Newfound Cabs now has 11 accessible vans available in and around St. John’s.
“We’re doing 2,400 to 2,500 jobs a month now,” he said of calls specifically for accessible taxis.
“It grew overnight.”
From his dining room, he nodded his head towards a main window and the trio of garages beyond, saying he’s got more accessible cabs he wants to get out on the road.
Advocates for true inclusion for persons with disabilities often talk about the financial incentive — find a way, broaden your customer base and see new revenue.
Newell said that’s the truth.
He said as long as current issues with skyrocketing insurance for the industry can be addressed, he’s interested in adding more accessible taxis to his fleet.
If not, he told The Telegram, he won’t be able to continue his business — period — and will be pulling his cars off the road in 2018.
Cashing in with cabs
Accessible taxis are, essentially, passenger vehicles adapted for use by people requiring space for mobility aids. That includes things like power chairs and wheelchairs.
For Newfound Cabs, it’s generally a passenger van adapted with rear ramp, security strapping and seatbelts in a new position, certified by the manufacturer.
Provincial grants of $25,000, and municipal investments, including $190,000 from the City of St. John’s, have added taxis to the accessible transportation mix.
Accessible taxis are now available from companies in the Dildo, Grand Falls-Windsor, Norris Point and Corner Brook areas, in addition to St. John’s, where Newell used the grants to grow.
On top of having accessible vehicles licensed and available, his company has invested in training for 22 drivers. Training currently includes programs with the Coalition for Persons with Disabilities, CNIB, and most recently, the Canadian Mental Health Association.
There’s also an existing requirement for Newfound drivers to have St. John Ambulance first aid training.
Newfound has a support contract for the city’s GoBus paratransit service, supplying accessible taxis to supplement it as needed, plus the company has been able to add corporate accounts based on its added driver training and accessibility, including an app making it easier for individuals with hearing impairments to hail a cab.
Newell said there have been inquiries for service for visitor travel, including for conferences and scheduled cruise ship stops.
Yet accessible taxis could disappear, he warned, if insurance rates are not addressed.
Significant rate hikes have sent his operational costs skyrocketing. They are increasing costs for his accessible taxis alone by about 62 per cent year over year. That’s something he said he can’t sustain.
If he exits the market, it will add to the already-growing pressure on the city’s paratransit service.
Go, Go, GoBus
St. John’s Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth is chair of the city’s committee on inclusion and accessibility and part of the Metrobus Commission. He said the GoBus service has grown rapidly — from about 78,000 rides in 2008 to roughly 150,000 in 2016.
The service offers 18 buses operated by contractor MVT Canadian Bus Inc. The U.S.-based company also supplies paratransit services in Vancouver and Barrie, Ont.
Ellsworth acknowledged there were complaints for years, and said the service was challenged under past contracts. But he believes it’s turned a corner, along with the city’s overall approach to public transit.
The GoBus fleet will be replaced with all new buses by July, he said, with the help of some federal government funding.
As well, onboard surveillance systems are being added to the buses for the benefit of passengers and drivers.
The service contract and accountability has also been moved under the umbrella of the Metrobus Commission.
“We’ve still got work to do,” he said. “Even today, we’re looking at changing software that we’re operating. We have an opportunity to get more user-friendly software.”
The city is updating the Go Bus user registry.
The city has been adding accessible routes to the Metrobus system. It now has six accessible routes with low-floor vehicles and at least some accessible bus stops.
Ellsworth said the intent is to eventually have all bus routes deemed fully accessible.
The limitation has been cost. The city plans to add accessible buses as existing buses are replaced, and add more accessible stops over time.
“We’re spending somewhere around $3.5 million (the actual budget is $3.2 million) now on paratransit, whereas five years ago, six years ago, it was like $1.2 million,” Ellsworth said.
“So, the investments are being made to do it right and to build the right system that’s required.”
The city has a paratransit working group that reports to the Metrobus commission.
“Providing inclusive service is about it being an equitable service that other people can avail of,” said COD-NL executive director Emily Christy, who previously represented COD-NL on the city's Accessibility and Inclusion Committee.
While accessible taxis are great, Christy said it’s also important to consider affordability.
For everyday life, she said, there needs to be more accessible, public transit, including outside of the City of St. John’s.
GoBus does not operate beyond St. John’s and Mount Pearl. Metrobus routes into neighbouring Paradise were being tested as of summer 2016. And the Paradise route is not accessible.
Any improvements, Christy suggested, benefit everyone — from added snowclearing along sidewalks to removing trip hazards.
Improvements can also up the overall user count. She said more express bus routes would be welcome.
“Is there a need for express routes that make more sense for people to get from one side of the city to the next?”
By Ashley Fitzpatrick and Louis Power
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
N.L. accessible vehicle grants
There’s money available to help Newfoundlanders and Labradorians drive accessible vehicles.
The Accessible Vehicle Funding program doesn’t pay for the whole rig, but helps pay for modifications, such as the installation of a ramp or hand controls in a new or existing vehicle.
People whose net incomes are $46,500 or less can get 100 per cent of the cost of retrofits funded, up to $25,000, and those making $46,000 to $64,000 may be eligible for partial funding.
For information and application forms, visit www.cssd.gov.nl.ca/disabilities/accessible_vehicle_funding.html,
contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 1-888-729-6279 (toll-free) or (888) 729-5440 (toll-free TTY).
(Source: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development.
Where can I get an accessible taxi?
St. John’s — Newfound Cabs: 744-4444
Dildo — Jonavax Taxi: 582-2444
Grand Falls-Windsor — Blagdon’s Taxi: 489-6661
Corner Brook — Star Taxi: 634-4343
Norris Point — Pittmans Taxi: 458-2486