Walking down the street near my office the other day, I found myself contemplating New York City taxicabs. A few years ago, the cab scene was a monoculture of Ford Crown Victorias; there are plenty of them still around, but there are Toyotas and Ford Explorer SUVs and Transit Connect vans, which are wheelchair-accessible. (Nothing by General Motors, though. Weird.)
New York City is under a court order to make all its taxis wheelchair-accessible. On a practical level, it seems absurd: the proportion of taxi passengers who use a wheelchair is so small that the cost difference for a wheelchair-accessible taxis works out to over $100,000 per wheelchair-using passenger. Drivers don’t like the boxy vans that are commonly used: besides the issue of maneuverability in city traffic, they’re less conducive to conversation with passengers, which leads to smaller tips.
But we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates wheelchair-accessible taxis and buses and countless other things. OK: it’s the law, so we have to accept it.
For a moment, I contemplated the New York City I grew up in: the seat of commerce and finance of the most productive and powerful nation on Earth. We had big Checker cabs that were almost wheelchair-accessible. It wouldn’t have taken much redesign to make it happen, back then.
If the world had gone forward as we imagined it would in the 1960s, we’d probably have wheelchair-accessible taxis, buses, subways, and everything else by now. We’d consider it a statement of our power and prosperity that we could make these simple amenities accessible to everyone, and we wouldn’t begrudge the cost. And if the world had gone forward as we imagined it in the 1960s, I’d be planning my next vacation on the Moon.
But it didn’t happen that way. After the novelty of visiting the Moon wore off, we stopped doing it. We stopped being productive, because it’s cheaper to do productive things elsewhere. The prosperity that would have made such things as wheelchair-accessible taxis effortless faded away. In its place we have the enforced stinginess of the bean counters.
If we were truly a rich country, we’d have wheelchair-accessible taxis as a matter of the corporate pride of the taxi operators.
But we’re not really as rich as we imagine, so we have wheelchair-accessible taxis by government fiat.
Or, we’ll get them, eventually.