Among the struggles The City’s taxi industry faces, transit officials say, is a troubling, below-expectations pickup rate for wheelchair customers, a population some of the vehicles are built to serve.
In response, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency this month has set a pilot program in motion offering two incentives to wheelchair-accessible cabs — a $10 payment for each trip for a passenger with a wheelchair, and for trips outside the central part of The City, a credit for a front-of-the-line pass for customers at San Francisco International Airport.
“We do have some larger ramp reform coming in the new year, but this is something we didn’t think could wait,” SFMTA Transportation Director Ed Reiskin said at Tuesday’s board of directors meeting.
The pilot isn’t the first push to incentivize drivers of wheelchair-accessible cabs.
In 2012, the transit agency’s Taxis and Accessible Services Division implemented a reward program providing payments to a small number of drivers who picked up a majority of wheelchair passengers. That, along with a penalty system for ramp-taxi medallion holders who did not pick up disabled passengers, boosted wheelchair service by 20 percent that year.
Last year’s incentive “worked fairly well,” according to Reiskin, but some of its effectiveness was lost after reforms to the medallion system.
He called the new $10 per wheelchair pickup “a pretty significant benefit,” adding that the credit to go to the front of a typically long line at the airport is “a big deal for taxi drivers.” The boundary for the service area eligible for the airport incentive starts at Park Presidio Boulevard and follows 19th Avenue to Monterey Boulevard, then follows Monterey Boulevard and San Jose Avenue to Guerrero Street, and along Cesar Chavez Street to Third Street.
About 800 requests for wheelchair service are expected to be received this month, based on past data from SFMTA. At the moment, only wheelchair customers holding a paratransit debit card will be included because the transit agency has no mechanism to count, but Reiskin said the agency is looking at ways to expand the number of users.
Harold Miller, 52, a Yellow Cab driver who won recognition in 2012 for consistently picking up more handicapped customers, said many of his colleagues avoided doing so because it can take 15 minutes to load a wheelchair.
“Sometimes I just wanted to cry because for four hours, a handicapped person will sit and wait for a cab, and they’re sometimes waiting to get dialysis or medication and the dispatcher is there begging,” Miller said.
A reform for the ramp system has already been developed through various town hall meetings with the taxi industry, Reiskin said, and it could be presented to the board as early as January.
Wheelchair service is one area taxis have the upper hand and should excel over competing app-based companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, DeSoto Cab Co. President Hansu Kim said.