Put the brakes on “Taxi of Tomorrow” until the fleet is wheelchair-accessible

Advocates for handicapped challenging Taxi Commission

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Sunday, October 30 2011, 4:53 PM

City of New York/Getty Images

The Nissan NV200 has been chosen as the winner of the Taxi of Tomorrow competition, but its ramps are not accessible to wheelchairs.(Photo by City of New York via Getty Images)

I don't take cabs. Not very often, anyway. Compared to the subway, they're too slow. Too expensive. And the artificial air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror makes me want to gag.

So I've had little interest in the city's "Taxi of Tomorrow" project, described by officials as a quest for a new "iconic" yellow cab.

Taxicabs just are not part of my daily life, and I suspect many straphangers share my lack of enthusiasm. Taxi sightings in most neighborhoods outside of Manhattan are as rare as a Bigfoot cameo.

I've managed, however, to find a few reasons to root for the "Taxi of Tomorrow" -- to fail. Or at least to be dramatically altered.

In May Mayor Bloomberg and Taxi and Limousine Commission Chairman Chairman David Yassky announced they had picked the Nissan NV200 to be the cab of the future. In a few years, the NV200 will be the only vehicle cab owners can buy when retiring and replacing taxis.

The NV200 minivan cab will include charging stations with one regular outlet and two USB ports, passenger reading lights, backseat airbags, an air-filtering system and a see-through roof for vertical sightseeing.

There's extra leg room for the cabbie and enough rear compartment space to accommodate a small traveling circus. There's even anti-bacterial, non-stick seats and something called a "horn light."

The NV200, however, will not have the ramps or the configuration to accommodate wheelchair users.

Talk about being left at the curb.

Currently, there are 13,237 yellow cabs - and only 231 are wheelchair accessible. That's pathetic.

In January, two groups - Disability Rights Advocates and the United Spinal Association - filed a class-action lawsuit claiming the city is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not requiring all new cabs to be wheelchair-friendly.

TLC Chairman David Yassky, who comes across as the senior class president who wore a tie and a blazer to school, was dismissive.

Federal prosecutors, however, filed court papers on Oct. 13 detailing why they agree the city is violating the civil rights law.

If the city's lawyers lose - and here's hoping they do - the TLC could be ordered to start converting to an all-accessible fleet.

That's a win - both for disabled rights and people who prefer the subways over cabs.

A wheelchair-accessible fleet could be used to transport many of the disabled now using the MTA's money-burning Access-A-Ride program, an inefficient van and car service that this year will consume $440 million.

The per-trip Access-A-Ride cost to the MTA is $59.85, according to the MTA. The average tab for a taxi ride provided to disabled riders in a pilot program the MTA and city launched in December is $12.68, the authority said.

If that program were expanded -- with the help of more wheelchair-accessible cabs -- the savings could pay for subway upgrades, including more station elevators for the disabled.

Accessible cabs are more expensive than your regular minivan, but a bill drafted by Assemblyman Micah Kellner (D-Manhattan) and adopted by the state Legislature would give $10,000 in tax credits for putting an accessible cab on the road. It's awaiting Gov. Cuomo's signature.

The city plans to raise about $1 billion by selling more taxi medallions. That's another potential source of revenue to help defray the expense.