King County only has 50 wheelchair accessible taxi medallions. Advocates have wanted more for years.

The wait to get a wheelchair accessible taxi can be over an hour at times, and Uber and Lyft don’t have accessible services

By Becca Savransky, SeattlePI

Clark Matthews was getting off a ferry in Seattle after traveling to Victoria, B.C. for a visit. It was late, so Matthews, who has used a wheelchair his whole life, tried to get a taxi to pick him up and take him home.

He watched as the rest of the passengers filed off the boat and quickly found a ride. But as time went on, he still wasn’t able to get a cab that could accommodate his wheelchair.

“We were the first ones off that boat, everyone promptly had an Uber, a Lyft or a cab pick them up. The staff went home, and we were still there in an empty parking lot at 10:30 at night,” Matthews said.

So, he made a decision. “I said, I guess I’ll have to push home.”

It’s not an uncommon experience among people in King County who use a wheelchair to get around — having to risk safety and comfort when they’re not able to get an accessible taxi, he said. That’s because currently, there are just 50 wheelchair accessible taxi medallions to serve the 2,300 square miles of King County. Uber and Lyft do not offer accessible options in King County.

That number has stayed stagnant for years, even as the population in the area has grown significantly and disability rights organizations have pleaded for more.

Now, the county is poised to give out 25 more wheelchair-accessible taxi medallions. But Cindi Laws — director and lobbyist at the Wheelchair Accessible Taxi Association of Washington — said there have been delays to giving out the additional medallions for months. And the need, she said, is far greater.


The history

A measure was approved in 2014 that added a 10-cent fee to taxis, for-hire vehicles and transportation network company (TNC) rides — meaning all Uber and Lyft rides — to go toward a wheelchair accessible services fund to help subsidize wheelchair accessible taxis.

Wheelchair accessible taxis are more expensive to operate for a number of reasons, Laws said. The vans themselves cost about $40,000 if new and the ramp necessary for wheelchairs costs another $10,000. The gas mileage for the vans is ⅓ of that of a Prius taxi. The vans also take longer to load and secure a passenger, meaning extra time for each trip.

The wheelchair accessible services fund was intended to subsidize these costs — in addition to helping with maintenance and equipment costs.

When that fee was approved in the ordinance regulating TNCs, there were 50 wheelchair accessible taxi medallions and about 5,000 TNCs, according to city estimates provided by Cheri Perazzoli, the director of advocacy at the Hearing Loss Association of Washington. By 2019, the number of TNCs had reached about 34,000, Perazzoli said, but the number of wheelchair accessible taxis remained the same.

According to King County, since 2010, the number of “non-WAT for-hire trips has increased 260%, from an estimated 7.5 million to 27 million trips.”

The wheelchair accessible taxis are tasked with serving the whole county, which is made up of nearly 2.2 million people and 2,307 square miles.

Matthews said that means, at times, he has to choose to wait for what could be more than an hour, or find another way to get where he’s going.

“I’ve also had the experience of multiple times, of calling dispatch or using the Yellow Cab app to hail a taxi, and after an hour of being told, they’re still trying to find a cab for me, ending up having to just roll myself home,” Matthews said.

Several years ago, the Wheelchair Accessible Taxi Association of Washington starting lobbying for more wheelchair accessible taxis to serve a growing number of people. The rate at which the taxis were being used shot up between 2014 and 2017. In 2014, a wheelchair accessible taxi would take an average of 0.7 wheelchair passenger trips a day, according to data from Perazzoli. In 2017, that increased to 8.9 rides a day. Initially, Laws said, that’s because they were out more, seeking out customers at places like hospitals and assisted living facilities.

The Wheelchair Accessible Taxi Association also did some outreach and advocated for a symbol to be put on the wheelchair accessible taxis so people were aware of the service.

Disability activists later asked for 250 accessible taxis — five times the number currently serving the area.

Finally in the fall of 2018, it was announced that there would be 25 additional wheelchair accessible taxi medallions awarded in the county. But the process of actually issuing the medallions has been delayed for months.


