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Accessible Taxi of Tomorrow Plan Shows Disdain for Disabled, Advocates Say

By Mary Johnson | May 4, 2012 7:19am
People look at the new
People look at the new "Taxi of Tomorrow" designed by Nissan at an official unveiling on April 3, 2012.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

MIDTOWN EAST — Disability rights activists accused the city of treating them as "second class citizens" at the unveiling of an accessible taxi they say is being downplayed by Mayor Bloomberg's administration.

At an invitation-only event Thursday — a far cry from the media circus that surrounded the unveiling of the non-accessible NV200 taxi last month — the Taxi and Limousine Commission quietly presented plans for the accessible "Taxi of Tomorrow."

It left wheelchair users underwhelmed — and angry.

About 20 or 30 advocates were invited to Lighthouse International, on East 59th Street, to hear Nissan and the Braun Corporation, which will be responsible for rendering an accessible version of the NV200, give a presentation highlighting some of its features.

Members of the press were not allowed to attend.

By contrast, the non-accessible "Taxi of Tomorrow" was welcomed to the city with a speech by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a crowd of hundreds who noshed on hors d’oeuvres and sipped free cocktails.

Last year, a model of the non-accessible NV200 was put on display near Madison Square Park for several days, allowing members of the public to crawl inside the mock-up and poke around.

“It’s consistent with the mayor’s position that people with disabilities are second-class citizens,” said Paul Tobin, a wheelchair user and the president and CEO of the United Spinal Association, as he left the meeting on Thursday.

“There’s a lot of effort being made to keep us out of this.”

Nissan has secured a 10-year contract with the city to create the “Taxi of Tomorrow.” In its standard form, it will not be accessible to people with disabilities.

While the Braun Corporation will work with Nissan to create a separate line of wheelchair-accessible NV200s, the vehicles' release date in unclear.

That has rankled many within the disabled community who believe that the “Taxi of Tomorrow” should have been designed to accommodate all passengers from the very beginning.

Several people and organizations have even taken their cause to court, with a federal judge ruling last year that the city is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not making more of its fleet of 13,000 cabs accessible.

The city is in the process of appealing that ruling.

Currently, New York City has about 230 accessible cabs, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has authorized the sale of 2,000 more accessible medallions.

Comptroller John Liu this week threatened to kill the “Taxi of Tomorrow” plan unless all new cabs were made wheelchair-accessible.

James Weisman, the senior vice president and general counsel of the United Spinal Association, said the reason for the low-key event on Thursday may have been because the design is too “rudimentary.”

“It’s not ready for a public unveiling. There is no cab,” said Weisman, adding that representatives at the meeting did not specify when the accessible NV200 would hit the streets.

“It would be premature to do a gala," he added, "because they don’t have a handle on what they’re going to do.”

A spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission said the event on Thursday was meant to serve as a presentation for those who could not attend the public NV200 unveiling last month. He noted that it highlighted the same information that has been discussed at other meetings with the disabled community.

But Weisman, who has been an advocate for people with disabilities for decades, said Thursday’s event was first time he was aware of the city engaging the disabled community regarding design ideas.

“There’s lots of problems,” Weisman added. “Limited passenger capacity being a significant one.”

Tobin agreed.

As the design stands now, he explained, wheelchair-accessible NV200s will be able to carry one wheelchair and one other passenger.

That means Tobin will need two cabs “even if I want to go out with my wife and son,” he said.

Other wheelchair users raised concerns about the fact that they will have to enter the vehicle via a rear loading ramp.

“I’m not a fan of rear entry vehicles,” said Brett Eisenberg, 30, the executive director of the Bronx Independent Living Center. “I’m not baggage, so I don’t like going through the back of a vehicle.

"I think the less publicity they get about this is probably better for them," Eisenberg added. "It should have been accessible from the get-go."

Disability advocates lauded some of the features — like better lighting for those with vision impairments and special audio systems for those who have trouble hearing. And several people said Braun and Nissan seemed open to suggestions.  

“I don’t think that Nissan and Braun are the enemy,” said Gabriela Amari, a wheelchair user who works with the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled. “It’s Bloomberg, to me, who is the enemy.”

Weisman concurred.

“The next mayor will fix this," he said, "and I truly believe that."

Nissan did not immediately return a call requesting comment.