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January 27, 2014

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Home » Metro » Public Services

Disabled pay the price as taxi companies cut costs

Tang Weiguo stood on the curb along People’s Avenue and hailed a taxi. After talking briefly to the driver, he walked back to the sidewalk, where his father was sitting in a wheelchair waiting for him.

Tang wheeled his father to the cab and helped him into the back seat. The driver put the collapsible chair in the trunk.

“The driver is kind enough to transport us,” Tang said. “Not every taxi driver is willing to do that.”

Tang said his father leaves home only on rare occasions since his legs atrophied years ago. In this instance, he wanted to visit an ill friend.

For people with physical disabilities, getting around Shanghai can be extremely cumbersome, especially for those who have no access to a private vehicle and are forced to rely on public transportation. The Shanghai Disabled People’s Federation estimates there are 272,000 physically disabled people in Shanghai, and the number of elderly and others who suffer limited mobility would push that figure higher.

Currently, none of the four major taxi companies in Shanghai provides specialized services for disabled passengers. Shanghai’s two major taxi companies, Qiangsheng and Dazhong, operated vehicles equipped to carry wheelchair users back in 2008. But most of those handicapped-accessible cabs have gradually disappeared over the years as fleets were replenished. The taxi companies blame cost.

According to Cheng Lin, deputy director of the Shanghai Qiangsheng Taxi Co’s Office Affair Department, the company had 70 such cars in 2008, responding to a municipal government policy of providing services to the disabled. The front seat of the cabs was swivel to make it easier for disabled passengers to board and disembark. However, such a seat and its maintenance added 3,000 yuan (US$495.6) on average to operating costs.

“We are, after all, an enterprise that has to survive and make profits,” said Cheng.

Harder to make money

The taxi business, he said, has declined from its golden era about five years ago. It’s harder and harder to make money nowadays, he said.

“As a leading company, we want to serve the community with things like providing accessibility for the disabled, but right now it’s impractical unless the government gives us some financial support,” Cheng said.

The Shanghai Dazhong Taxi Co pleads a similar case of cost restraints. The company said it was approached recently by authorities interested in reviving the program of providing barrier-free taxi services for wheelchair users.

Dazhong was involved in the city’s Sunny Taxi project in 2008, which subsidized the use of barrier-free taxis. At the time, Dazhong had 50 vans equipped with lifts to help hoist a wheelchair into the vehicle. Drivers in the program were required to help disabled passengers. But most of the vans are now gone, and the company said it has no plan to buy new ones because of budgetary constraints. 

The China Association for People with Physical Disabilities has been pressing the national People’s Political Consultative Conference to create policies ensuring disabled access.

“We are now working on the project to revive the program of taxi services for the elderly and for wheelchair users,” said Sun Jianping, head of the Shanghai Transport and Port Administration.

Sun said the administration is discussing with the Shanghai Disabled People’s Federation a plan to have taxi companies set aside 200 specially equipped vehicles to cater to people with limited mobility. Among the specifics being discussed are the types of vehicles that should be used and subsidies to defray the additional cost of specialized equipment.

Address these needs

“The taxi companies that would operate the 200 vehicles shouldn’t be making profits out of a service for the disabled, but we are sympathetic to their need to make ends meet,” Sun told Shanghai Daily. “We as a society need to address these needs in a practical manner that considers all sides.”

Shanghai has been trying to expand barrier-free facilities in public places. Its Metro system is fully accessible to wheelchair users. But despite the best of intentions, services for the disabled are still limited.

“The city has become friendlier to the disabled over the years,” said Bao Yu, a staffer with the Shanghai Disabled Person’s Federation. “Barrier-free transport would always be welcome as there is a great need.”

Many of the city’s disabled people tend to solve their transport problems with private resources, Bao said. Some can afford to buy vehicles specially designed for disabled drivers.

City buses remain a problem. Some routes, like No. 49 that runs past several hospitals, used to operate vehicles with wider spaces for wheelchairs.

When buses on the line were upgraded to a new three-door model last year, the special space reserved for wheelchairs disappeared, though there is still a wide area near the center door if the bus isn’t too crowded.



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