Saturday, 22 October 2011

London cabs and disabled commuters

London cabs 'not a luxury but essential'
Wheelchair-bound commuters meet govt officials over phasing-out of taxi fleet
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 4 Nov 2011

ONE by one, they arrived in London cabs, apart from one commuter who found that they were all booked and turned up in a van instead.

It was a fitting entrance for the six wheelchair-bound commuters and their caregivers, who yesterday met government officials to raise their concerns about the phasing-out of the London cabs from Singapore's roads next year.

The six, all left wheelchair-bound by a medical condition or an accident, rely on these cabs to get around for work, school or leisure activities.

They each use larger-than-normal wheelchairs which can fit only in London cabs.

But SMRT, the only taxi operator that runs them here, will discontinue its fleet of 15 when their eight-year licences expire by March next year. The firm said buying and maintaining them would not make good business sense given the high price of a certificate of entitlement - $56,112 at present.

The 11/2-hour-long meeting was held at the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) headquarters in Ghim Moh yesterday afternoon. It was attended by representatives of all the government agencies involved: the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, and the NCSS.

Representatives from the Handicaps Welfare Association and the Society for the Physically Disabled were also present.

SMRT, however, was conspicuously absent, as the wheelchair-bound attendees pointed out.

When government representatives spent at least 20 minutes asking why the London cab was their preferred mode of transport, and if they would like to be involved in a trial to test other vehicles, wheelchair- bound commuter June Hoo, 49, became visibly irritated.

'You don't need to spend your energy testing out other vehicles,' the corporate communications manager told them. 'The fact is, we know these vehicles work for us... As a regulator, you need to ensure these vehicles are available for us - after all, we pay taxes too.'

Other commuters nodded in agreement.

Among the suggestions thrown up by the commuters:

The LTA should mandate that taxi companies maintain a percentage of their fleet accessible to all types of wheelchairs.

SMRT should be forced by the LTA to continue to run the service.

The LTA should extend the licences of the current London cab fleet, at least temporarily, until another solution is found.

The LTA's representative, deputy manager of its taxi division Kwan Mei Fong, said she would raise these suggestions with her bosses.

'Rest assured we are and have been looking into this. We have approached different organisations about this and are working on it,' she said.

Tensions rose when the topic of using the Handicaps Welfare Association's van as an alternative was discussed.

Said Ms Hoo: 'You shouldn't be pushing this to the association and segregating us further from regular commuters. This is not a welfare issue but one about universal access.'

She then brought up the LTA's reply to a letter in The Straits Times Forum, in which it listed five alternatives to London cabs. Four of the five options do not exist, she said.

Loh Jia Wei, a 16-year-old student at Raffles Girls' School who is wheelchair-bound, said: 'I was very disappointed that they would offer such suggestions to us. They didn't even take the trouble to check if those options existed.'

Businessman Jagbir Singh, 42, added: 'When other members of the public see these options, they will just think that we (wheelchair-bound commuters) are making a big deal out of nothing. But the fact is there are no other options.'

While the meeting ended with no conclusion, the commuters said they were at least pleased that they had been given the chance to raise their concerns.

'This a good way to formally raise all our different views. Taxis are not a luxury for us, they are essential,' said Ms Sherena Loh, 52, a wheelchair-bound commuter and a manager at the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

These commuters want the LTA to come up with a solution and to do so quickly, as the end of the cabs' lifespan is drawing closer.

'The start of the school year is in January and I need transport to get to school,' said Jia Wei, who will be starting junior college at Raffles Institution in Bishan next year.





Helping hand for disabled on the go
Govt incentives, funding can broaden their transport options
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 3 Nov 2011

MR EDDIE LEOW, 40, has been confined to a wheelchair since a serious motorcycle accident 11 years ago. The days pass slowly at his nursing home and he looks forward to his fortnightly outing with his caregiver.

These trips are made possible using a London cab whose higher ceiling allows all types of wheelchairs to be wheeled in, including his high-backed kind which he needs to keep his body upright.

But getting out and about will become much tougher for Mr Leow soon.

That is because SMRT, the only operator that runs London cabs, will discontinue its fleet when their eight-year licences expire by next year.

The firm said buying and maintaining them would not make good business sense given the high price of a certificate of entitlement - $56,112 at present. It would have to raise rentals of new London cabs, now about $110 a day compared to about $100 for normal taxis. This would not go down well with cabbies.

Without London cabs, a segment of wheelchair-bound commuters, who need larger-than-normal wheelchairs, have few alternatives. These are people like Mr Leow, with more severe injuries, who need the high backs of these wheelchairs to hold their bodies and necks up or those who need motorised wheelchairs.

Other transport options are not suitable, have limited operating hours or are severely overbooked.

