If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on, it’s that the service currently being provided to people requiring Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs) in New York City is insufficient, to say the least. And after years and years of complaints from people who need and use WAVs on a regular basis, the city has finally decided to act.
That in itself is a good thing… The problem is, after all those years of “little-to-no progress,” the city decided to aggressively move forward with a program that is not only highly likely to result in the shuttering of dozens of bases (at a minimum), it’s so difficult to achieve and disconnected from the concept of “supply and demand,” no one can tell what the ripple effects might be.
As I’ve discussed in recent editorials, the NYC TLC’s program seeks to force FHV bases to dispatch 25% of all trips in WAVs, regardless of whether the customer requests one or not, by the year 2021. It begins with a lower percentage starting in 2018, with incremental increases each year, until the stated goal is reached. Bases unable to achieve this will be fined, and possibly face base-license suspensions.
At the announcement of this program, the leaders of the FHV industry quickly formed a Coalition and developed an alternate program that would achieve the essential goal of dramatically improving WAV service, without putting at risk the future of so many bases.
I don’t want to bog down another editorial with too much redundant information that has already been discussed in detail in past months, but the Coalition offered to establish a Central Dispatch System that guarantees WAV service within 15 minutes, and self-imposes literally millions of dollars in penalties if that goal isn’t reached within the first two years of implementation.
Separately, while all of this has been happening, the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), which represents upwards of 60,000 FHV drivers, began meeting directly with groups that represent disabled passengers – including Doors Wide Open, the United Spinal Association and the CUNY Coalition for Students With Disabilities.
Advocates from the three groups detailed just how disastrous the city’s Access-a-Ride (AAR) program has historically been, referring to it as “Access-a-Mess.” Apparently, the system is so inefficient that it ends up costing the city $70/dispatch, and still has an abysmal track record, riddled with horror stories of trips that should have taken 10 or 20 minutes, and ended up trapping riders in their WAV for literally hours, with no access to a restroom.
On October 25, the IDG was given the opportunity to explain the perspective of FHV drivers to the advocates, which is essentially: “We very much want to do everything we can to help improve service, but the TLC’s plan would push drivers operating on already-razor-thin margins into the red, and force them out of the industry, deep in debt.” The cruelty of pushing hard-working drivers into bankruptcy cannot be overstated – so the IDG wants to ensure that drivers willing to commit to operating a WAV are suitably compensated.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is finally attempting to fix its badly broken system, “advancing a number of technological initiatives” to improve its Access-A-Ride service. This includes the launch of a pilot program to provide on-demand e-hail trip bookings, GPS-based vehicle tracking and the accelerated development of a unified app for all AAR services.
Why it has taken so long for these improvements to be made is a mystery, but the pilot was set for launch on November 29, allowing an initial group of 200 customers to electronically hail yellow or green taxicabs on demand. Feedback will be gathered, with plans to expand an improved system to all users at some point. In the first phase of the pilot, half of the initial group will use a customized smartphone app to hail rides either on-demand or to reserve a trip up to 24 hours in advance. The other half will book trips by calling a dedicated line at the Paratransit call center, specifically for on-demand and same-day rides.
Paratransit, a division of MTA New York City Transit’s Department of Buses, has contracted the company Verifone to support the technological services required to disseminate trip requests to approximately 13,500 TLC-licensed cabs throughout NYC.
According to the MTA, in addition to testing the e-hail smartphone app, Paratransit is also accelerating the development of a single unified Paratransit app for release by mid-2018. The app would feature ride scheduling, vehicle tracking and customer service assistance. While Paratransit continues to develop this smartphone app, the existing Paratransit web portal is being updated to incorporate new customer service functions such as trip management and vehicle tracking with real-time Google Maps locators and continuous updates for estimated arrival times.
So, to sum up… There are multiple programs being launched, practically simultaneously, and groups representing the drivers, bases and passengers have been actively working on improving the system and meeting directly to iron out serious issues.
The one program, which has by far the greatest potential to hurt the industry, is the TLC’s percentage based one – but the TLC continues to give every indication that it plans to move forward with it, and expects it to be up-and-running by the summer. So, I ask again: Please reconsider, TLC. Yes, the current situation needs to be fixed, but why throw everything – including the kitchen sink – at the problem, all at the same time. Can’t we just leave the kitchen sink out of it for now?
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Best wishes to everyone for a Happy Holiday Season, regardless of your religion or the specific holiday that you celebrate. And since the next issue will not be hitting the street until after New Year’s Day, I want to wish everyone a Safe, Healthy, Happy and Prosperous 2018!