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Harkin Op-Ed: "Take disabled New Yorkers for a ride: Make the Taxi of Tomorrow accessible to all"

The following op-ed appeared in the July 15th edition of the New York Daily News

In January, I wrote Mayor Bloomberg regarding New York City's Taxi of Tomorrow project, encouraging him to select a design for the fleet that would be accessible for the thousands of New York residents and visitors who use wheelchairs.

New Yorkers and tourists - whether they're disabled veterans or people like Karl Nguyen, the Californian suffering from a debilitating bone disease, about whom the Daily News editorial page wrote movingly last week - deserve to be able to get around this great city just like everyone else.

This isn't just a personal opinion. As the original Senate sponsor of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the ADA's implementation, I take this law very seriously.

But in May, the city announced that the inaccessible Nissan NV-200 had won the Taxi of Tomorrow contest. I was dismayed to learn of this development - and urge the city to reconsider its decision.

One of the basic premises of the ADA and other disability rights laws is that when you are building or designing something new, you should do it with the needs of all of its potential users in mind. In the context of office buildings, the ADA requires more accessibility from new construction or major renovations than it does from existing structures. This also makes access easier and safer for many people who don't have disabilities, like parents pushing strollers and delivery people pushing carts.

In the case of a new design for taxis, the same principle applies. Make the cabs wheelchair-accessible at the design stage and you will dramatically improve mobility for New Yorkers and visitors who require this accessibility - and quite likely save money down the road.

Of the more than 13,000 medallion taxis on the road in New York City, only 240 are equipped with a ramp or lift to make them accessible to wheelchair users. This means that while other New Yorkers have on-demand access to any city cab, passengers who use wheelchairs must make due with less than 2% of the taxi fleet.

This inequity also has big cost implications for the city's paratransit system, a separate system for people with disabilities that is inefficient and costs New York City $470 million a year. If more taxis were accessible, the transit authority could hire taxis to be a workhorse for paratransit and could use taxis to connect people with other accessible mass transit options - saving on the average $60 per ride that they now pay for paratransit.

New York can learn from the efforts in the United Kingdom, where a special initiative has resulted in a London taxi fleet that is overwhelmingly wheelchair-accessible.

If that global city can make accessibility a priority for its cabs, why can't this one?

Assemblyman Micah Kellner, on behalf of nearly 60,000 wheelchair users in New York City, and thousands more who visit every year, has asked the Department of Justice to take swift action to ensure that the provisions of the ADA relating to taxicab accessibility are complied with by the city.

They wouldn't have to go back to the drawing board; the model selected by New York City for its Taxi of Tomorrow was a van that could easily be modified to be made wheelchair-accessible.

But this will take leadership. Mayor Bloomberg and the leaders at the Taxi and Limousine Commission should recognize the wisdom of requiring that the Taxi of Tomorrow will be a model of universal design, just as it should be a model of green design.

In the late '80s and the early '90s, New York City led the country in making its buses wheelchair accessible. By making its next cab fully accessible, it can again take great pride that it has advanced the cause of disability rights in the U.S. and around the world.

Harkin, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Iowa and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.