Monday, March 10, 2014

North Shore Taxis Must be Accessible to All

With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.

This week, as reported by the Salem Evening News, the Peabody City Council unveiled a compromise for new taxi licenses, dividing the 15 new permits equally among three cab companies. However, the article buried a truly distressing piece of news—none of the new taxi licenses would be for accessible taxicabs. 

Peabody Councilor Tom Walsh rightly grilled taxi owners on their failure to provide this service, saying that if restaurants and hotels can do it, certainly a critical element of the North Shore’s transportation network should be able to as well. Nevertheless, North Shore Taxi’s lawyer, James Mears Jr., described the accessible taxis as “cost-prohibitive,” requiring not only a special vehicle but also a trained driver.

This is a completely insufficient excuse for failing to provide service to people with disabilities on the North Shore (not to mention thousands more who do not technically qualify as disabled, but whose limited mobility makes the features of accessible taxis essential to comfort and accessibility).

Indeed, when Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly 25 years ago, it was indicative of a commitment made by the American People to share the costs of making our society—its public institutions, places of accommodation, and, yes, transportation networks—available to all users. Just as we pay slightly higher property taxes to retrofit our schools and Town Halls, so our transportation system must absorb the expense of full and complete access into the cost of doing business.

(as a sidebar, let’s not forget the groups who lobbied aggressively against the ADA—the same groups that have continued to fight landmark legislation to improve conditions for workers and their families, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses)

Furthermore, technology offers several ways of making the system less expensive for business and more convenient for users.  As I noted in a letter to the Boston Globe last year, cabs in Massachusetts should embrace tech-savvy services such as Accessible Dispatch, which serves New York City and allows people to digitally hail accessible cabs through mobile apps or over the phone.

London has a 100 percent accessible taxi fleet. Given the density difference between the North Shore (where a significant portion of cab service is by pre-arrangement) and cities like New York and London (where most cab service is by hail), having a 100 percent accessible fleet may not be necessary to ensure an equivalent level of service for all users in our area.

However, I believe it is essential that every cab company operating in the Bay State have at least one accessible cab on the road 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (or whenever the cab company is serving customers). Taxi passengers, taxi operators, and taxpayers should share the costs associated with this service. For instance, in New York, which recently agreed to adopt regulations requiring that half of the City’s yellow cabs be accessible to people with disabilities within six years, the City and State are providing tax credits to aid companies in converting old cabs to accessible cabs or purchasing new vehicles. 

In the end, if the ADA’s eternal promise is, as President Bush declared, that “people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees…[of] independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, [and] the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream,” surely we can do better on the North Shore of Massachusetts than to simply throw up our hands and say that honoring this promise is too expensive.

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