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City could subsidize wheelchair-accessible taxis

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Taxi driver Tom Aigbuza opens the rear hatch to access the ramp in his Flywheel wheelchair-accessible taxicab. City officials are considering subsidizing wheelchair-ramp equipped taxi cabs to address a shortage. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The City is proposing to subsidize the purchase and upkeep of taxi cabs equipped with wheelchair ramps, in a bid to restore service for the disability community across San Francisco.

The problem is stark, taxi industry insiders say.

The advance of ride-hail giants Uber and Lyft led to sharp declines in the taxi industry — that part of the story, many know. But a lesser-known fallout of the rise of tech-enabled rides is the decline of drivers behind the wheel of specially-equipped taxis for those who use wheelchairs.

As taxi drivers flee an ailing industry, so too have drivers for ramp-equipped taxis, leaving wheelchair-users largely unable to hail a cab. Uber and Lyft do not run ramp-equipped cars in large number, and have been sued by disability nonprofits for discrimination.

The decline of ramp taxi service is a chicken and the egg problem, said John Lazar, former owner of Luxor Cab, which specializes in disability-community service.

Cabbies are “driving around looking for fares at nighttime getting one or two wheelchairs. That’s not enough revenue for them,” Lazar said. But there are people in wheelchairs and seniors who need help walking to their hospital appointments who need the service, who simply stopped calling cabs because there weren’t enough of them to answer calls consistently.

“We don’t have many calls because they can’t get service,” Lazar said.

That’s the dilemma the SFMTA hopes to fix with a proposal to provide monthly financial assistance to cab companies or individual cab drivers who own ramp cabs. Up to $300 of that assistance is for the capital cost to purchase or convert wheelchair accessible cabs, and $300 per month toward maintenance and other operating costs of that vehicle. Equipping minivans with ramps for wheelchairs can cost north of $30,000, Lazar said, and maintaining them is also expensive.

City assistance comes with strings attached, however. To qualify, drivers and companies must purchase or convert a ramp taxi, complete at least 20 wheelchair trips each month through the paratransit program, be logged into an “SFMTA approved app” for at least 80 hours each month, document all of their non-paratransit program wheelchair trips each month, and be “in good standing” with the SFMTA. The assistance also builds on a $10 per-trip incentive for all paratransit wheelchair trips completed.

There are now 40 ramp taxis operating in all of San Francisco, according to SFMTA documentation. In January 2013, there were as many as 1,400 wheelchair taxi trips taken in The City, according to data previously provided by the SFMTA. That figure has plummeted since then, however, to 767 wheelchair taxi trips in January 2016 and an average of about 758 trips a month in 2017.

But there’s a far-higher demand that hasn’t been met, agency officials have previously said.

Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior & Disability Action, previously told the San Francisco Examiner that taxis are particularly needed for impromptu trips. Paratransit van services exist and are subsidized by San Francisco, but those are available only on a scheduled-basis. Taxis help wheelchair users have more transportation freedom.

Hansu Kim, co-owner of Flywheel Taxi, said boosting ramp taxi service is not just a moral imperative, but also makes good business sense.

“It’s not as lucrative, but the taxi industry, by embracing paratransit services, is a focus other industries aren’t doing,” Kim said, referring to Uber and Lyft. And those new SFMTA incentives will do the trick. Kim said. “It gives me more incentive to put out these more expensive vehicles.”


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