MANHATTAN — A lawsuit that aims to determine if New York City taxis must be accessible for people with disabilities came one step closer to a ruling on Tuesday.
At a three-hour hearing at Manhattan Federal Court, attorneys representing wheelchair users and disability rights advocates, as well as the U.S. Justice Department, argued for 100 percent accessibility throughout the city’s fleet of 13,000 taxis.
Lawyers representing the city of New York, however, claimed the Taxi and Limousine Commission has no obligation to provide any accessible taxis — not even the 232 currently out on the road.
That argument from the city’s attorney, Robin Binder, prompted Judge George B. Daniels to repeatedly ask her for clarification about the city’s stance.
“Your position is [that] no one has any responsibility, and it would be perfectly legal if there was not a single accessible taxi cab in New York City?” the judge asked. “You understand how extreme that sounds?”
Binder confirmed that’s where the city stands on the issue of taxi accessibility.
“We don’t believe we have the obligation,” Binder noted.
“[But] we want to bring meaningful access,” she added, noting that the TLC is working on inputting a new dispatch system that would allow 311 callers to have an accessible cab sent to their location.
Binder explained that the TLC’s role as an agency is to license and regulate the taxi operators and that it does not deal directly with passengers.
Therefore, Binder argued, the TLC is only barred from discriminating against its licensees — not the passengers the industry serves—under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Sid Wolinsky, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said that argument puts the city “on the wrong side of the law.”
In a press conference after the hearing, Wolinsky added that the city’s stance constituted “quite a stupid decision, from a public policy point of view.”
The issue surrounding taxi accessibility has grown heated in recent weeks.
Currently, only 1.8 percent of the city’s taxi fleet is accessible for people with disabilities.
The TLC is working on the new dispatch system, which could be in place by March of 2012, Binder said. The TLC is also hoping to get authorization from Governor Andrew Cuomo to sell 2,000 new accessible medallions, Binder added.
But at the same time, the city is working on a contract with Nissan to populate the city’s fleet with the NV200, the so-called “taxi of tomorrow” — which is not accessible for people with disabilities.
Nissan unveiled a demo of the new taxi near Madison Square Park earlier this month, and wheelchair users staged a “roll-in” to protest the vehicle.
“We’re going to be stuck with this design for a number of years,” said T.K. Small, 46, a wheelchair user who attended the protest. “If we’re building it from the ground up, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be accessible.”
Judge Daniels did not rule on the case on Tuesday, but he said he would before Christmas.
That ruling could side with the city and find that the TLC has no obligation to provide accessible cabs.
The judge could also find that the TLC has to provide “meaningful access,” meaning that a larger portion of the fleet must be made accessible to people with disabilities.
He could also determine that the TLC is required to make the entire fleet accessible — or provide an equivalent alternative.
Whichever way things end up, the judge added, the city should plan for “the possibility” that changes might have to be made.
After the hearing, the plaintiffs and their attorneys gathered outside the courthouse for a brief press conference.
“I’m appalled at the arrogance of the TLC,” said Simi Linton, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a wheelchair user herself.
“It’s not rocket science,” Linton added. “We can do it.”