Wheelchair Accessible Taxi Inquiry report

Wheelchair Accessible Taxi Inquiry report: Findings and Directions

Summary and recommendations
Introduction
Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport
Focus on response times
Consumer experiences
Private arrangements outside booking systems
Setting and monitoring of performance standards
Proportions of accessible taxis in fleets
Proportion of WATs to WAT users
Other factors affecting adequacy of service
Relationship of fleet proportions to service outcomes
Regional WAT services and community transport
Reasons for low proportions of accessible vehicles
More active enforcement
Enforcement approaches alone may not be effective
Comparison with funding of other transport modes
Universal taxi and design issues
Marketing of accessible vehicles for mainstream use
Planning for accessibility

Appendix: Inquiry process

Summary and recommendations

Focus on response times: The draft Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport under the Disability Discrimination Act require that (within 5 years from the authorisation of the Standards) response times for accessible taxis should be the same as for other taxis. Although not yet in force the Standards were approved in principle by all Transport Ministers over 5 years ago.

This target of equal response times is contained in the draft Standards rather than being an invention or imposition by HREOC. It reflects HREOC's view of the existing requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act - and in fact is a substantial compromise from those requirements in that it refers only to booked services and not to taxis on ranks or hailed and thus in principle allows the taxi industry and regulators to comply by appropriate management of fleets having less than 100% accessible vehicles.

Consumer submissions to this Inquiry identify widespread problems of severely late arrival or non arrival of accessible taxis. They emphasise the impact of unreliable transport service on ability to participate in employment, education and social activities.

Private arrangements: Despite these experiences it must be acknowledged that many users do receive an effective service from the taxi industry, often achieved only through private arrangements outside booking systems. Generally positive experience for users of these arrangements needs to be taken into account in assessing overall system performance, but it also needs to be noted that these arrangements further reduce the effective supply of accessible taxis for other users. It needs to be asked why users need to negotiate a personal transport service instead of being able to rely on an effective public transport service.

Performance standards and monitoring: It is surprising that in most cases regulators have only recently moved to put in place and monitor performance standards - for the industry generally and for wheelchair accessible taxis in particular. In some jurisdictions standards are yet to be set. HREOC urges all jurisdictions which have not already done so to implement, as a matter of urgency, monitoring of wheelchair accessible taxi services against appropriate performance standards; to publish regularly (at least annually) the results of monitoring; and to consult with industry and community representatives on means of addressing any deficiencies in performance where these continue to be identified by monitoring. In particular transport regulators need either to undertake effective enforcement and monitoring of priority requirements themselves, or ensure that networks have their own effective priority systems in place.

If regulators do not take prompt and effective action in this area, it needs to be noted that the Disability Discrimination Act provides for liability not only for bodies directly responsible for discrimination, but for bodies causing or permitting discrimination. Monitoring of performance appears essential to identify what and where additional accessible vehicles are required and in what other measures should be taken to ensure effective service. Those regulators which have better established systems of monitoring of service standards are encouraged to share their experience with other jurisdictions.

Proportion of accessible vehicles in fleets: Around 14% of taxi licenses nationally are reported to be for accessible vehicles. Proportions vary substantially around Australia between States and between different regions. State by State figures reported are 5.4% for N.S.W.; just over 6% for Victoria; 10% for Queensland; just over 8% for Western Australia's metropolitan fleet; around 7% for South Australia's metropolitan fleet (with no detailed figures available for non-metropolitan fleets in these two States); 9.4 % for the A.C.T; 4.9 % for the Northern Territory and no figures being provided for Tasmania.

Several States point out that these figures represent a much higher ratio of accessible cabs to WAT users than the ratio of taxis overall to general taxi users, so that other reasons for less effective service need to be examined as well as simple numbers of cabs. Industry submissions also emphasise that there may not be a simple relationship between proportions of accessible cabs and service performance.

Lack of accessible alternative services: Community submissions point to a greater dependence on taxi services by people using wheelchairs because of the degree of inaccessibility which still exists for other public transport modes. Industry submissions argue that inaccessibility of publicly provided transport modes presents a reason why funding responsibility for accessible taxi service should be more completely accepted by government as a public good.  

