Jeff Erlanger and his family disembark from the Caribbean cruise ship, and suddenly they’re in humid Jamaica with hours to kill. The family meanders around the port for an hour or so, eager to explore, but doesn’t expect to see much of the city. They have no way to get around.
A family of able-bodied individuals would be able to hail a cab, no problem. But Erlanger is a lifelong quadriplegic who uses a heavy motorized wheelchair. Back home in Madison, he relies on his accessible van to get from his apartment to his Edgewood College classes, appointments and extracurricular activities.
Thus, a typical taxicab is not an option, especially — he thought — in Jamaica. Yet one suddenly pulls up beside the family and asks if they need a ride. They explain their situation to the driver, that Jeff would need a ramp, and a way to hook in his wheelchair, so thank you but no thank you.
Instead of leaving, the driver pulls out his phone and dials a number. We’ll get you one that works, he says. A few minutes later a van pulls up, one with equipment accessible enough to transport the family to tourist spots around the city. And when they’re ready to return to port, they simply call the number again and the van picks them back up.
Erlanger’s mom, Pam, is traveling with the group. Dozens of years later, she realizes the importance of that day.
“It opened his eyes to see what could be,” she says. “I don’t think it had ever occurred to him.”
It struck Erlanger as strange that a developing country like Jamaica could provide fast, affordable, accessible taxicab service when Madison, while becoming more inclusive, failed to do so. There was no ordinance or legislation requiring taxi companies to provide accessible service.
We’ve got to make this available in Madison, Erlanger thought. And that’s exactly what he did.
Jeff Erlanger chats with a Jamaican cabbie in 2004. His experience there inspired Erlanger to fight for more accessible services in Madison.
Erlanger, who died in 2007, led a battle to get Madison up to speed with Jamaica. As chair of the Disability Rights Commission, a committee that works through Madison’s Department of Civil Rights, Erlanger was in a unique position to press for better transportation options for people with disabilities.
Then — as now — people with disabilities could get wheelchair-accessible van rides through Madison Metro, but 24-hour advance notice is required, and the service isn’t available ’round the clock. “Metro has paratransit, but you have to reserve it a day in advance, and you have to be prequalified,” says Mike Cechvala, a Madison Metro employee who previously worked for the Metropolitan Planning Organization. “If you use a wheelchair and want to go to the movies in an hour, paratransit isn’t going to work for you.”
In 2004, the Common Council was close to requiring that all of the city’s cab companies offer around-the-clock service to people with disabilities. But instead, Union Cab, the worker-owned collective, offered to provide the service voluntarily. Today in Madison, those with physical disabilities can ride in Union Cab’s six accessible vans 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Union Cab has been able to provide the service with federal funding to help buy accessible vans, which are expensive. “The price for a converted mini-van with wheelchair ramp is somewhere from $18,000 to $25,000, depending on the quality of the van,” says Paul Bittorf, Union Cab’s business manager and cooperative secretary. Regular cabs cost about $8,000 to $10,000, Bittorf says.
Grants from the Federal Transit Administration program have covered 80 percent of the accessible vehicles’ cost. When the vans aren’t providing rides for people with disabilities, Union uses them as regular cabs, which helps make the service affordable.
But now Erlanger’s hard-fought victory is in danger of unraveling. The federal government changed the criteria for the grants, making them available only to nonprofits or carpooling services. Without the grants, Union Cab cannot afford new vans, and its current accessible vehicles are rapidly aging. The company typically uses a standard cab for about three years, but it’s kept accessible vehicles on the road twice as long. Its oldest van has logged more than 400,000 miles, Bittorf says.
Union Cab can charge a higher rate for accessible rides when contracted with a service agency. But if a person with a disability calls for a ride, Union charges the same rate it would for an able-bodied person. But that doesn’t cover the true cost. Bittorf says accessible rides are twice as expensive for the company, due to higher costs for maintenance, insurance and other factors.
“If you add it up over time, we do lose money on those rides.”
In addition, app-based companies like Uber and Lyft are increasingly cutting into Union Cab’s profits, making it difficult to maintain the more expensive service for people with disabilities.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Bittorf says. “We don’t want to stop providing the service, but we really don’t know how we’re going to afford it.”
While expensive, there’s clearly a need for the service, says Bittorf.
“You can call us right now for a wheelchair ride; you could probably get a cab in 20 minutes.” — Chris Reott (shown with Karen Foxgrover)
In 2013, the company provided about 10,000 accessible rides. More recent figures are unavailable. But Bittorf says a regular cab provides about 15 to 20 rides during a typical eight-hour shift. An accessible cab will usually give about 15 percent of its rides to people with disabilities, or two to four calls per shift per van.
Bittorf acknowledges the company isn’t able to meet the current demand for rides because sometimes there aren’t enough available vehicles. “We actually turn down a lot of people, and we don’t keep track of the ones we turn down,” he adds.
Bittorf says he heard from a man who uses a wheelchair whose daughter was in an accident. But he couldn’t get a cab and had to wait until the morning before he could get to the hospital to see her.
Anna Gouker, a former member of the Disability Rights Commission, has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. She once scheduled an accessible van ride several days in advance to get to her internship, but when the day came, the cab never showed up.
“If you’re not able to be where you need to be, [to] follow through with your commitment, then you’re not as attractive in the employment market,” Gouker says. “It just adds to the challenge of employment even further.”
