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Council still looking for better wheelchair-accessible taxi service

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin’s three major taxi companies are not serving the needs of the city’s disabled citizens, and it appears the only way they’re going to do so is if the city changes the criteria for handing out special permits and sets up new performance measures for drivers.

At Thursday’s meeting, a unanimous Council approved moving forward to find new performance measures to judge the drivers of wheelchair-accessible taxis – even as it split over renewing the permits and franchises for two cab companies.

At issue were three separate items that make up different parts of the accessible cab service debate: 1) renewing a franchise to Lone Star Cab Co. to operate taxi service for three years; 2) renewing a franchise to Yellow Cab Co. to allow for six additional taxicab permits; and 3) directing the city manager to come up with new performance measures for special permit holders and recommendations for a “day-lease” program for those permits.

Accessibility, or lack thereof, was the concern of the members of the disability rights group ADAPT of Texas, whose members spoke at Thursday’s meeting. The city has not been compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires cab companies to provide equivalent service to people with disabilities, according to group member David Wittie. Instead, riders in wheelchairs face far longer wait times and “inconsistent performance from cab companies,” Wittie said.  

As such, said Wittie, “Lone Star Cab does not deserve to get a franchise for three years because they’re violating your ordinances, many of them. Yellow Cab is asking for additional permits. They deserve them because they’re at least trying. They’ve come up with a model to get a consistent delivery of accessible services.” 

Council Members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo expressed concern that the requirements the city imposes on cab companies seeking special wheelchair-accessible permits don’t actually require drivers of those vehicles to serve the people they’re supposed to be serving. The only eligibility requirement for the permit in city code is that the vehicle has to be on the road at least 274 days a year for at least 12 hours a day. There is nothing requiring drivers of those vehicles to pick up people in wheelchairs. And since picking them up is more time-consuming and often involves trips to different zones, most drivers are simply not doing it.

According to reports given to the city by the city’s three cab franchises (including Austin Cab Company), of the 38 accessible cabs currently on Austin’s streets, five picked up no passengers with wheelchairs at all last year. Most of the other cabs didn’t fare much better.

“The one criteria we have for this particular measure doesn’t seem to be producing the outcomes you as Council and we as staff and the citizens deserve,” Transportation Department Assistant Director Gordon Derr told Council. “We need to explore better ways to produce the outcomes that we all want.”

In response, Riley said the intent of the performance-measure item he had brought forward was to “shift our focus altogether away from these criteria that aren’t working and focus instead on the sole criteria of wait time for someone in a wheelchair” to better understand what is and isn’t working.

Another problem is that the city has limited control over drivers, who are independent contractors. Yellow Cab President Edward Kargbo assured Council that the six additional permits the city would be giving his company would be used only for accessible-vehicles “uniquely geared toward solving” the problem of comparable wheelchair service. Then Riley added an amendment to the extra-permit ordinance stating that the permits would only be for company-owned vehicles that Yellow Cab would either staff with employee drivers (instead of independent contractors) or which they would make available on a day-lease basis. That would allow the company more control over how those cabs are used and also keep them on the road 24 hours a day everyday. Kargbo agreed to that stipulation.

Even with that amendment, though, Council Members Laura Morrison and Tovo couldn’t support the motion.

“The fact that only a small number of cabs are serving the need (of the accessible community), just giving out more permits is not going to take us where we need to go at all,” Morrison said. Echoing that point, Tovo recommended Council table the discussion for six months while Yellow cab puts into place and gathers data from programs designed to incentivize drivers to pick up passengers in wheelchairs.

But Riley, who has consistently voted against granting additional taxi permits in the past, said that providing more equitable cab service for the disabled community is too urgent to delay.

“Improved service is long overdue,” Riley said. “Our current model is not working and this offers an opportunity to test an entirely new model to finally solve the problem. And I believe that interest is so compelling that it is worth using these additional permits to try to solve that problem.”

Council voted 5-2 to approve on second reading the franchise renewals for Yellow Cab and Lone Star Cab, with Morrison and Tovo voting against. Council voted unanimously in favor of the resolution directing staff to come up with new performance measures.

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