Additional time for boarding and unloading : Additional time for boarding and unloading reduces the number of jobs an accessible taxi can perform per day compared to a standard cab. Industry submissions, with some community support, call for greater recognition of this in subsidy arrangements. 

Impact of school transport requirements: Many submissions refer to the demand on accessible cabs for school transport. The transport requirements of students with disabilities cannot be regarded as less of a priority than those of other people with disabilities. However, HREOC encourages education authorities and transport regulators to consult on possible means by which funding for school transport could be used to increase availability of accessible transport for all needs (in conjunction with the bus industry or community transport providers), instead of there being competition for an inadequate supply at peak periods.  

Status as specialised vehicle: Submissions emphasise that the status of WATs as a specialised vehicle with small numbers in overall fleets means longer average journeys to pick up passengers and hence less efficient utilisation. This reasoning supports the strategy implemented through "maxi taxis" of WATs being combined with other specialised vehicle requirements, that is for vehicles delivering larger luggage space and higher passenger occupancy, to increase their numbers within overall fleets.  

Priority issues: However this mixed use presents issues of priority for passengers using wheelchairs. Submissions indicate that passengers using wheelchairs frequently not only do not receive higher priority but actually receive lower preference for jobs. 

Industry submissions propose incentives to take passengers travelling in wheelchairs to offset additional loading, unloading and empty running time (or increases in incentives where these exist). Consumer and government submissions generally emphasise increased enforcement of priority requirements. Some submissions call for a combination of economic incentives and improved enforcement and monitoring. This combined approach of enforcement and incentives appears to HREOC to be the most likely to be effective. The appropriate form of incentives (whether through contract payments as in Western Australia for a single company contracted to provide WAT services, or operational subsidies to individual operators as with Victoria's boarding time fees, or other approaches better adapted to the circumstances of a particular region) requires consideration by regulators in the context of particular markets. 

Are there enough accessible vehicles: The lack of meaningful monitoring of performance in most jurisdictions until recently makes it difficult to form definite conclusions about whether the proportion of accessible vehicles in fleets is sufficient. HREOC proposes to revisit this issue in future when results of monitoring are more widely available. Industry and government are encouraged to consult nonetheless on means of increasing the supply of WATs. 

Regional towns lacking WAT service: The difficulty of assessing whether there are sufficient accessible vehicles does not apply in those places where fleets include no accessible taxis at all. It is not acceptable that many regional towns with sizeable taxi fleets have no accessible taxi service. There is a clear need for transport regulators to examine how provision of accessible service might be made viable or more attractive to operators in regions lacking accessible services. This should include examination of the impact of funding for accessible "community transport" vehicles on the viability of accessible mainstream public transport. Where the specialist taxi regulator does not have a role regarding non-metropolitan services, transport authorities need to ensure by other means that appropriate attention is nonetheless given to regional service issues. 

Universal taxi designs: Evidence to the inquiry clearly indicates the desirability of a taxi design or designs offering greater comfort and safety for WAT passengers as well as greater acceptability to general taxi users. HREOC urges and Territory transport regulators to re-activate consideration of issues of appropriate universal taxi design or designs and means of having such a design or designs enter service as a substantial part of Australian taxi fleets. Transport regulators, including the Federal government, should examine possibilities for cost offsets for "universal taxi" designs, including import costs. 

Compatibility of mobility aids with taxis: HREOC urges Federal and State transport regulators to discuss with other relevant areas of government means for improved information to consumers on compatibility of mobility aids with various public transport modes. While most regulators have expressed support for a certification process, a viable means of achieving this or who should be responsible has yet to be identified. Submissions raise various views regarding carriage of passengers riding on "scooters" in taxis. There is a need for definitive safety rulings from relevant regulators rather than drivers and passengers being left uncertain and disputes arising at the point of boarding.  

Marketing of accessible vehicles for mainstream use: , which as noted has reported no difficulty in filling recent subscriptions for WAT licenses, also reports substantial effort and success in marketing vehicles as multi-purpose vehicles so as to enable these vehicles to derive acceptable financial returns. Industry and government in other jurisdictions are encouraged to consider experience in promoting mainstream use of accessible taxis. 

