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Council Gives Okay To Wheelchair Cabs

Tuesday December 02, 2003

The Chairperson of Berkeley’s Commission On Disabilities joyfully hailed Berkeley City Council’s recent decision to authorize five wheelchair-accessible taxis in the city, even though the number was halved from the originally requested 10. 

“We’ve been working on this a long time,” said a smiling and excited Emily Wilcox shortly after Council voted on first reading last week to amend the city’s taxi ordinance to include the new disability-friendly vehicles. 

“We would have liked the whole 120 cabs in Berkeley to be wheelchair-accessible, of course, but this is a start. We’ll use this program to iron out the problems in the system. I’m just glad it’s done.”  

The Commission on Disability first requested permits for wheelchair-accessible taxis in Berkeley in 1999 and was later joined in the effort by the Commission on Aging.  

Mayor Tom Bates called the pilot project “just a toe in the water. If it’s successful, then we can expand it to provide a lot more services for our people.” 

Permitted taxis will be vans equipped with retractable ramps—which will also be available for taxi riders in the city who don’t use wheelchairs. 

People using wheelchairs that can’t be folded can’t use taxis currently operating out of Berkeley and must either use AC Transit buses equipped with motorized lifts or schedule transportation with East Bay Paratransit services, a joint consortium of AC Transit and the Bay Area Rapid Transit District. 

However, several Berkeley citizens using the service, including Councilmember Dona Spring, said East Bay Paratransit rides must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance. “And it’s not reliable even with a reservation,” Spring told Council, stating that her experience has been that “one out of five times, the East Bay Paratransit van doesn’t show up.” 

Council’s decided for the wheelchair taxis after emotional testimony from Disability Commissioner Marissa Shaw, who cited the recent automobile accident death of Berkeley activist Fred Lupke as a reason to approve the project. 

Lupke was struck by a car while riding his motorized wheelchair in the street along Ashby Avenue, trying to maneuver around an uneven stretch of sidewalk. Shaw, who also uses a wheelchair, said that “there have been many other members of [the disabled] community who have been killed or injured in accidents. If the taxi option had been available, their lives could have been saved. This is not only an issue of money. It is an issue of safety, as well.” 

Once the new ordinance receives final approval from City Council, city staff believes they’ll have little trouble getting cab companies to apply. Asked by Councilmember Betty Olds if “companies are clamoring for this,” A. Robin Orden, a city senior management analyst, told Council that staff “recently held a meeting with local companies, and some of them showed interest. A number already have wheelchair-accessible vehicles that are permitted in other Bay Area cities.”  

Disability Commission Chairperson Wilcox said that Daly City and Watsonville currently have wheelchair-accessible taxis.