The process of issuing 25 more medallions

In December 2018, the county put out a request for proposals to issue the 25 additional wheelchair accessible taxi medallions. The new taxis would also have a hearing loop for people who were hard of hearing. Qualifications looked at included driving records and peoples’ experience with individuals using mobility devices.

The deadline was extended multiple times and hundreds of people applied, Laws said, with some earning perfect scores.

Laws said at the time, she protested that the criteria required was too low and said in the future, she will advocate for different criteria that requires more of the people applying for the medallions.

But, she said, due to an appeals process — and protests about the scoring from losing applicants — there has been a months-long delay to actually give out those 25 medallions.

According to an addendum to the RFP posted on Sept. 20, the county has been “reviewing and responding to protests, inquiries, and concerns about the results.”

“We recognized that the varied levels of detail proposers submitted made it difficult for the committee to consistently apply the scoring criteria for Experience Transporting Individuals with Mobility Devices,” it said.

People do have the right to protest and appeal during the process and the county looks at each issue to address it, said Barbara Ramey, a deputy communications manager for the Department of Executive Services at King County.

“Making sure that we have more capacity to meet the demand for accessibility for taxis is really important and we want to see it happen,” she said. “But we also want to do it fairly and based on the merits of the providers, not on some arbitrary timeline.”

Laws said the scoring is “bulletproof,” and called for the new medallions to be given out immediately.

Now, she said, the wheelchair accessible taxis available are often at capacity during peak times — from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the county is facing an increasing need.

“There’s been the same number of WATs on the street since at least 2012, and looking at the population increases, it’s just absurd that they have not been issued,” Laws said.

She said the city and county can’t adequately serve people with disabilities with the number of wheelchair accessible taxis they have on the street now.

“The bottom line is that we need to grow the wheelchair accessible taxi fleet, we need to grow it sustainably and we need to grow it right now,” Laws said.

Matthews said part of the reason he thinks the process could be delayed is because of a “lack of priority” or a “lack of understanding.”

He said he’s heard arguments made about whether there will be demand for additional wheelchair accessible taxis, which he called a “disingenuous argument.” If the service were more available, more people would use it, he said. He compared it to Uber, saying if someone tried requesting an Uber and got denied several times before actually getting a car, they wouldn’t use the service.

It’s the same thing with the wheelchair accessible taxis.

“It’s frustrating,” he said, “because this is an argument that has been made against ADA compliance and accessibility from the beginning.

Another plea for more

Earlier this month, several disability rights groups signed on to a letter addressed to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan calling for her to take action with the additional medallions — and then to put out another RFP for more.

“It is imperative to get those additional WATs on the road, and then to immediately begin the process for an additional 25. We recommend adding at least 25 new WAT medallions each year to ensure wheelchair users have access to essential transportation services,” the letter said.

It was signed by groups including Disability Rights Washington/Rooted in Rights, Hearing Loss Association of America – Washington State, Hopelink and The Arc of King County.

The letter also called for the city to use the wheelchair accessible services fund to increase the number of vehicles on the road to ensure “there are sufficient vehicles during times of peak demand and to increase service in non-peak times from 7 p.m.-5 a.m., when few WAT drivers are on the road.”

Laws said she doesn’t feel like the city is doing enough to provide services to people with disabilities.

“It absolutely comes down to being able to serve people with disabilities,” she said. “I absolutely do not feel the city has been responsive and that is a tragedy.”

Mark Prentice, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city is committed to “providing transit and transportation options for residents of all abilities.”

“While Seattle leads the nation in transit use, we still need more and better transit options, especially for people with disabilities,” he said in a statement. “Durkan supports wheelchair accessible taxis and the City has been working with King County to increase the number of medallions for wheelchair accessible taxis.”

Prentice added that Durkan’s proposed 2020 budget includes $31 million to invest in new “safety, pedestrian, bike, transit and accessibility improvements.”