Planning for accessibility: Many transport operators in other transport modes have already embarked on programs of implementation of the draft Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport, in some cases through development and provision to HREOC of an Action Plan under the DDA. HREOC encourages the taxi industry to consider similar approaches to planning for compliance with the Standards, in consultation with consumers. Whether or not the draft Standards receive final authorisation in the near future, HREOC urges those taxi regulators which have not already done so to commence regular publication of reports on performance in WAT service, including progress towards achieving equal response times, and to ensure that these reports are notified to HREOC, to industry and consumer bodies and to regulators in other jurisdictions.  

Introduction

Effective access to transport is one of the keys to participation in our society - in education, in employment, in social and cultural and political life.

This is no less true for people with disabilities. Public transport in its various forms is particularly crucial to those people whose disability prevents them from driving or whose low income makes them reliant on public transport. These issues have particular (although not exclusive) relevance to people with physical disabilities, including people who use wheelchairs.

For these reasons, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has given great emphasis to access to public transport in its work under the Disability Discrimination Act.  

We have sought to encourage and assist in practical progress and practical solutions to transport access issues: in negotiation of national standards for accessible public transport; and more directly in negotiations, complaint processes and action plan and exemption based processes that have seen accessible buses and accessible railway stations appearing in increasing numbers around Australia, and that this year have seen accessible trams begin to appear in Melbourne.

Despite the progress made in these other transport areas, the day when most people with disabilities will be able to use bus, train or tram systems which are fully accessible is, in most cases, still many years away. Also, in many cases even an accessible bus, train or tram route will be too far from a person's home or destination to reach or will not provide the most direct path of travel.

So the taxi industry is and will remain an essential part of the picture in accessible public transport.

State and Territory governments around provide substantial subsidies to people with disabilities for taxi use.

In at least some cases this has been done partly in recognition of their previous failure to ensure accessibility of their own public transport systems. This includes, for example, the construction of inaccessible stations for the Eastern Suburbs Railway in Sydney in the 1970s and the acquisition of inaccessible buses and other vehicles in some cases until even more recently (and until well after their own introduction of disability discrimination provisions in equal opportunity legislation in the early 1980s in several cases). Recognising that taxpayer funds have subsidised and continue to subsidise operation of government owned or franchised urban bus and rail transport systems, people with disabilities to whom these systems are not yet fully accessible naturally regard provision of subsidy for alternative accessible transport as no more than a matter of simple equity rather than any special generosity. 

Extensive resources have been invested by some members of the taxi industry in acquiring accessible vehicles and by governments in regulatory systems. 

HREOC is not claiming a monopoly of knowledge about accessible taxi services - but we have been concerned by widespread evidence that in many areas existing services not only do not provide people reliant on wheelchair accessible taxis (WATs) with equal access to mobility, but do not provide a realistically effective service at all. 

HREOC has received a number of complaints from time to time under the Disability Discrimination Act, and a much larger number of less formal representations, regarding delays or unreliability in having taxi bookings met for people with disabilities who require taxis to be wheelchair accessible. 

This inquiry was commenced in the hope of making a contribution to improving this situation - if only by highlighting the issues and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and experience. 

Considerable knowledge and experience is presented in the submissions from community, industry and government sources, which are available on the HREOC Web site - see www.humanrights.gov.au/disability_rights/inquiries/taxi/subs.htm - in response to questions in the notice of inquiry we issued earlier this year.  

These submissions make proposals for improved booking, monitoring and enforcement systems; for more effective economic incentives for effective service provision; and regarding the appropriateness and safety of existing accessible cab designs and possibilities for a "universal taxi" to form at least a substantial part of fleets. 

This report seeks to synthesise the views and information presented in submissions, and in subsequent discussions with consumers, regulators and taxi industry representatives. It is not intended as the last word on these issues, but rather as identifying directions to be pursued by government and industry into the future. 

Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport

Draft Standards for Accessible Public Transport were approved in principle by the Australian Transport Council in 1996 after extensive negotiations and approved in full by Federal Cabinet in October 2000, subject to some revisions, after lengthy regulatory assessment processes. As at October 2001 the draft Standards still await the final step of tabling in Parliament.

These standards are intended to provide transport operators and consumers alike with more detail and certainty about their rights and responsibilities than is provided by the very general existing anti-discrimination provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act and equivalent provisions in State and Territory discrimination and equal opportunity laws.

The draft Standards include a requirement that response times for accessible vehicles are to be the same as for other taxis. This is stated as being required to be achieved within five years of the date when the Standards take effect (that is, when they are approved by the Parliament).

It has been submitted to HREOC in this inquiry that a requirement for equal response times, on average, for WATs as for other taxis both is economically unachievable fo rthe industry in present circumstances and misses the point that the greatest concern is not with what may be a small difference between average waiting times for WATs and for other taxis, but with those smaller number of instances where WAT users face much longer delays or where a taxi never comes at all (such as some examples given in consumer submissions).

However, for the purposes of this inquiry, HREOC has used the draft Standards for Accessible Public Transport as they are. In this respect the draft Standards remain the same as they were when endorsed in principle by all Transport Ministers in 1996, as they have been publicly available since that time, and as they were developed by industry, consumer and government representatives prior to that.

Parties who are of the view that modified targets would be more appropriate than those presently contained in the draft Standards should consider  

  • Making recommendations for amendment of the Standards through the ongoing consultative processes established by the Australian Transport Council (in which all States and Territories and the taxi industry are represented alongside consumers) and/or
  • Applying to HREOC for an exemption under the DDA reflecting an approach to achieving compliance with the objectives of the DDA which may be better adapted to their own circumstances.

The focus of the draft Standards on waiting times for booked services as the key performance requirement for taxi services acknowledges in effect that, for the present at least, equal opportunity to hail cabs on the street is not required to be achieved for passengers requiring wheelchair accessible taxis. Equality of opportunity in hailing cabs would require 100% fleet accessibility, or at least close to it, but it appears possible in principle at least to deliver equal response times for booked services with considerably less than an 100% accessible fleet - so long as that fleet is appropriately managed.

The requirements of the draft Standards for taxis contrast, therefore, with the requirements for most other transport modes, where movement to 100% accessibility of buses, trains and so on is required - albeit over a longer time frame and subject to possible instances where this would involve unjustifiable hardship.

Submissions in this inquiry have given further emphasis to concerns previously raised with HREOC, that this modified target of equal response is in many areas of far from being achieved.

So long as Standards remain unauthorised, the existing general non-discrimination provisions of the DDA remain applicable. These provisions clearly make it unlawful to provide less prompt or less reliable service to passengers with disabilities than other passengers. Equally clearly, this is subject to an exception where and to the extent that achieving equal service would impose unjustifiable hardship. What is less clear is how these provisions apply in particular circumstances.

A major reason for the co-operative development of the draft Accessible Public Transport Standards - by public and private sector transport providers, disability community representatives, transport regulators and HREOC - was the undesirability, for transport providers and consumers alike, of transport accessibility being determined through litigation and the uncertain application of general anti-discrimination provisions.

HREOC continues to regard the Standards and the co-operative method of their development as the appropriate means for planning the transition over time to accessible public transport systems for . This includes accepting the modified target for taxi services - equal response times for booked services instead of equal access to all services including hailing on ranks and on the street - as the result of extensive negotiations and as part of the overall package of the standards to achieve accessible transport systems over time.

However, the standards are not yet in force and have now been delayed substantially beyond the initial expectations of all parties concerned.

This has meant that: certainty of rights and responsibilities remains to be achieved; and the reviews of the operation and effectiveness of the Standards (including in relation to taxi accessibility), which were scheduled to occur five years after the introduction of the Standards, have yet to be concluded. For these reasons also HREOC regarded an inquiry in this area as timely.

Focus on response times

The main focus of this inquiry has been on delays or unreliability in having taxi bookings met for people with disabilities who require taxis to be wheelchair accessible.

