Cost of accessible cabs a major barrier to improving services in Winnipeg, city says

Getting more accessible cabs on the road was identified as a priority Monday night, as Winnipeggers with disabilities met with city officials to learn about the implications of the city's new ride-for-hire regulatory duties.

City took over regulation of ride-for-hire, taxi industries in March after dissolution of taxicab board

Members of the public participate in a discussion with staff from the Winnipeg Parking Authority regarding accessible taxi and ride-for-hire services in Winnipeg Monday night. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Getting more accessible cabs on the road was identified as a priority Monday night, as Winnipeggers with disabilities met with city officials to learn about the implications of the city's new ride-for-hire regulatory duties. 

The parking authority began overseeing the vehicle-for-hire and taxi industries March 1 after the province dissolved Manitoba Taxicab Board.

"This was rushed and we had a very short window of time to take this over from the province," Winnipeg Parking Authority policy analyst Colin Stewart said.

He said the time involved and overhead costs that come with converting cabs is responsible for the lack of accessible options in Winnipeg.

"We recognize as the city that there needs to be more service to the accessible community," he said. "Anyone who disputes that is foolish."

Those with mobility issues got a chance to ask Stewart and others questions about what the changes mean at a meeting Monday night organized by the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities and Barrier Free Manitoba.

'Just looking for accessibility'

"We're just looking for accessibility," said David Kron, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba and who moderated the event.

"How are they going to make the cab industry and vehicles for hire truly universal and successful so you don't have to plan your life down to the minute six weeks out."

Since the city took over for the taxicab board, Kron says most of the questions he's heard from those with disabilities stem from a lack of clarity over the city's vision.

In January, the parking authority announced it would force cab companies whose fleets contained less than 10 per cent accessible vehicles to pay a seven-cent surcharge per trip, per vehicle. The hope is that will persuade some companies to update their fleets with more accessible vehicles.

Stewart said some people were concerned such a charge wouldn't actually encourage companies to make their vehicles more accessible, but give them a way to "buy their way out."

Colin Stewart is a policy analyst with the Winnipeg Parking Authority. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"I don't think any of those companies as businesses are going to be willing to absorb that fee for an extended period of time," he said, adding the parking authority copied the surcharge model from other cities.

But by far the biggest barrier to improving accessibility in taxis and rides-for-hire is the cost of the vehicles, and the number of previously owned accessible vehicles on the market, Stewart said.

67 accessible cabs on road

There are about 518 taxis on the road in Winnipeg, 67 of which are accessible. Most of the accessible vehicles are owned by companies that specialize in services for those with disabilities, Stewart said.

It takes eight to 12 weeks and costs about $60,000 to convert a typical minivan so that it's wheelchair-accessible, which adds up to about $14,000 more than the cost of a standard taxi, Stewart said.

"The cost in itself is one barrier, but a more significant barrier is there are only two companies in Manitoba that can do those conversions and they can only convert one vehicle at a time," Stewart said.

In the days before the city took over, parking authority staff searched far and wide and could only find eight accessible vehicles for sale Canada-wide, Stewart added.

Ken Shachtay uses a wheelchair and said there's no reason why each new cab built for the Winnipeg market shouldn't be accessible to all.

He feels turning over regulatory responsibilities to the city was a step backwards, and he is skeptical the city will work quickly to improve taxi services.

"Just hearing their lip service," he said. "They consulted people, stakeholders, they listened to stakeholders, but there was no action."

'A system that is evolving'

Clare Simpson also relies on a wheelchair. She thought city and taxi officials did a reasonable job of listening and responding to some of the concerns at the meeting.

She said she was also encouraged to hear the city is placing a greater importance on accessibility and safety standards training for Winnipeg Parking Authority members through the Independent Living Resource Centre.

Clare Simpson relies on a wheelchair to get around. She says she is hopeful the Winnipeg Parking Authority will help improve handi-transit accessibility in the city. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

In 2016, the centre filed a complaint with the Manitoba Ombudsman against the city. The ILRC cited a failure on the city's part to ensure equitable access to mobility through universal access to transportation.

Simpson remains optimistic the parking authority will commit to improving the system, and that real action will look like more accessible vehicles available to people in wheelchairs or living with other disabilities.

"It's a system that is evolving," she said. "The disability community needs to keep on top of it and give feedback."

The city granted 60 new taxi licenses through a lottery in February and plans to do the same again Dec. 1 to boost service.

Stewart hopes some of those will be accessible taxis, but said he did not know what percentage of the licenses coming later this year would be earmarked for accessible vehicles.

"I think anyone should be able to call for a cab anytime, and no matter their needs, get a cab that meets those needs," he said.

With files from Bryce Hoye and Jeff Stapleton