’s taxis would have to convert to accept wheelchairs before the end of the year. The entire fleet would have to follow by 2016.  The cabs picked for the initial round would be drawn at random.  Owners would have to do the conversion at their own expense.

Currently only 4 of the city’s 1,600 taxis can handle a wheelchair or scooter. Rocco Iacullo is a staff attorney with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania who uses a wheelchair. He says every should be accessible.

“We’ve been working on this issue for a long time with the Philadelphia Parking Authority with little success. We believe it’s a civil rights issue, people have been denied access to a whole form to transportation for far too long,” said Iacullo.

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Dianna Haubert says after riding once in an accessible taxi, she wants to be able to do it all the time like everybody else.

“It was great it just felt like I can go wherever I want just as fast I don’t have to, I’m not in a bus stopping every block dropping me off possibly blocks from my destination going where I want,” said Haubert. “It picked me up at my door, I had to call a couple hours and they were there, it was very cool.”

Beldin Jones says other American cities can make this work.

“I went to Vegas and getting in Vegas not knowing how I was going to get around all the cabs in Vegas are accessible and I feel that we should be a city, we are a tourist city and we need to have wheelchair accessible cabs here,” said Jones.

The major stumbling block is cost. Most cab owners buy used vehicles, and the handicapped accessible ones cost from $30,000 to $50,000.

Mohammed Chughtai is a former President of the Brotherhood of Unified Taxi Drivers. He says the drivers cannot afford the additional expense when renting a taxi with an official medallion is costly as it is.

“I am not against the handicapped people, they are great people they are wonderful people, they deserve to have the service,” said Chughtai. “Right now we are paying four to four fifty a week, we own the car we do the maintenance, they own the medallion. If the driver has to pay $35,000 on the car, I cannot afford it, it’s simple as that.”

Jeff Hornstein is Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Taxi Alliance, a group of cab owners and operators. He suggests compromise.

“The best way to deal with the cost factor is to have a medallion auction. There have been legislative attempts before, there are 1,600 taxis in Philadelphia, Philadelphia has one of the lower ratios of taxis to residents in the country,” said Hornstein. “We support a medallion auction to put wheelchair only medallions into play by the end of this year. We think it’s actually politically possible.”

Officials from the Parking Authority, who oversee the operators, say adding medallions needs authorization from the legislature. They say they are demanding accessible cabs because hardly any taxis have converted voluntarily.  

A ruling should come in a month or so.

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