Other issues - including lack of proper use, maintenance or fitting of securing equipment, and the compatibility or otherwise of some mobility aids with travel in some or all taxi designs - are referred to from the perspective of effective use of accessible fleets rather than being the major focus of the inquiry in their own right.

In addition to the focus of the draft Standards on response times, one reason for the specific focus of the current inquiry is that the issue of response times - arrival significantly outside the time expected and experienced by other passengers, or non arrival at all - does not appear readily able to be dealt with by use of complaint mechanisms established by taxi regulators, since it appears to involve more systemic issues of booking systems, proportions of accessible vehicles in fleets, and the economics of providing service to passengers requiring wheelchair accessible taxi service. 

Consumer experiences

Submissions commenting on the draft version of this report questioned whether there was an adequate basis in reliable data for a conclusion that overall service levels particularly in NSW and Victoria were unaccetably poor.

It is clear that insufficient performance data has been availablel in the past in most Australian jurisdictions, HREOC looks to industry and regulators to improve collection and publication of data particularly when the Accessible Public Transport Standards come into force.

A major purpose of this inquiry, howeer, has been to direct attention to consumer perceptions and experiences.

Consumer submissions identify widespread problems of severely late arrival or non arrival of accessible taxis, as well as issues regarding safety and comfort of travel. They emphasise the problems which a lack of reliable transport poses for equal participation in employment or education, or for the ability to meet with family or friends. Numerous incidents of people being stranded for hours in frustrating or frightening circumstances are provided in the submissions available on HREOC's web site. 

The main priority for HREOC in a public inquiry process such as this is to assist industry, consumers and government in working towards solutions, rather than only highlighting problems. 

A few examples, however, help to illustrate the concerns which have been raised in this inquiry. Some of these refer to experiences in waiting for taxis at ranks rather than only to the booked services which are the subject of this inquiry and of the performance requirement in the draft Standards. These comments are included here however because

  • until the draft Standards are actually in force taxis on ranks also remain subject to possible complaints under the DDA; and
  • they serve as a reminder that in requiring equal response for booked services only rather than also for ranks and hailing, the Standards in the view of the disability community already represent a considerable compromise.

Ms M.Paterson explained the importance of accessible transport: 

"I need taxis to be reliable and safe so I can live my life.  I want to be able to go out at night and not worry that I will be stranded waiting for a taxi at a late hour.  I want to be able to book a taxi and know it will arrive on time and not have to waste an hour waiting and ringing the call centre to remind them I'm still waiting.  I don't want to constantly worry that I will be late for a meeting or look unreliable to my work peers for not turning up.  And most especially, I need to know that my wheelchair - on which I rely absolutely - is being transported safely and in one piece, along with me."

Mr M.Bagshaw, a frequent business traveller, commented:

"I have experienced extensive delays in all capital cities of this country. I have sat at taxi ranks and watched the queue of standard taxis stretch as far as I could see, and waited for over an hour while an accessible taxi made its way to me. When using the taxi service I make every effort to book at least an hour in advance, and yet I have missed flights, meetings, appointments and been late to numerous events as a result of waiting for an accessible taxi. This is far from a decent service. This is exacerbated at peak travel times, for example, at the end of the schooling and working day.

I have travelled to other cities overseas where the majority of taxis are accessible and have been amazed at the difference. There is no issue regarding waiting or booking taxis at all. When in , I am able to hail any passing taxi for use. There is no need for a designated service, a particular phone number for booking and importantly, I never had to wait for my taxi longer than anyone else."

The Physical Disability Council of NSW advised that several participants in community forums conducted by them reported delays of over four hours in waiting for accessible taxis and that all participants reported instances of waiting over an hour.

Several submissions emphasised the impact of unreliable transport service on ability to participate in employment, education, and social functions.

Mr J.Carter from provided a log of experiences on a visit to (presented here in edited form):

"Booked Saturday for 9am pickup - arrived . . Booked for pickup - arrived . Booked for - Not arrived by after several follow up calls and Club approaching closing time. Dispatcher called a cab from an airport rank. . Booked for pickup - arrived . Booked for - arrived 1.50am. . Booked for (restaurant closing ) - taxi arrived . Harassed by a group of youths while outside waiting for taxi."