“From better sidewalks, signal improvements, and more transit and taxi service, everyone must have a safe way to get around Seattle,” he said.

‘How different do you really think people with disabilities are?’

Matthews knows well what it’s like to not have accessible services and has seen the impact that can have on things like where he goes out at night and how he gets home safely. But it can also have more grave impacts, he said, pointing to a time when he struggled to get a car so he could get to an important doctor’s appointment.

He said in one instance, he had just gotten surgery and was taken to a facility in Lynnwood for recovery. He was told not to lift more than 15 pounds at the time, which made getting around even more difficult. Then, he had a follow up appointment with his surgeon, so he needed a cab to get there.

First, he was told there weren’t accessible cabs in Snohomish County. Then, he tried another service and was told it would cost $80 each way for the trip. He was told by accessible taxis in Seattle they couldn’t cross county lines. He tried buses and other services, but couldn’t find anything. So, he finally called the Wheelchair Accessible Taxi Association of Washington.

“I was really worried, needless to say,” he said.

He said he was told traditionally, cabs couldn’t cross county lines, but there was an exception for accessible taxis, because counties recognized the need if they didn’t provide it themselves.

“I’m a disability advocate, I’ve been involved in these issues all my life, and I’m thinking, if it’s this hard for me to get to a doctor’s appointment after a surgery, what chance does anyone else have,” he said, “and why do we make this so complicated when we don’t have to.”

In Seattle, Matthews said he has used the bus and public transportation system and it is accessible and works well. But, there are times when a taxi is important, and because Uber and Lyft don’t offer these services, there need to be more wheelchair accessible taxis.

Uber is pilot testing accessible vehicles in cities including Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York City, according to its website. Lyft is also piloting a wheelchair accessible program in some cities, but neither is offering those services in King County.

“Go on the Uber app, select you need a WAV, they give you the telephone number for Seattle Yellow Cab,” Matthews said.

He called it ironic that the company’s solution for accessibility was to “refer you out to a company that they’re in competition with and trying to disrupt.”

Laws said there are many different reasons people use wheelchairs, and called for the city and county to be more responsive to those needs. She said the fleet of wheelchair accessible taxis needs to be grown in a sustainable way and there have to be studies done to make sure people who use a wheelchair don’t have to wait significantly longer than those who don’t.

She also said it’s essential people with disabilities do not have to pay “one penny more” than those without.

“It literally is a matter of life and death for many people,” she said, “they are going to dialysis, the urgency of getting some place, being able to rely on something is really important.”

She said she’s hopeful the 25 new medallions will be issued in the next several weeks.

“I have faith that we will get it done, the timing is what’s key and can we get it done before people give up on the entire system,” she said. “We believe we will be able to push through this but every step is a challenge and the WAT Association does feel like it’s under attack.”

She added: “We wish we didn’t have to keep defending our right to exist.”

Ramey said the county has the intent to issue more wheelchair accessible taxi medallions after the additional 25 are issued and plans to work with stakeholders in the future to determine the ideal number and when they should be given out.

Looking forward, Matthews said he wants to believe in a more accessible future. In the short term, he wants more wheelchair accessible taxis and for the city to put more pressure on rideshare companies to have accessible vehicles.

“The truth is, everyone, if you live long enough, we’re all going to experience disabilities,” he said, “so I want things to be better for everybody.”

He said if the city wants to create a more accessible world, it has to start now. If that demand is not made, there won’t be progress, he said.

He also called for the city and county to stand up for people with disabilities, saying other cities have made taxis more accessible, and Seattle and King County leaders should develop the “moral courage” to do the same.

The reality is, he said, people with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs, have a full life.

“We have places we want to go, we have money we want to spend, we have things we need to do — it genuinely just confuses me how people don’t get that,” he said. “Like how different do you really think people with disabilities are?”

About the Author

Rebecca is a social services reporter at The Frederick News-Post. She graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and political science. She served as Managing Editor, Summer Editor-In-Chief and Campus Editor at The Daily Northwestern and previously interned at The Miami Herald.