Published on Tuesday October 09, 2012
Melissa Graham, 28, who has been in a wheelchair all her life, paid $20 for a taxi ride that cost the Star $8.50. “We were pretty desperate and I think he knew that,” said Graham, who is a member of the city’s disability issues committee.
Taxi Emily Mathieu/Toronto Star A Co-op taxi under contract to Wheel-Trans. The high cost to buy or modify a vehicle to make it wheelchair accessible and the low demand for last-minute calls means the Wheel-Trans contract is the only way to make a living, according to drivers and brokerages, so many don’t work outside their shifts.
Melissa Graham spent the night stranded in a Toronto emergency room because she uses a wheelchair and couldn’t get a taxi home.
It wasn’t the first time; she’s never been able to count on the city’s cabs.
Fighting an ear infection, the 28-year-old and her boyfriend set out for St. Joseph’s Health Centre in the city’s west end around 10:30 p.m.
By the time she was seen by a doctor, the subway was no longer running.
Graham, who has used a wheelchair all her life, and her boyfriend called the city’s big taxi companies as well as smaller ones dedicated to people with mobility issues.
“We tried every single one we could think of in the city. No one would give us a ride,” said Graham.
Graham’s experience isn’t an isolated one and reveals a gap in Toronto’s taxi service: people who use wheelchairs can’t get a cab when they need one.
In a city with roughly 4,800 licensed taxis, people who use electronic wheelchairs, which can’t be folded, are being left stranded, paying exorbitant amounts for short trips and sometimes charged far more than the metered fare.
The companies Graham spoke with said they didn’t offer wheelchair service. Others didn’t have vehicles available after 6 p.m. She slept in a chair. Her boyfriend kept watch until the subways reopened at 6 a.m.
There are more than 170 metered taxis that could accommodate wheelchairs, but most have been tied into multimillion-dollar contracts with Wheel-Trans, the TTC’s accessible-transit service, since 2009.
Wheel-Trans users have to book their trips ahead of time, so people with last-minute travel needs are often stuck paying a minimum $30 flat rate for specialized transportation companies operating in a regulatory “grey area,” as described by city licensing chief Bruce Robertson.
“We need to find a class in the bylaws where these vehicles can fit in so we can license them and regulate them properly,” he said.
Advocates for people who use wheelchairs say the lack of accessible taxis in Toronto is discriminatory, as provincial laws state people with a disability cannot be charged more for a service than people without.
The city is reviewing the taxi industry, and improving metered accessible taxi service has been part of those discussions.
Alex Matrosov, the founder of specialty transportation company Toronto Para Transit, is pushing for tough regulation in his growing industry to protect people he said are treated like second-class citizens. “One day any of us could be in a chair,” he said.
That warm night in August, Graham and her boyfriend had taken the subway to Dundas West station, planning to take a bus from there to the hospital.
When they got to the station, only streetcars were available: wheelchair users can’t board the city’s streetcars.
By chance, a Wheel-Trans taxi was outside the station. Graham alleges the driver charged them $20 for the two-kilometre trip. Wheel-Trans taxis have meters, which city bylaws say must be on if they pick up a fare outside the contract.
“We were pretty desperate, and I think he knew that,” said Graham, a member of the city’s disability issues committee. A TTC spokesman said in an email he was “not aware” of any such incidents, and would investigate if Graham wanted.
The Star took a taxi roughly the route travelled by Graham, and it took less than five minutes and cost $8.50 before a tip.
The Wheel-Trans contracts are handled by Royal Taxi, Scarborough City Cab and Co-op. Each of the contracts awarded to the three companies in 2008 for wheelchair-accessible taxis are worth about $35,000,000, over five years. The contracts expire at the end of next year.
Drivers get $2.76 per kilometre and average what one company manager said was 150 kilometres per day. Each brokerage receives a $91,600 monthly management fee, which brokerages say is spent on dispatchers, scheduling, equipment and training.
The TTC recently postponed the two-year extension of the Wheel-Trans contract, worth about $8.5 million each a year, which would bring the value of each contract to $53,000,000 over seven years.
Wheel-Trans drivers are free to operate outside their scheduled shifts but say the work demands 12-hour days, the maximum a driver can be on the road, and that the high cost to buy or modify a vehicle and the low demand for last-minute calls means the contract is the only way to make a living.
Half of the city’s roughly 170 wheelchair-accessible vehicles carry a W or accessible-taxi license and can only transport people who use wheelchairs. The other 85 are split between standard taxi licenses, meaning anyone can drive them and they can be sold, and ambassador taxi licenses, which are exclusively owner-operated and cannot be sold. The ambassador and standard cabs can also choose to serve customers who don’t use wheelchairs.
Diamond Taxi president Jim Bell said his company has yet to find a “magic formula” that guarantees a profit for drivers and meets customer needs. He said brokerages can’t compete with Wheel-Trans and drivers need more incentives to come on board.
Peter Zahakos, chief executive officer of Co-op, tested dual-service vehicles five years ago, but said the demand was low and future efforts would need support from the city by way of funding and publicity. “It’s a no-brainer,” Zahakos said. “It is the right thing to do.”
He also suggests the city gift what he said are 100 shelved ambassador plates to drivers who prioritize calls from people who use wheelchairs.
Royal Taxi, which owns seven W licences, did not respond to questions about the contract.
Scarborough City Cab general manager Gurjeet Dhillon said the current ownership structure means “our hands are tied,” and suggests the city gift W plates to taxi companies. “If we are holding brokerages responsible for providing accessible services then give them the resources to do that,” she said.
As for Graham, she just wants to be able to get a cab like anyone else.
“It is putting people’s safety at risk to be put in situations like that.”