Mr D. Davis told of calling from to seeking a previously booked cab to take him to a family lunch function in - the cab finally arrived at 3.30 but naturally he and his wife missed the lunch - as well as experiencing cabs arriving two hours late in .

The Disability Advocacy Service Hunter provided the following consumer experience:

"I rang the taxi service on Tuesday April 3 to make a booking for the following Saturday - April 7. I was told there wasn't a chance of getting a booking as all available spots were taken. When I asked the operator how many WAT's were going to be out that day she said she wasn't allowed to tell me. She then told me I should have booked in advance. I said I thought I was booking in advance, but she told me I should have booked 3 weeks in advance."

Ms D.Parker of told of a 12 year old boy waiting until on a wet and cold night following a swimming session, for a cab pre-booked for . Several participants in hearings for this inquiry also gave evidence of similar incidents where children were stranded for some hours following sporting events while waiting for an accessible taxi.

Several submissions referred to people missing specialist medical appointments due to non-arrival of accessible taxis.

Another dimension was provided by Ms L.Dowling, a social worker in the NSW Hunter region, who told the story of a family fleeing domestic violence:

"We were able to get the mother and babies to a refuge in the early afternoon. The teenager in the wheelchair had to wait till evening before we could get an accessible taxi for her. This was extremely frightening and a very tense situation for all."

A different form of delay due to insufficient effective supply of accessible taxi transport was noted in the submission of the Northcott Society, based in western . This submission gave several instances of taxis which although they arrived on time to collect the passenger, arrived over an hour late at the destination, due to delay and diversion en route to collect multiple hires, without any prior consultation with the original hirer.

Private arrangements outside booking systems

Despite these experiences, it should be acknowledged that many users do receive an effective service which they value highly.

Submissions indicate that 70 to 80 per cent of WAT trips are arranged privately outside of "official" booking systems.

The users who are party to these arrangements report much higher satisfaction with the service than appears to be the case for general users. As pointed out in submissions, however, the result of these arrangements is that users seeking to book a cab outside these arrangements however have a drastically reduced effective supply of cabs to call on.

Several submissions call for a ban on private arrangements including a ban on mobile phone bookings. However, other submissions question whether such restrictions can ever be effective. Clearly such a ban would not be favoured by the current majority of WAT users who are party to such arrangements. The real issue appears to be why users need to be negotiate a personal transport service instead of being able to rely on an effective public transport service - whether because of deficiencies in systems for connecting consumers with services or because of a lack of sufficient service to go around.

Evidence at hearings for this inquiry referred to instances where WAT passengers hand over more government taxi subsidy dockets than the number of trips actually performed as part of the price of a private arrangement for taxi service. As pointed out by disability community representatives at these hearings, such behaviour would constitute fraud which cannot be condoned and which consumers have a responsibility not to engage in and to report to appropriate authorities.

It seems clear from submissions that in many parts of wheelchair accessible taxi users do not receive a satisfactory transport service. The main issue for discussion then is what can be done about it.

Setting and monitoring of performance standards by taxi regulators

The Australian Quadriplegic Association commented:

"Since the inception of the WAT Service in 1981, WAT passengers were advised to book a taxi the day before it was needed but also expect a delay of around 1 hour. Many people with disabilities accepted this as it was a new service and there were few available WAT's. Since these times the expectations of people with disabilities have increased ."

Taxi regulators in some but not all jurisdictions are now monitoring performance against standards for timely service, and have provided comparative figures on service for WAT users and other passengers.

Given the longstanding status of the taxi industry as a regulated industry, it is surprising that in most cases regulators have only recently moved to put in place and monitor performance standards - for the industry generally and for wheelchair accessible taxis in particular. In some jurisdictions standards are yet to be set and performance monitoring is yet to commence. In the absence of performance requirements for service to consumers, it appears reasonable to question just what regulators have hitherto been regulating, and why or to whose benefit.

(This comment does not apply to all jurisdictions, the South Australian Passenger Transport Board submission for example pointing to results of performance monitoring over several years.)

