By Jessica Smith
March 27, 2013 Updated: March 27, 2013 | 9:56 am
Most able-bodied people would be outraged if their taxi driver charged them $35 for a two-block ride, but many wheelchair users in Toronto say that has been their experience.
The city is undergoing a major review of the taxi system and the Disability Issues Committee is asking for a major change — to make all taxis wheelchair accessible by 2025 and a “significant number” accessible by the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in 2015.
Ann Kennedy, who works at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario and uses accessible taxis, says 2025 is too long a wait.
In her experience, all of the taxi companies charge a flat rate for wheelchair customers, instead of a metered rate.
“Even if you’re only going two blocks, you pay something in the neighbourhood of $35 to $45,” she said. “I haven’t been in a standard meter rate taxi in a long time, but I know it’s not that much.”
That’s if people in wheelchairs can get a cab in the first place, Kennedy said. Sometimes a taxi will be available, other times there just isn’t one, because most accessible taxis are contracted to Wheel-Trans and their customers will take priority.
“There’s no spontaneity in life when you have to organize your transportation a day in advance,” she said.
For example, Kennedy says one of her friends was recently offered a last-minute doctor’s appointment but found the only way to get there was to drive her power wheelchair in -12 C degree weather. Even then, she was a half-hour late.
The reason it’s so hard to get an accessible taxi in Toronto is because there are only 85 accessible taxi licenses, making up only 3.5 per cent of all taxis in the city, including the cabs under contract with Wheel-Trans.
Yin Brown, a member of the Disability Issues Committee, said the disabled community in general would use taxis more often if there were taxis available.
“Some have to go to the hospital more, some can’t get to or use the TTC routes. We are potentially a frequent user of accessible taxis. I hope that a taxi company would see that people with disabilities are a major customer base,” she said.
Unleashing that suppressed demand for taxicabs could benefit taxi drivers and companies, who often complain there are not enough fares to go around, said James Cooper, head of Taxi Research Partners, who has been hired by the city to delve into Toronto’s taxi problems and advise city councillors about how many cabs should be on our streets.
“We have people choosing to not even make a trip because they don’t believe the services will be there,” Cooper said.
Toronto accessible taxis could hit a crisis point during Parapan Am Games, advocates say.
The city needs to move fast if it’s going to have an accessible taxi service ready for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in 2015, Brown confirmed.
“Even right now, there are insufficient accessible taxis on demand. You can imagine, when we have to host all these people. How is that going to happen?” she said. “I don’t see how they’re going to do it, unless they increase the number of accessible taxis and start planning for it now.”
John Nunziata is a lobbyist representing Wheelchair Accessible Transit Inc., which offers flat-rate accessible transportation and is seeking to set up an accessible taxi service offering metered fares.
He warned the city’s licensing and standards committee a their March meeting that Toronto could be “embarrassed” by the situation during the games.
“The city need a contingency plan in order to ensure that when those games take place, when the eyes of the world are on the City of Toronto, that the City of Toronto is not embarrassed by the fact that a good number of those athletes and their families and others will not be able to secure an accessible vehicle or be treated equally in Toronto,” he said.
Organizers of the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games will ensure that the games are as accessible as possible for all of the visitors and participants, said spokesman Teddy Katz. Games organizers are working with the Ministry of Transportation and with municipalities on an accessible transportation plan, which is on track to be completed later this year.
Katz couldn’t say at this time if Toronto’s accessible taxi system would play any role in that plan.