Gouker did everything she was supposed to, but still felt at fault. She says this feeling can easily lead to giving up on goals and aspirations.
But ultimately, she doesn’t blame Union Cab for what happened — she believes the company is doing its best.
Union Cab, like the rest of licensed taxicab companies in town, is now competing against companies like Uber and Lyft.
Carl DuRocher, a longtime advocate for both mass transit and people with disabilities, laments that the state Legislature passed a law in 2015 that legalized these app-based services and preempted municipalities from regulating them.
They “are really destroying the way cab companies have been licensed for the purpose of serving the public,” he says. “They cherry pick profitable rides, which takes away some of the profits and makes it harder for Union Cab.”
DuRocher says Madison can’t afford to lose on-demand taxi service for people with disabilities. It’s bad for residents and visitors, he adds. What about a visitor who uses a wheelchair who is in town for a conference or a job interview but can’t get from the airport to a hotel?
“That can happen,” DuRocher says. “Somebody can come from out of town and be totally naive and just be stranded. We can’t let that happen. Madison is too big.”
Bittorf is scrambling to find a way to maintain the status quo. Union has generated some revenue by renting advertising space on the backs of its accessible vans. But it’s not enough to keep the service going, and long-term solutions aren’t simple or clear.
He says if nothing changes soon, the service might be gone by the end of the year.
Numerous city and county officials have expressed sympathy about the company’s predicament, but none have offered solutions or help.
“I have talked to people at both the county and city levels about it,” he says. “The standard reply is to say, ‘well, the rules have changed, you should change your business’” in order to again qualify for federal funding.
“That’s actually quite a bit to ask a company to do,” Bittorf adds. “If I could figure out a way to do it, I’m all for it, but I haven’t been able to figure out a way.”
Some ideas have been floated — and so far rejected. In January 2015, the Disability Rights Commission recommended either requiring all cabs to have a percentage of fully accessible vehicles or imposing a 25-cent surcharge on all taxi rides in the city, which would then help pay for accessible rides. But the recommendation came around the same time the state Legislature was moving to preempt municipalities from regulating “transportation network companies,” i.e. services like Uber and Lyft.
Ald. Mark Clear, who sits on the commission, says these ideas were never acted on because officials worry they would further cripple taxi companies as they struggle to compete against the new app-based businesses, which are exempt from all taxi regulations.
“It felt to me like putting an additional burden on the taxi companies — that are highly regulated — while not being able to do the same thing for transportation network companies — that have less regulation — would give [taxi companies] an even more difficult competitive disadvantage,” Clear says. “So it didn’t move forward at the time, but I feel like there’s a sense of urgency to do something before the service goes away.”
On a brisk December morning, Chris Reott begins his shift as he begins them all — driving through the streets of Madison. Reott has been a Union Cab driver for eight years, and an accessible van driver for seven.
He waits for a ride request to pop up on his small screen, but in the meantime, he tells stories of the people and things he has seen as a cab driver. Women in labor, people who have had strokes and struggle to communicate — Reott has driven them all.
“Dealing with the public is an interesting thing because you really never know who you’re going to get in your cab and what their attitude’s going to be,” he says. “Then you’ve got people who aren’t well, because I’m dealing with that. Whether they’re not well in the head, or physically. You get it all. And some are both. You just don’t know. It’s an adventure.”
Reott laughs heartily. His dark hair is graying at the temples, and he wears glasses with thin frames. He glances down when a notification pops up on the screen — someone needs a taxi, but not an accessible one.
Reott gives three or four accessible rides on an average day, and drives able-bodied folks for the rest of his shift. He says he’s happy to provide a service that he believes is vital.
“You can call us right now for a wheelchair ride; you could probably get a cab in 20 minutes,” Reott says. A regular cab might only take 10 minutes, but even twice that wait “is still pretty good.”
Chris Reott secures Karen Foxgrover’s wheelchair in an accessible Union Cab van.
Reott has been driving for an hour when he accepts his first accessible ride request of the day. The system says she’s a wheelchair user who wants to get from her downtown apartment to a doctor’s appointment at UW Hospital.
He recognizes her name. When you’ve been doing this for seven years, you start to know the regulars, he says.
Reott drives up to the curb and stops, waiting several minutes. The moment he sees Karen Foxgrover leaving the apartment complex, he hops out, opens the van’s back doors, and helps the woman roll herself up the ramp.
Foxgrover is bundled up in a scarf, hat and blanket on this below-freezing morning. She requests that Reott drive slowly and coast over any bumps — her muscular dystrophy has caused severe scoliosis.
“My back is very, very unstable, so I would rather pay more for a cab ride that goes slow enough to not break my back, and that’s what they do,” Foxgrover says.
Reott gets on the road, and he and Foxgrover argue lightheartedly about their pets — she brags about her ragdoll cat, while he claims his shih tzu is cuter. Suddenly, railroad tracks appear in the van’s path.
“We’re going to slow down and we’re going to hit these tracks here. We’re going to slide slowly through these tracks,” Reott says in a calming manner.
The rest of the ride goes smoothly, and the van arrives at the revolving doors of the hospital’s entrance. Chris gets out of the driver’s seat, opens the back doors, undoes the buckles and pulleys. He guides Foxgrover gently down the ramp and out of the cab. She thanks him and says goodbye: “I’m ready to roll.”