MANHATTAN — The city resurrected its longstanding argument that the Taxi and Limousine Commission has no obligation to provide wheelchair-accessible cabs on the streets of New York during a federal appeals court hearing on Thursday.
New York City’s corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, argued on behalf of the city in the appeal of a lawsuit filed last year by several disability rights advocates.
"The TLC has the power to impose regulations and restrictions, including imposing accessibility requirements," Cardozo said in his arguments before a panel of three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
"The question is, 'Must they?'"
That question was answered with a resounding "yes" when Judge George B. Daniels of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York heard arguments in the case this past December, capping off several months of demonstrations and controversy with what was roundly hailed as a victory for disability rights advocates.
Daniels ruled that the city’s current policy regarding wheelchair-accessible cabs violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and that, going forward, the city was obligated to provide "meaningful access" to cabs for people with disabilities.
A state law also passed in December, just a few days before the court ruling, that authorized the sale of 2,000 new accessible-yellow-cab medallions and some 18,000 street-hail permits for livery cabs, 20 percent of which will have to be accessible.
But in his ruling, Daniels said the TLC had to come up with a court-approved plan to implement that "meaningful access" before it could sell any new taxi medallions or street hail permits for anything other than wheelchair-accessible cabs.
Then, last month, the appeals court granted an injunction against that requirement, allowing the city to move forward with the sale of non-accessible street hail permits pending the results of the city’s appeal.
In court on Thursday, Cardozo argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act provides an accessibility exemption when it comes to private taxis and does not hold the industry to the same standards as public transportation.
"Congress drew that line," Cardozo explained.
"You don’t have to do it," he added. "But you can do it."
Sid Wolinsky, who argued on behalf of the disability rights activists, debated that position, arguing that the TLC was responsible for making sure a "meaningful" portion of its fleet was accessible for people with disabilities.
"The TLC, it concedes that it controls every single aspect of taxi service," Wolinsky noted.
That factor differentiates New York City’s taxi fleet from those that may be more loosely regulated in smaller towns. The ADA’s special exemption for private taxi companies does not apply in New York’s case, Wolinsky explained.
He likened the situation to using private facilities as public voting locations. Although private buildings are not required to be accessible for people with disabilities, voting locations are. If the city insists on using them for voting purposes, it must ensure that those locations are accessible.
The panel of judges who listened to the arguments on Thursday did not issue an immediate decision but could rule on the appeal any time in the coming months.
In the meantime, the city has said it is moving toward accessibility, with plans to launch a dispatch system that will allow people with disabilities to call 311 to request an accessible cab.
The city also recently unveiled the so-called "Taxi of Tomorrow," which will have an accessible version.
But disability rights advocates have said that isn’t enough, and those who attended the court hearing on Thursday said they were not swayed by the city’s arguments.
"They’re just trying to pick [the earlier decision] apart," said Gabriela Amari, a wheelchair user who works with the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled.
Jean Ryan, another wheelchair user, said she thinks it will take a court ruling to force the city to act.
"Doing it voluntarily is not an option," Ryan added. "It has to be imposed on them."