Daniel Rubin: Philadelphia cabs off-limits to wheelchair users

Posted: September 29, 2011

When Randy Alexander arrived in Philadelphia over the summer for a strategy session on the rights of the disabled, he got a quick lesson in the way this city doesn't work.

None of the city's 1,600 taxicabs could help him.

The Memphis man is quadriplegic, with limited use of his hands. He moves about in a 220-pound power chair.

No Philadelphia cabs are accessible to people who can't scoot into the backseat.

To Alexander, that was a shock.

"It's been 21 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, and when I go somewhere, I have a basic expectation that all of the transit systems and cabs are accessible," says Alexander, community director at the Memphis Center for Independent Living. "I've run into problems in small cities, but not a big city."

I guess Philadelphia must be a very small town. In New York, a person in a wheelchair can catch a cab. So, too, in Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Houston, Miami, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington. Of the 10 biggest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia leaves wheelchair users stranded.

Here they can take Paratransit, if they call a day in advance, or SEPTA, which Alexander did from the airport. Lucky for him his hotel was only eight blocks from the Market East Station.

The city's inhospitality to those in wheelchairs is a problem for natives as well, such as Lauren DeBruicker, a Center City lawyer, who says accessible cabs would make a huge difference in her life.

"When colleagues want to go somewhere, they just jump in a cab," says DeBruicker, who was paralyzed in a car accident while in college. "I have never called a cab because they don't have ones that can accommodate me."

Twice in the last decade legislation died in Harrisburg that would have awarded Philadelphia taxi medallions to providers of wheelchair-accessible cabs.

Both times other parts of the bills proved problematic. Gov. Ed Rendell in 2006 vetoed a measure that he said was confusing and unfair to taxi owners. Last year's effort failed because legislators objected to language allowing drivers to claim workers compensation.

Now, however, pressure is coming from two directions to make Philadelphia change its ways.

A federal lawsuit filed in July contends that the Parking Authority, which since 2005 has regulated the city's cabs and limos, violates the ADA.

"It's discrimination," says Steve Gold, the lawyer who filed the suit.

This month, the Parking Authority asked a judge to dismiss the matter, contending it doesn't provide taxi service - it just regulates taxi service.

While they fight it out, one man wants to move forward. Fast.

Everett Abitbol, a local taxi mogul, wants to put green and wheelchair-accessible cabs on the streets as soon as possible.

He and business partner Evgeny Freidman have formed a company called Freedom Taxi and they plan to paint their cars powder blue and maroon in honor of the Mike Schmidt-era Phillies away uniforms. (Their Chicago cabs sport blue-and-orange Bears colors.)

To pay for the increased costs - Abitbol says a wheelchair-accessible Toyota Sienna goes for about $40,000 - he wants waivers from regulations, such as some reduced fees, and approval to keep the vehicles in service longer.

The real savings, he said, would come from volume; his cabs would be popular in the disabled community. Abitbol hopes to put 20 of the vans into service by the end of next year.

The Parking Authority hasn't responded officially. Jim Ney, who heads taxi enforcement, says, "We're all over it. We are. Just takes a little time."

Like Randy Alexander at the cab stand, we could be in for a long wait.


Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.

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