People with disabilities fear impact of ailing taxi industry on Chicago area’s subsidized cab service

Those who rely on the Taxi Access Program operated by PACE say they’re already seeing longer waits. And they worry that, with fewer cabs on the streets, it will get worse.

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Adam Ballard of the disability rights group Access Living: “I have a huge concern that, once the pandemic is over, it’s going to be really hard to find a cab” through the Taxi Access Program. It provides disabled people with government-subsidized taxi service for just $3 a ride.

Adam Ballard of the disability rights group Access Living: “I have a huge concern that, once the pandemic is over, it’s going to be really hard to find a cab” through the Taxi Access Program. It provides disabled people with government-subsidized taxi service for just $3 a ride.

Access Living

Nearly 7,000 taxis once roamed the streets of Chicago. But, with just 1,059 cabs making at least one trip between October and December, people with disabilities are worried about the future of government-subsidized taxi service they rely on.

It’s called the Taxi Access Program, it’s run by PACE, and it provides subsidized, on-demand cab trips around Chicago for just $3.

John William Abbate, 36, is among those who rely on the service. Abbate, a peer mentor who uses a wheelchair, says the Taxi Access Program is more convenient than paratransit bus or van rides, which have to be arranged 24 hours in advance.

During the coronavirus pandemic, he says he mostly has been staying home. But, when he has called for a taxi, he says the waits are “way longer than they used to be. There’s nobody out there.”

Abbate says he typically had to wait only about 10 minutes for a taxi to arrive at his West Loop home.

“Now, it’s, like, average half an hour,” he says. “If you’ve got somewhere you’ve got to go, obviously that’s not going to work.”

John William Abbate: With fewer cabs on Chicago’s streets, waits have gotten longer to get rides through the government-subsidized Taxi Access Program, which costs just $3 a ride.

John William Abbate: With fewer cabs on Chicago’s streets, waits have gotten longer to get rides through the government-subsidized Taxi Access Program, which costs just $3 a ride.

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And trying to get somewhere solely by wheelchair, even going just a short distance, can be a difficult alternative at times during the winter.

Adam Ballard, a housing and transportation analyst for the disability rights group Access Living, says he has taken about a dozen taxi rides since March and also has had to wait longer for a cab to come. One time, his request went unfulfilled.

“I have a huge concern that, once the pandemic is over, it’s going to be really hard to find a cab,” Ballard says.

Unlike ride-share operators such as Uber and Lyft, the taxi industry is governed by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which mandates accessibility.

PACE, the suburban bus system that administers the Taxi Access Program, has been offering free taxi rides during the pandemic to lessen the demand placed on paratransit buses and to provide safer, one-person transportation. By picking up the full tab, PACE also is keeping wheelchair-accessible cabs in business, Ballard says.

PACE spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken says the public transit agency is monitoring wait times and that it hasn’t gotten complaints about lengthy delays.

The city of Chicago says 95 wheelchair-accessible taxis are on active status and 74 are in foreclosure, which still allows them to operate. Together, those 169 wheelchair-accessible taxis represent about a 65% drop in the number of cabs that used to be available.

Rosa Escarena, City Hall’s business affairs and consumer protection commissioner, says the program has been a rare bright spot for some cabbies, who have seen the number of people taking taxis fall drastically as so many more people have been working from home during the pandemic and not getting out as much.

Escarena says one driver, speaking of the Taxi Access Program, told her: “It’s all I’m doing right now.”

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