SMRT has one Hyundai Starex and ComfortDelGro has 200 MaxiCabs, but these fit only normal-sized wheelchairs.

Charities or volunteer groups such as Caring Fleet and the Handicaps Welfare Association have vehicles able to take larger-than-normal wheelchairs. But these run only on weekdays or give priority to those who need the services for work, medical appointments or school. This keeps out those who take on a job with irregular hours, or those who want to go out in the evenings or on weekends.

Wheelchair commuters want to know: Who is looking out for their transport needs?

It won't be the taxi companies, which are concerned about their bottom line.

Should the responsibility then lie with the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, which is in charge of disabled people's welfare, or with the Ministry of Transport?

As with issues that straddle more than one government agency, such as special education, neither ministry seems keen to take a proactive approach.

One ministry needs to step up, rather than leave it to good Samaritans to fill the gaps. In this case, the Ministry of Transport with its expertise in providing disabled access on public transport, should take the lead.

There are three ways to go about it.

One: incentives. In Perth, the state government gives taxi companies A$15,000 (S$19,800) to modify a vehicle so it can take all types of wheelchairs. Operators also claim subsidies for every wheelchair-bound passenger they ferry.

In Singapore, the Government can work on a similar approach, giving operators money to sustain a fleet of London cabs by making up the difference in the new rental prices.

Two: regulation. In London, the government regulates its operators and is bringing in rules to ensure all newly licensed taxis are able to carry most types of wheelchairs by Jan 1 next year.

In Singapore, operators can be fined if they do not meet standards, such as minimising waiting times and accident rates. One more parameter could be included: ensuring that the disabled receive a certain level of service by providing vehicles they can use.

For example, the Land Transport Authority can mandate that a certain percentage of each operator's fleet must be able to fit passengers in any type of wheelchair. If the ratio is a mere 0.1 per cent of the 26,000 taxis here, that's 26 cabs that can carry all types of wheelchairs - more than the 15 London cabs on the roads now.

Three: seed funding. The ministry can fund organisations to run a wheelchair- accessible transport service.

The Handicaps Welfare Association van service and London cabs are over-subscribed, with commuters having to book up to a week in advance. A small push in seed money can spur other organisations to step in to meet the demand.

In Hong Kong, social enterprise Diamond Cab has been running a sustainable, fully wheelchair-accessible fleet of five vehicles for the past four years. It takes bookings at all hours, all week.

While there are no figures on the number of disabled here, Singapore's ageing population means the need to provide transport for wheelchair users will grow. By 2030, one-fifth of Singaporeans will be 65 or older. This adds up to 900,000 people, treble the number now.

There is no doubt that the Ministry of Transport has worked hard to improve access for the disabled on the public transport system. About $60 million was spent making the majority of pedestrian walkways to train stations, bus stops and taxi stands disabled-accessible with tactile guides and wider spaces.

Now, more than 80 per cent of train stations have at least two barrier-free access entries, including lifts. One in three buses is now wheelchair-accessible. In five years, it will be four in five.

These changes have made public transport a lot more accessible to disabled commuters. Next, the ministry should turn its attention to those among the disabled who need specialised vehicles.

After all, it has often pledged to keep commuters' needs at the heart of every decision it makes. Bringing viable transport options to a particularly vulnerable group of commuters would be a good way to fulfil that promise.





A Caring Fleet for wheelchair-bound commuters
Social enterprise ferries needy around with vans; 120 users have registered
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2011

Wheelchair-bound commuters concerned about the phasing out of London cabs have another way to get around.

A social enterprise called Caring Fleet is offering to ferry them about using Toyota Hiace vans.

The nine vehicles, which were bought by Singapore Pools, have hydraulic ramps, high ceilings and special seat belts to keep the chairs secure. They can fit three wheelchair-bound commuters with a caregiver each, and are also suitable for those using larger, motorised chairs.

The service is welcome news for commuters with special needs, now that SMRT has decided to stop running its London cabs by next year, when their licences run out.

Trips cost $20 regardless of the distance. This compares with the $40 charged by taxis per trip.

The cost falls further if there is more than one commuter in the van.

Mr Christopher Lee, assistant operations manager for Caring Fleet, said the service began last year but only recently started reaching out to more clients.

'We have some commuters who rely on London cabs who were concerned about the end to these cabs so they started looking for alternatives and found us,' the 36-year-old added.

The fleet now has 120 registered users and Mr Lee said its customer base is growing by between 7 per cent and 10 per cent a month.

Mr Oh Boon Keng, 21, is a regular.

The National University of Singapore undergraduate, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and has been wheelchair-bound for 11 years, travels from his home in Lakeside to the campus in Kent Ridge three to five days a week.

