CITY HALL — The payment system in the city's cabs is about to be more accessible for the blind or visually impaired — and advocates say the move is on the money.
Creative Mobile Technologies, which powers the touch-screen systems inside half the cabs in New York City’s fleet of 13,000, will begin upgrading their existing technology to allow the visually impaired to know their fare and use the credit card payment system.
Through a series of audio prompts, passengers will be guided to touch the screen in certain places and swipe their cards, giving them the power to control their fare payment, rather than relying on the driver, officials said.
"For the first time, blind and visually impaired users will be able to access the credit card payment system in the back of yellow cabs," said City Councilman James Vacca, whose father was visually impaired.
"Sighted people take it for granted. They take these features for granted every day," Vacca continued. "For blind and low-vision taxi riders, these features have been completely unavailable."
Creative Mobile Technologies, which partnered with the advocacy organization Lighthouse International on the project, will begin upgrading their existing systems in about 1,500 cabs to include the new audio feature. It will eventually be available in about half the city's 13,000 taxis, as well as in cabs in multiple cities across the country, CMT president Jesse Davis said.
The system works in two ways: The driver of the taxi can activate the audio prompts on behalf of the passenger. Or, the blind or visually impaired passenger can request a free swipe card that will allow them to turn on the system themselves from the back seat of the cab. The number to call to order a free card is 1-800-829-0500.
When the system is activated, passengers will be able to touch the screen at any point during the ride to get a real-time fare reading. They will also be able to adjust the volume, how fast the audio system speaks, and how large a tip they want to leave, increasing it slowly in 5 percent increments.
"Now the passenger can independently navigate through the payment screens," Davis said on Tuesday. "If you are blind or visually impaired, your rights as a passenger are going to be protected going forth."
Taxi accessibility has been the subject of much controversy in recent months. The city unveiled its "Taxi of Tomorrow" recently, which disability rights advocates have slammed because it is not universally accessible for people in wheelchairs.
And this week, the city will return to court to appeal a federal judge's ruling from December, which said the city has to lay out a plan for making more cabs accessible before it could sell more than a set number of new medallions.
But for those who are visually impaired, the new software upgrade marked a significant and welcome step in the right direction.
Former Gov. David Paterson, himself visually impaired, has never been able to use the credit card payment system in the back of a taxi.
"I never could. I never have to this day," Paterson said. "I have at times felt that the fare had to be a whole lot less than what I was being charged. I had no way to prove it."
This new technology, however, will increase the level of independence for blind or visually impaired riders using cabs across the city, Paterson said.
"This not only changes the world for me, but it changes the world for 362,000 people who the mayor’s office estimates suffer from blindness or low vision," he added.
Ellen Rubin, an advocate for the blind, said many drivers have been willing to help her with the credit card payment machines in the back of taxis over the years.
"But there have been many drivers who either don’t know how to work the machine or don’t want to work the machine," Rubin said. "And I’ve even been ripped off by somebody who decided a 30 percent tip was a good idea, in spite of what I wanted."
"To have the independence that is available now through this technology is just marvelous," she added, "and I can’t wait to get into a taxi that has this feature."