People with disabilities have been clamoring for accessible taxi service in Hamilton for years, advocates say. Now, the city is poised to offer 16 cab licenses to do just that — as early as June.

But just because those licenses are offered, doesn't mean cab drivers will apply for them. Some are questioning whether drivers will bother with the service at all.

"People with disabilities have lives, and we need to go places too," said Terri Wallis, of the Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities, a volunteer group charged with advising the city on how to best make services accessible for everyone.

For years, people with disabilities have had few options when it comes to taxi service, she says. It's either flat rate, non-metered contract cab service that can be very expensive, or the city-run DARTS service, which often has to be booked over a week in advance. That's just not good enough, Wallace says.

"They figure we don't have lives, we don't work, we don't socialize, we don't do anything," she said.

"It's outdated thinking."

'No one knocking down my door'

So to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with a Disability act enacted in 2005, the city is planning to release 16 accessible taxi licenses by the end of June, says Al Fletcher, the city's acting manager of licensing and permits. Right now, the city is in talks to set up training for anyone that applies for one of those licenses.

"I don't want an accessible vehicle to go out on the road unless the driver is trained," he said.

Demand for regular taxi licenses in the city has been historically high. Right now, there is a waiting list of over 70 people hoping for one — and some have been on that list for years. But demand hasn't been the same for the accessible taxi licenses.

'You can't make money on them based on metered rates.'—Scott Wallace, Burlington Taxi

"I've not yet received a single call asking when these are going to come out," Fletcher said. "There haven't been people knocking down my door looking for these plates."

That's because cab drivers just can't make money on accessible taxi fares, says Ron Van Kleef, the president of Hamilton Cab.

"If you go from St. Joes Hospital to downtown Hamilton and it's a $5 fare, the amount of time it takes to load that person is time consuming," Van Kleef said. "You're waiting all the time. It's time and money."

Hamilton Cab offers a flat rate cab service for people with disabilities. It costs $35, which Van Kleef says is "cheaper than a taxi" for many trips.

"We're not abusing anyone with that scenario."

However, according to Hamilton Cab's online fare calculator, a trip from the CBC Hamilton office in downtown Hamilton to downtown Dundas costs $19.92 for the 8.7-kilometre trip. A person in a wheelchair using the flat rate service would still have to pay $35 each way. That's an extra $30.16 round-trip.

Coun. Chad Collins told CBC Hamilton that the city has been fielding calls from people with disabilities who are using flat rate taxi services asking why they are being charged an exorbitant amount compared to other people.

But some are also saying that without that service, they'd have no other way to get from point A to point B in the city.

"We're hearing that 'if you take these away from us, we won't be able to get around,'" Collins said.

Burlington accessible taxi service 'a non-moneymaker'

Other cities do have licensed, metered accessible taxi service. Scott Wallace, the president of Burlington Taxi, told CBC Hamilton that his company has been offering it since 1988.

"But they're a non-moneymaker," Wallace said. "You can't make money on them based on metered rates."

Burlington taxi does have a handful of licensed wheelchair accessible cabs — and they cost the company about $30-$40,000 a year. The drivers of those cabs are paid an hourly rate rather than through commission like all the rest of his drivers, Wallace says. Otherwise, no one would take the job, he says.

"If I didn't offer that rate, I'd never get a driver to do it," Wallace said. "They'll try to refuse those trips because it's a longer trip for less pay."

The same thing could easily happen in Hamilton, he says. The 16 licenses the city plans to issue would let drivers accept fares from both disabled and non-disabled people. Fletcher says the city will have to develop some kind of monitoring system "so that people with special needs are served first."

But in the beginning, that system might be "reactive," Fletcher says, so the city would try to disincline drivers for not picking up people with disabilities after the fact.

"We have to ensure that we create some sort of a program so that these people get chosen first."