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Vince Dixon/MEDILL

Karen Tamley, commissioner for the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, demonstrates how wheel chair accessible taxis work.

Access to taxis expands, but people with disabilities say more needs to be done

by Vince Dixon
Nov 20, 2012

Vince Dixon

With a new taxi ordinance the city hopes to add more accessible taxis to Chicago streets.

Many people can catch a cab by simply hailing one from a busy street. For people with disabilities, the task is much more complicated.

Marca Bristo is the president and CEO of Access Living, a Chicago nonprofit disability rights organization. As a wheelchair user, Bristo has to call the city’s centralized dispatch service and request an accessible cab. But this system is inconsistent and flawed, she said.

“Right now if you were to call for an accessible cab, it’s completely unpredictable whether they’ll be there in 10 minutes, or never — and I’m not exaggerating,” Bristo said.

Riders with disabilities also face frequent discrimination from cab drivers who see more incentives in picking up able-bodied hailers, she added. “We do hear that some drivers prefer not to drive people with disabilities because it takes a little longer.”

In response to the problems, the city has begun revamping the way taxicabs serve riders with disabilities. In January, the city passed a new taxi ordinance, adding more requirements for taxicab accessibility. Since that time the number of accessible taxis in Chicago has about doubled from 90 to about 180, said Jennifer Lipford, director of communications for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

To further increase that number, the ordinance created a fund to reimburse taxi companies for adding wheelchair accessible vehicles to their fleets. The incentive program will add an additional 130 accessible cabs to Chicago streets, Lipford said. Chicago has 6,588 licensed taxis.

“It’s now a good business decision for taxi owners to put these vehicles on the road,” said Jennifer Lipford, director of communications for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. “Not only are they getting reimbursed for the cost, but wheelchair accessible vehicles are the only taxis that are allowed five years on the road, plus extension if they pass all the vehicle inspections.”

The Regional Transportation Authority awarded $1.7 million to the program through federal funds earmarked for transportation for people with disabilities.

But riders like John Catlin, an architect in Chicago, say the current system needs more improvements.

“This type of service is dangerous for people with disabilities,” Catlin said.
Catlin attended a town hall meeting, sponsored by the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and city consumer protection department Monday. The office asked for input from disabled riders and cab drivers on making taxi service in Chicago more accessible.

Many of the attendees complained about discrimination, long wait times and little incentive for drivers to pick them up.

Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner with the city consumer protection department, said such concerns should always be reported to 311, as they are in direct violation of the taxi ordinance. She said the office will also take ideas and suggestions via email.

“I was pleased that the city was taking these requests seriously,” Catlin said. “Hopefully the reliability will improve.”