In the past few years, the issue of access to taxis has been one of the most important legal battles of the New York disability rights. Taxis are not just a symbol of New York City, they are an essential component of the transportation system that enables New Yorkers and tourists to get around the city.
In January 2011, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed by the Taxis for All campaign against New York City and the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). At the time, only 1,8% of NYC taxis could accommodate wheelchair users. A few months later, New York City held a competition to choose a new vehicle model that would become mandatory for all new taxis. The City ended up selecting a taxi that was not accessible to wheelchair users, which infuriated campaigners for accessible taxis. In December 2013, the plaintiffs and the City reached a settlement that would make half of the taxi fleet wheelchair-accessible by 2020. In September 2014, a federal judge approved a settlement requiring riders to pay a 30-cent surcharge aimed at making the city’s taxi fleet more wheelchair accessible. Nowadays, fewer than 2% of NYC’s taxis are wheelchair-accessible.
I spent most of the day with my friend Bethany Stevens, an uppity crip scholar-activist and sexologist who lives in Atlanta. At the end of the afternoon, she has to go to Central Park. I suggest she take the bus and I’ll wheel with her to the bus stop, which is not very far from where we are. But Bethany’s service dog, Sully, doesn’t like buses, so Bethany wants to take a taxi. I have never taken a cab in New York. I suggest that we go on a busy street, where we might have a better chance at waving down a cab.
Bethany uses a manual wheelchair. She can fold her wheelchair and use any taxi – wheelchair-accessible or not. But she still uses a wheelchair and has a service dog. Will that affect her success at hailing a cab? I have heard many stories of taxi drivers passing by disabled people. Will my presence confuse taxi drivers? They might think I want to share a taxi with her. My motorized wheelchair doesn’t fold. I can only use wheelchair-accessible taxis.
A New Yorker notices Bethany’s struggle and offers to help. She accepts without hesitation. Will a tall able-bodied man have more success?
He doesn’t. It turns out that all the taxis really are occupied. Saturday, 4 pm is rush hour in New York. After an interesting conversation about taxis in the city, he suggests we try on Lafayette, which is the next block. He says we might have more of a chance.
The same thing happens on the corner of Lafayette and West 4th Street. This time, a couple stops to help. And I mean help in the good way – without an ounce of pity. Just sheer solidarity.
After 5 to 10 minutes of active waving on Lafayette and West 4th Street, a cab finally stops. An inaccessible cab, of course. But this is fine with Bethany. She disassembles her wheelchair and the couple puts her wheelchair in the trunk of the cab. My friend is visibly touched by their ability to help without being invasive or annoying. Her eyes are brimming with tears.
When we ask for help, we never know what to expect. That is why it is always my last resort.
These two short encounters have given me faith in the Humans of New York.