'I used to have to take a MaxiCab or London cab,' he said. 'This has turned out to be a much cheaper option for me and I feel safer knowing that this van is specifically for people like me.'

But Mr Oh added that the service's operating hours are limited.

Commuters who want to book Caring Fleet vans have to call 6281-8118 between 9am and 6pm on weekdays.

Mr Lee said exceptions can be made for customers who need to get to work early or stay at school late.

He is also looking into offering weekend trips, if the demand is there.

'There are only a few transport services for the disabled in Singapore,' he said. 'We try our best to give them the opportunity to go out and meet people, instead of having to stay at home.'

Caring Fleet is also working with community development councils to identify low-income wheelchair-bound commuters who need transport. They will receive subsidies from Singapore Pools to use the service.




Why London cabs are the only fallback for some
WHILE cautiously optimistic about the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) commitment that it is 'further studying the suggestion that will require taxi companies to have a certain percentage of their fleet to be wheelchair-friendly', I would kindly urge the authorities to act without further delay ('LTA lists alternatives to London cabs'; last Saturday).

This is because with the phasing out of London cabs by early next year, the gap in the transportation needs of disabled individuals who use motorised and other larger than normal wheelchairs will not be filled by the alternatives listed in LTA's response.

The LTA said that 'apart from SMRT's London cabs and Hyundai Starex, ComfortDelGro runs a fleet of 200 MaxiCabs which are wheelchair-friendly'. The Hyundai Starex will not allow an individual of average height to board the vehicle on a wheelchair. Due to the weight of motorised wheelchairs, it will be hazardous for users to board MaxiCabs which require the use of portable ramps. Even if this was possible, such wheelchairs will not fit into the space available.
The LTA said 'passengers with specialised needs, such as commuters in high-back wheelchairs, can also approach community organisations where their needs can be better catered to'. We are well aware of these options. In fact, this is often our first choice due to its lower costs. But these services have limited operating hours and a large pool of clients. So London cabs are our only fallback.

For example, while I mostly work from home (due to the kind understanding of my employers), I need to be in the office at least once a week and I need the London cab for my trip home as I usually leave the office around 7pm. The transport service from the Handicaps Welfare Association is usually unavailable after 3.30pm as they need to pick up other workers.
With the above in mind, perhaps the LTA could work with SMRT to keep the London cabs operating until truly viable alternatives are available?

This would go some way in making Singapore a more inclusive society as we work towards our longer-term goal of realising the vision of a better life for all - a vision first painted in President Tony Tan Keng Yam's Address at the opening of Parliament on Oct 10.
Peter Loh
A tetraplegic London cab user
ST Forum, 25 Oct 2011




LTA lists alternatives to London cabs
WE THANK Ms June Hoo and Mr Peter Loh ('LTA must step in to help disabled fares' and 'Shrinking demand?'; both on Oct 13) and Mr Ng Chee Kheon ('Disabled commuters'; last Saturday) for their letters on the availability of taxi options for wheelchair-bound commuters with the phasing out of SMRT's 15 London cabs next year.

Taxis serve as a form of personalised transport providing door-to-door service that caters to the broad majority of commuters.

Taxi companies have, on their own accord, introduced taxis that cater to passengers in wheelchairs. Apart from SMRT's London cabs and Hyundai Starex, ComfortDelGro runs a fleet of 200 MaxiCabs which are wheelchair-friendly.

Passengers with specialised needs, such as commuters in high-back wheelchairs, can also approach community organisations where their needs can be better catered to.
For example, the Handicaps Welfare Association (HWA) runs a door-to-door transport service using minibuses which are equipped with accessible features to cater to the transport of wheelchair-bound commuters with such specialised needs.

More options can be found at www.dpa.org.sg

LTA is further studying the suggestion that will require taxi companies to have a certain percentage of their fleet to be wheelchair-friendly.
Helen Lim (Ms)
Acting Director, Media Relations
Land Transport Authority
ST Forum, 22 Oct 2011




Disabled commuters
'Encourage each taxi firm to operate a minimum number of London cabs.'
MR NG CHEE KHEON: 'While I sympathise with the plight of wheelchair-bound commuters who depend on London cabs for transport ('LTA must step in to help disabled fares' by Ms June Hoo; Thursday), it is SMRT's prerogative whether to keep or phase out the cabs as this is a commercial decision in a free market. If demand for such cabs is indeed overwhelming ('Shrinking demand?' by Mr Peter Loh; Thursday) but unprofitable, perhaps the Land Transport Authority (LTA) could encourage each taxi firm to operate a minimum number of London cabs relative to the size of its fleet to fulfil the industry's corporate social responsibility. LTA could waive the COE premiums payable for these taxis. Meanwhile, LTA may wish to work with SMRT to keep the London cabs operating.'
ST Forum, 15 Oct 2011




LTA must step in to help disabled fares
SMRT is disregarding the reality of a growing community of wheelchair-bound commuters who rely solely on the London cabs and their drivers to get where they need to go - for work, play and more ('SMRT has wheelchair-friendly alternative to London cabs'; last Friday).

