Thursday 24 May 2012

Grants for wheelchair-friendly taxis

MCYS move will help offset cost of buying and operating such taxis
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 23 May 2012

THE London cabs they ride in will be phased out next March, but wheelchair commuters may have an alternative by then.

The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) wants to give taxi companies grants to offset the cost of buying and operating cabs that can take large, high-backed and motorised wheelchairs.

The London cabs were due to be phased out in March this year when their licences expired. But the Government extended their leases for a year after The Straits Times broke the story and reported the plight of wheelchair users last year.

The ministry is asking cab companies to submit their formal proposals for such taxi fleets before June 25, and wants to have such vehicles available by next year.

These grants are the first incentive here to nudge cab firms into providing such services. In Australia, some state governments pay cab companies to modify vehicles to take all types of wheelchairs, while operators can claim subsidies for every wheelchair-bound passenger they ferry.

MCYS Acting Minister Chan Chun Sing made the announcement during a visit to the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) in Tiong Bahru yesterday.

He said that besides the grant, MCYS will be working with the companies to come up with a longer-term plan 'whereby the service is more sustainable'.

London cabs operated by SMRT are currently the only taxis that can accommodate certain specialised wheelchairs. There are only 15 London cabs in SMRT's fleet.

MCYS plans to offer grants for up to 30 wheelchair-accessible taxis.

That is, if taxi companies bite.

'We are looking at and exploring this new initiative,' said SMRT Taxis director Tony Heng.

Mr Lim Chong Boo, managing director of Premier Taxis, said it takes time for such vehicles to be ordered and modified locally, adding that certificate of entitlement (COE) prices would be a factor as well.

An MCYS spokesman said the grant would help defray the COE premium and Additional Registration Fee of wheelchair-accessible taxis. The ministry will also reimburse the amount equivalent to the Quota Premium or Prevailing Quota Premium, which is the cost of renewing a COE, on the date of vehicle registration - whichever is lower.

For a 30-vehicle fleet, the grant could be about $3 million, the spokesman said.

Mr Chan said he was 'pretty confident' cab operators would apply, after having discussed the plan with them over the last few months.

SPD chairman Chia Yong Yong said she was heartened by the move.

Besides the grants, she hopes that the authorities would ensure a safe and affordable transport system and trained drivers for the disabled.

Wheelchair users said the proposed idea is good news.

Bao Yang, a 19-year-old mathematics student at Nanyang Technological University who suffers from muscular dystrophy, has travelled by London cab almost daily for six years.

Alternative van services such as the one run by the Handicaps Welfare Association do not run early in the morning and after hours, he said, so they cannot ferry him to school by 8.30am each day.

But corporate communications manager June Hoo, 50, wanted more certainty on the transport issue: 'If the taxi operators come back and say they can't do it, where does that leave us?'

London cabs, she said, are a proven solution, and give wheelchair users the autonomy they want. 'We want to be self-sufficient; we want to be able to work. We want to live like everyone else as much as possible,' she said.

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