~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, January 21st 2013

It was one of the colder evenings in what has been a very mild winter in New York, and my friends and I had just paid a restaurant bill and were waiting on a street corner in Greenwich Village for a taxi. Sixth Avenue is usually four-lanes deep in yellow cabs and it never takes more than a minute or two to hail one. But that evening, try as we might, we could not get a driver to stop. The ones who slowed down sped off again the minute they saw me. Those who stopped asked for double the usual fare. Why? Because I am in a wheelchair.

Wheelchair accessibility in New York is in the news here this month. The Democrat councilman Oliver Koppell has just forced a vote through the city council to make all yellow taxis handicap accessible, three years after he first proposed the bill. Less than 2% of New York City taxis are currently wheelchair accessible and just a handful of subway stations have lifts. Far from seeking to improve transportation for disabled people in the city, Mayor Bloomberg has opposed plans to increase the number of accessible taxis on the road. In 2011, he said accessible cabs wasted money and petrol and were less comfortable for "average" passengers.

I doubt that Bloomberg has ever sat in a wheelchair on a freezing street corner and watched the cabs go by while slowly losing the feeling in his nose and toes. My two broken ankles, the result of an accident in November, haven’t stopped me going out, seeing gigs or doing my job, but the difficulty of getting anywhere in this city nearly has.

My friends have been unfailingly patient. When a driver takes pity, they have struggled in the rain to fit my wheelchair into a tiny taxi boot. More often than not, we end up tracing rabbit-warren routes round subway stations to find lifts, which are sometimes broken, barred or out of use. They’ve commandeered strangers to “keep an eye on that wheelchair!” and carried me, piggyback, up flights of underground stairs to subway platforms with no access. We’re managing because we know that this is temporary. 

But I’d question Bloomberg’s position. All of London’s black cabs are accessible to wheelchairs. Why not here?

Hazel Sheffield is assistant editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Be clear about the cloud and A poet's guide to the Frick