Because of the London cab service, we can engage and participate in the community instead of being confined at home. The London cab drivers have built tremendous goodwill with wheelchair-bound fares and established a loyal clientele among the able-bodied as well. Given the small fleet and the high volume of daily bookings, these drivers simply do not have the capacity to pick up roadside fares.

SMRT should understand the wheelchair-bound better. We cannot move easily out of our wheelchairs into standard taxis and vice versa. Attempting the transfer is a struggle for family members or caregivers and a harrowing experience for the disabled. The London cab eliminates this tortuous step. Will the Land Transport Authority please step up?
June Hoo (Ms)
ST Forum, 13 Oct 2011




Shrinking demand?
'It can take a week's advance notice to secure a booking.'

MR PETER LOH: 'SMRT's reply ('SMRT has wheelchair-friendly alternative to London cabs'; last Friday) does not gel with my personal experience. The reply cited a shrinking demand for London cabs, yet it can take a week's advance notice to secure a booking. How is this so if demand is shrinking? As for the Hyundai Starex alternative, does the height of the taxi allow a person of average height to board while seated on a wheelchair? Even if so, one such vehicle in the fleet will not meet the demand. Bearing in mind that the London cabs can fit larger-than-normal wheelchairs, as well as the much bulkier motorised wheelchairs, commuters in my situation face a daunting prospect. I would appreciate it if the relevant authorities could address this gap in the transportation needs of the disabled.'
ST Forum, 13 Oct 2011




SMRT has wheelchair-friendly alternative to London cabs
WE THANK Mr Jagbir Singh for his letter on Tuesday ('Disabled-friendly cabs are a must').
SMRT has to phase out the last 15 London cabs next year when they reach the taxi statutory lifespan - the equivalent of a private car's certificate of entitlement (COE) - as we were unsuccessful in trying to extend it.

Our drivers also face shrinking demand for their services, because many taxi commuters avoid flagging a London cab on the road, or booking one.

So, the drivers are keen to switch taxi models to earn a more sustainable income.

Wheelchair-bound passengers have been boarding our standard taxis, while those who find that difficult are using our Hyundai Starex taxi which is fitted with an automated hydraulic ramp. We acknowledge that these are in no way direct substitutes for the London cabs, so we are continuing to assess wheelchair-friendly taxis which are economical and viable.

The Hyundai Starex, which is on trial now, is one such vehicle.
Bernadette Low (Ms)
Senior Manager, Corporate Marketing and Communications
SMRT Corporation
ST Forum, 7 Oct 2011




Disabled-friendly cabs are a must
I AM dismayed by SMRT Taxis' plan to phase out London taxis ('End of the road for London cabs in 2012'; Sept 22).

London taxis were first brought in by the then Trans-Island Bus Services (Tibs) 20 years ago and these became a means of transport for the disabled.

Since then, Tibs has been acquired by SMRT and the number of London taxis has dwindled.

Although the public transport system has evolved significantly - the MRT system has become increasingly wheelchair-friendly, and so also a few buses - these roomy London cabs have a major role. As the article noted, London cabs remain the only public vehicles which can fit larger-than- normal wheelchairs, and bulkier motorised wheelchairs.
An online search will show the availability of wheelchair-accessible taxis in every major city. London, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and Hong Kong provide wheelchair taxis at no extra cost than the fare of a normal cab. Even Mumbai provides wheelchair-accessible cabs.

Switzerland provides such services to the disabled for free.

My concern stems not so much from SMRT Taxis retiring the remaining London taxis, but more from the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) apparent lack of any viable alternative.

Apparently, LTA does not see the need to provide these services.

I do not know what the LTA's policy is, but here's another enlightened example: Perth, one of the disabled-friendlier cities in the region, requires a fair percentage of a taxi operator's total fleet to be wheelchair-accessible.

These taxis are equipped with hydraulic lifts, wheelchair locks, and special seat belts to ensure their passengers' safety.

They are seven-seaters that can also be used by able-bodied persons. A wheelchair-bound person is charged the same as anyone else. There is also no booking fee.

I am not asking the LTA to mandate a huge proportion of the taxi population for the disabled. But surely mandating that a modest 3 per cent to 5 per cent of taxi operators' fleets be wheelchair-accessible, with proper ramps or lifts and necessary safety features, isn't too much to ask in the continuing effort to make Singapore a more inclusive society.
Jagbir Singh
Member, Tetraplegia Workgroup
Founding Member
Spinal Support Group

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