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January 2008

Picture it, an unusually cool, crisp morning on October 1, 1907. The new Plaza Hotel rises from the ashes of the original Plaza, which was built at the turn of the century only to be razed in 1906 to make way for its successor. As guests made their way to the lobby, and Alfred Vanderbilt signed the first signature in the guest register, they first passed by the taxi stand in front of the hotel and its line of shiny red French taxicabs stationed there by taxi pioneer Harry Allen. It would be at this historic place and time that the very first pick-up of a passenger by a traditional, metered gasoline-powered taxicab (a word actually coined by Allen) would take place.

I could point to any number of ways in which we have celebrated this milestone over the last few months - the amazing Taxi '07 exhibition at the Jacob Javits Center, lighting the Empire State Building yellow, the Garden in Transit project, etc. - but there is no question in my mind that the most significant of these is the "Taxi of Tomorrow" project. It is through the "Taxi of Tomorrow" project that we will see the quintessential, purpose- built taxicab designed, developed and taken from concept to drawing board to assembly line in a way that serves everyone. In other words, this is a "wish list" vehicle that will be clean fueled to leave only the lightest of carbon footprints, fully accessible to persons who use wheelchairs, aesthetically complementary to its surroundings, economical, roomy and iconic in the way that only a New York City yellow medallion taxicab can be.

But before we can perfect the vehicle, there are ways that we can enhance service that never before existed. Just over a month ago, the TLC auctioned a deeply discounted 63 of 150 additional medallion licenses specifically earmarked for use on wheelchair accessible vehicles, which will join the 80 on the road already. Next spring, the final 87 will be auctioned, true to Mayor Bloomberg's vision, as it was he that accomplished the passage of special City and State legislation to make these new wheelchair accessible taxicabs possible. What better way to celebrate the taxicab's Centennial than to field the nation's largest fleet of accessible vehicles.

Now that we have issued the medallion licenses, the challenge is to make sure that the resources we have are maximized to the hilt, so they can serve the people who want and need their service in the most convenient and spontaneous way possible. I am pleased to report that at this past month's public commission meeting, the Board of Commissioners voted to approve a "demonstration program" that will create an "accessible dispatch system" in 2008 that will provide accessible taxicab and for-hire service to wheelchair users throughout the five boroughs on request.

The company implementing this project - the Executive Transportation Group - is one of the acknowledged leaders in the field of professional, computer-coordinated dispatch, and is well-versed in the provision of quality customer service. Participating drivers will receive appropriate training to serve persons using wheelchairs. Best of all, passengers who use wheelchairs and other roll-in mobility aids will be able to access this service simply by calling 311, the government services hotline number.

While there were many differences of opinion at the November Commission meeting leading-up to passage of the rules creating and governing the accessible dispatch system, it was heartening to see "all stakeholders - including passengers" discussing and debating how to best deliver enhanced service. In response to the concerns of passengers, it was made clear that the demonstration project is intended to "bridge the gap" to a fully accessible taxicab fleet via the Taxi of Tomorrow project. With regard to the use of "only accessible taxicabs" to take these dispatch calls, it was important to remind and reassure the industry that there is no plan or intent to alter the longstanding and sufficient for-hire ground transportation paradigm. Yellow cabs - including accessible taxicabs - will continue to pick-up street hails and use meters, and every other non-accessible for- hire vehicle will not. While this new service offers more transportation options to persons who use wheelchairs, it is doing more than merely helping people get from point A to point B......it will answer important questions about passenger demand for such service. It is a pilot program that could be in place for up to two (2) years if successful - if not concluded sooner - and every aspect of the project will be closely monitored.

Before closing I would like to take a moment to thank our partners in this project, including Commissioner Matthew Sapolin of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, the Mayor's Office of Operations, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and the many dedicated disability advocates with whom we have consulted.

I would also like to thank Harry N. Allen for inspiring a century of taxicab service that is as well known for its traditions as for its ability to evolve to suit the needs of its passengers. A young 20-something entrepreneur when he turned the taxi world on its head, he died here in New York City at the age of 88 on June 27, 1965. Bravo and well done, Mr. Allen, you will be fondly remembered!

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