Only 2 percent of New York taxis are wheelchair accessible. Credit: Getty Images
Getting around town in a New York minute isn’t easy for Edith Prentiss: She uses a power wheelchair and most subway stations and yellow taxis aren’t wheelchair accessible. Prentiss is the chairwoman of Taxis For All Campaign, a disability rights coalition calling for a fully wheelchair accessible taxi fleet.
Currently, Prentiss said, trying to hail a cab she can actually ride is a frustrating experience. “I’ve waited for up to half an hour and then given up,” Prentiss said.
At last count, there were just 233 wheelchair accessible yellow taxis, or less than 2 percent of the total fleet. But the odds will soon improve for Prentiss. The city is adding 200 more accessible cabs to its fleet of more than 13,000 yellow taxis. On Thursday, the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission will auction off 200 taxi medallions, the metal plates that authorize yellow cabs to drive in New York City.
All the medallions are for accessible vehicles. Medallion auctions are fairly infrequent — the last one was in 2008 — and don’t happen on a predictable timetable. The first batch of medallions were sold in 1937 for $10. The going rate has since skyrocketed, and medallions now often fetch more than $1 million.
In the past, adding to the supply of medallions hasn’t reduced the value of each medallion, said Michael Kowalsky, a vice president at Medallion Financial Corp., which grants loans to taxi companies and drivers to purchase medallions. “The history has been: more supply, more value,” Kowalsky said. “That’s because there’s a good need for transportation in midtown Manhattan, the core business district.”
But not everyone agrees.
“The streets are flooded enough,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “There’s so much hustle in this job that every increase in competition is an increase in your risk and your ability to earn a living.”
Desai’s concerns about the auction are not unfounded, said Graham Hodges, a professor at Colgate University and author of "Taxi! A Cultural History of the New York City Cabdriver." "It creates a lot of excessive competition," said Hodges said of the medallion auctions.
An auction isn’t the only way to get more accessible taxis on the street. For example, Desai said she knows a few owners who have opted to drive accessible vehicles of their own volition.
Biju Mathew, a professor at Rider University and author of "Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City," said that the government could instead offer tax incentives and subsidies to companies and drivers who upgrade to accessible vehicles.
“It’s a matter of having the political will to do it,” Matthew said.
For now, Prentiss is somewhat heartened by Thursday’s medallion auction, which will nearly double the number of accessible yellow taxis on the road. Still, she hopes that one day all New York City taxis will be able to give her and other wheelchair users a lift.
“Just put the damn cars on the street and we’ll be happy campers," Prentiss said.