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With the introduction of the MV-1 accessible cab in the coming months, transportation in New York City is being overhauled. Made by the South Florida-based Vehicle Production Group (VPG), and assembled in Indiana, the taxis have begun appearing on the streets of New York City, and later will roll out in such metro areas as Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, DC, Atlanta and Toronto.

The MV-1 was recently approved by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission for taxicab operation, and is the first vehicle designed from the ground up to be accessible to people with disabilities. VPG produces different versions of the vehicle to address four major markets: taxi, paratransit, consumer and limousine.

“We just thought there was a niche in the market,” said Fred Drasner, VPG chairman, who said that the company stepped up because there was no “vehicle that was American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant and wheelchair accessible available anywhere in the world.”

There was also a need because converted vehicles are very expensive, Drasner noted. They run upwards of $50,000 to $70,000. “We thought we could put a vehicle through traditional high-volume automobile manufacturing and get it on the streets,” he added.
 
The taxi version of the MV-1 already is on NYC streets as one of three approved accessible cabs. The other two are Toyota Sienna minivans, one converted by Freedom Motors and the other converted by Viewpoint Mobility. VPG expects demand to skyrocket, given the recent legislation passed by local officials.
 
The city signed an agreement last year with Nissan to be the exclusive provider of taxicabs with the Mexico-produced NV200 electric minivan. It features a zero-emission drive train and is slated to replace the city’s 13,000 taxis. The Nissan product has been dubbed the Taxi of Tomorrow, and was intended to aid the city in its initiative to reduce emissions.
 
However, it wasn’t long after the announcement of the cleaner-running vehicle that the United Spinal Association sued the city over the deal, because there are no proposed accessible vehicles among the NV200 fleet.
 
Late last year, a federal judge ruled that the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission had indeed violated the ADA owing to its failure to provide equal opportunities for people with disabilities to catch a cab. The city offers a call-ahead dispatch system that, according to James Weisman, senior vice president and general counsel of the United Spinal Association, not only does not provide equal opportunity, but also costs New York taxpayers $500 million per year.
 
Judge George Daniels, who presided over the case, agreed, ruling that the taxi services in NYC fail to provide meaningful access for wheelchair users and people with disabilities. The judge explained that “meaningful access for the disabled to public transportation services is not a utopian goal or political promise; it is a basic civil right.” In other words, the dispatch system is a good alternative, but if someone wants to hail a cab on the street, he or she should have the right to do so—and have the cab that stops for them be able to accommodate them.
 
As part of the ruling, Daniels issued an order that NYC can only issue accessible taxicab medallions. A plated medallion on the taxi’s hood, along with the traditional yellow paint, identifies the medallion taxis in the city. They are the only vehicles permitted to pick up passengers hailing from a street. The city planned to sell an additional 2,000 medallions on top of the 13,237 that exist, but all must be for accessible vehicles. The result will put more accessible vehicles on New York streets.
 
“I don’t believe New Yorkers want a taxi system that is not accessible, period,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said when the deal to provide more accessible taxis was struck.
 
The deal benefits VPG, whose vehicles will help serve the 60,000 New York City residents who use wheelchairs.
 
“We anticipate that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 medallions will be issued this year, and I think we’ll get the lion’s share of that because we’re the only one who can produce in volume,” Drasner said.
 
“The Taxi of Tomorrow has no effect on our business plan because the Taxi of Tomorrow is not accessible... We have an American-made, union-made product that’s available for taxi service. So we comply with the ADA, and (our product) was built to be a taxi.”
 
Viewpoint Mobility’s product manager Jim Probst was not as confident, declining to comment on the city’s new deal with Nissan. Until it goes into effect next year, however, Viewpoint continues to put Toyotas on the streets. In fact, more than 50 percent of New York’s accessible taxis are manufactured by Viewpoint, and the company’s Toyotas have been in operation in the city for the past three years.

“I’ve owned virtually every brand out there and the Viewpoint Toyota rides better, holds up longer, and gives passengers a better overall taxi experience than any other accessible vehicle,” said Gene Friedman, whose New York taxi operation reportedly has more accessible cabs than any other operation in the city.

The MV-1 addresses what Drasner said has been an ongoing issue for transporting people with disabilities: design. Passengers can enter through a ramp that opens from a passenger, side-sliding door, much like a traditional minivan. The ramp, however, is a unique feature. The ADA requires a capacity of 600 pounds, but the MV-1 ramp holds 1,200 pounds. Traditional minivan ramps may fold upright inside the door and create a safety hazard, but the MV-1 ramp stows in a cartridge between the floor and chassis.

Both the Viewpoint and Freedom Motors conversions are rear-entry vehicles where the ramp extends out of the vehicle. The advantage is seen in New York’s crowded streets.

“That’s part of the reason we’ve had so much success,” Probst said. “New York City has a number of one-way streets, and loading and unloading is so much easier with a rear-entry vehicle because on a one-way street you can use the other side of the street. Generally, curbs aren’t available because those spaces are taken. So if you have a side-entry vehicle with a long ramp, you generally have to park way out into traffic, which isn’t an option.”

The disadvantage lies in the potential passenger finding a curb cut to transfer from sidewalk to street level just to enter the Toyota vehicle. Probst said he’s heard of no such complaints from the fleet operators in New York.

Another difference is the passenger location. The rear-entry Toyota may offer more convenience, but Drasner argued that such a quality limits the place where a passenger using a wheelchair can sit. The MV-1 is designed for the wheelchair user to sit in the right-front seat and the entire vehicle has a gross body weight of 6,800 pounds compared to a traditional minivan’s 4,200 pounds.

“The MV-1 braking system and suspension is designed to carry a motorized wheelchair and an occupant,” Drasner said of the vehicle’s durability component. “There’s no vehicle made that’s designed from the factory to carry a 700- or 800-pound passenger in the right-front seat.”
 
In fact, it’s the design features that transform the MV-1 from a taxicab into a vehicle that’s also suitable for consumer purchase. According to Drasner, the fact that it was designed from the ground up with the target consumer in mind is what makes it unique for those very consumers.
 
“The car was designed for someone who uses a wheelchair. Nobody else can make that claim,” he said. “Every other vehicle was designed for another purpose and it’s cut up, taken apart, pasted back together with settling torches and put on the road at a very high price. The main problem with those vehicles is they were not designed to carry the weight. The durability is compromised because you’ve cut a unibody construction, and once you cut it you lose all rigidity. It’s like trying to use a hammer to turn a screw. The screwdriver was designed to do that, not a hammer.”

The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) disagreed. The organization of dealers, manufacturers and rehabilitation professionals released a statement in January addressing allegations of compromised safety of converted vehicles.

“The claims against converted vehicles are completely ill-informed and unsubstantiated,” said Dave Hubbard, NMEDA Executive Director and CEO. “Our members adhere to strict guidelines designed to enhance and promote dependable mobility products. It appears that the new-entry to the industry is taking liberties when it comes to deciphering fact from fiction.”

Probst, whose Viewpoint company is a member of NMEDA, explained the position. He pointed out that Viewpoint has an established history of conversions dating to 1999 and currently offered in Chryslers, Fords, General Motor’s products, Hondas, and Toyotas. Viewpoint has been producing accessible Toyota vehicles since 2005.

All converted vehicles must meet the same crash testing standards as any other model that was not modified, and the existing safety features in vehicles such as the Toyota minivan have a reputation that goes well beyond the infancy of a newly formed company such as VPG, Probst argued.

“We do meet those standards,” Probst said. “The base vehicle that we start with has a lot of safety features that you don’t find in a purpose-built vehicle. The vehicle safety features like front and rear airbags and side-impact airbags are all still intact with our conversions. It really affords a lot of safety for the passenger. Toyota has a track record for safety, and our conversion allows all those systems to operate as they were designed. In many ways, we feel that it’s a safer vehicle than something else that may or may not have those safety features.

“We build vehicles that are quality in nature because it’s the right thing to do. Because our vehicles are holding up to the demands of the NYC taxi market, it certainly earns us a lot of credibility. We don’t just say we manufacturer quality products, we prove it. This is the third generation of vehicles that we’ve had on the road in NYC now, and they’re running strong. They’re holding up to the demands of being a NYC taxi, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

The Toyota conversion is an established option in all major markets. The MV-1, however, can be purchased by private consumers at dealers located in 32 states, and VPG will deliver the vehicle to the consumer’s home. When it needs servicing, VPG will have it picked up, serviced, and delivered back to the owner’s home.

As an incentive for local operators to purchase accessible vehicles, the state of New York offers a $10,000 tax credit, while the city offers a $15,000 grant to a taxi company purchasing the new accessible MV-1 vehicle, dropping the vehicle’s cost from approximately $37,000 to around $12,000. The grant money comes from the auction of its 2,000 Yellow Cab accessible medallions, which have a price tag of upwards of $1 million.
 
VPG is providing its own incentive, too. The company instituted a Cash-for-Conversion Clunkers program that started in March and ends May 31, allowing consumers to trade in their old converted accessible vehicle and receive $3,500 credit toward the purchase of a new MV-1, and fleet operators could receive up to $5,500 each towards their purchase of five or more MV-1 vehicles.
 
VPG’s incentive should have it accelerating in Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, DC, soon as well since the MV-1 has been approved for taxi service there, too.
 
“DC has legislation that Kwame Brown, chairman of the city council, has introduced that requires 55 percent of the taxi fleet in DC to be accessible and use compressed natural gas,” Drasner said, who added: “Currently, we produce the only compressed natural gas accessible taxi.”
 
The MV-1 recently was approved for use in Toronto, and a cab company in Atlanta put the city’s first MV-1 on the streets in January.
 
The durable design for taxicab intention makes for a strong option for consumers, Drasner said. No matter the choice, the quality of accessible taxicabs may have gotten a boost in New York thanks to some added competition from the MV-1.

“It was designed for the taxi duty cycle, so it should be extremely durable,” Drasner said. “It’s the only body-on-frame vehicle built in the United States. Body-on-frame is the strongest way to build a car. That’s why the Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car sort of dominated the taxi and limousine market because of their durability. Our methodology is the same as the way those vehicles were constructed.”

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Excerpts from the Geri Jewell Issue Apr/May 2012:

CHIME — A Charter School With Its Thinking Cap On

Libya — Cleaning Up Explosive Remnants of War

China — ABILITY and China Press Join Forces

Accesible Taxis — Several Cities Get New Wheels

Geri Jewell — The Cracks of Life

Heart Care — Expert Advice From a Surgeon

Articles in the Geri Jewell Issue; Ashley Fiolek — When CNN Came Calling; Sen. Harkin — Education Determines Income; George Covington — Introducing Dan Quayle; Accesible Taxis — Several Cities Get New Wheels; Of Two Minds — Film Probes Bipolar Disorder; Book Excerpt — Silent Voices; CHIME — A Charter School With Its Thinking Cap On; Libya — Cleaning Up Explosive Remnants of War; China — ABILITY and China Press Join Forces; Geri Jewell — The Cracks of Life; Transitions — Aging With Cerebral Palsy; Heart Care — Expert Advice From a Surgeon; Disability Rights Legal Center — The Health Care Act; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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