HREOC urges all jurisdictions to implement, as a matter of urgency, monitoring of wheelchair accessible taxi services against appropriate performance standards; to publish regularly (at least annually) the results of monitoring; and to consult with industry and community representatives on means of addressing any deficiencies in performance where these continue to be identified by monitoring.

It does not appear possible or appropriate to recommend a single model for monitoring and enforcement of standards across , or to identify uniform actions in achieving equal service which are uniformly necessary and will be uniformly effective across . HREOC expects that taxi regulators, industry and consumers in each jurisdiction ought between them to be able to summon considerably more expertise on appropriate measures to secure equitable taxi service than a body in HREOC's position is able to.

For example, in some areas use of GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to direct the nearest available accessible cab to pick up a passenger using a wheelchair may be an important part of improving service, but in other instances this technology may not presently be readily available or effective.

In these circumstances the regulatory approach taken by the Western Australian Department of Transport appears to have much to commend it: setting performance standards and holding networks accountable for meeting those standards, without specifying in detail what approach industry should take to get there.

In parallel with overall performance monitoring, it is essential that consumers should have access to effective information on the status of bookings they make (that is, when a cab can be expected to arrive) and access to well publicised means of complaint regarding particular instances of lack of effective service as well as in relation to issues of safe carriage and fares charged.

For a regulated industry it appears simply absurd that complaints on these issues should need to come to a national human rights commission. 

Rather than multiple individual instances of inadequate service needing to be brought to HREOC under the Disability Discrimination Act (and to State and Territory equal opportunity authorities under equivalent State and Territory legislation), a more appropriate role for a body in HREOC's position is to ensure that industry specific regulatory regimes operate appropriately to prevent discrimination on a more systemic basis.  

This inquiry is in part an attempt to pursue that role through open and co-operative discussion.  

It needs to be recognised, however, that if regulators do not take prompt and effective action in this area, the legislation does provide other means for pursuing equal service provision, through the complaint process.  

The Disability Discrimination Act provides for liability not only for bodies directly responsible for discrimination, but for bodies causing or permitting discrimination (see section 122). 

Unless they can show that they have taken effective steps to ensure non-discriminatory service, taxi regulators, permitting as they do fleets to operate with only small proportions being accessible vehicles, would be highly likely to be exposed to liability for permitting any discriminatory results which occur in taxi service provision (under the existing provisions of the DDA at present, and under the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport, when and if those enter into force, so far as booked services are concerned).  

It may well be, as argued by most government submissions, that effective setting, monitoring and enforcement of service standards offers a more efficient and effective means towards equitable service for people dependent on wheelchair accessible taxis - but acceptance of this argument for legal rather than only for theoretical purposes obviously requires that effective setting, monitoring and enforcement of service standards actually be in place. Otherwise, the potential continues to exist for liability simply for permitting inaccessible vehicles to operate. The nature of responsibilities for access is more complicated for the taxi industry than for other transport modes but this does not mean that no responsibility can or would be found. 

At a practical level, monitoring of performance appears an essential step in identifying what and where additional accessible vehicles are required and thus in determining what further measures should be taken to ensure that sufficient accessible vehicles are on the road, in operation and with priority being given to passengers dependent on WAT service in jobs taken by drivers. 

Those regulators which have better established systems of monitoring of service standards are encouraged to share their experience with other jurisdictions. 

Proportions of wheelchair accessible taxis in fleets

Official national figures for accessible taxis were not provided to this inquiry. One of the benefits of the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport, when these finally are authorised, is that the Australian Transport Council decision to monitor progress nationally towards the targets set out in the standards will then take effect. As noted above, however, this is yet to happen.

Mr Angus Downie's submission provides a convenient national overview, indicating that nationwide a total of 1,026 accessible taxi licences - or about 14 % of the total fleet - have been released, and that of those 1,026 licences, 793 are in metropolitan cities and 233 in rural and regional areas.

Attention is also needed however to substantial variations in WAT availability between jurisdictions and between different regions.  

NSW:

The overall proportion of WATs in the NSW taxi fleet is reported as 5.4% and the proportion for is similar.

A number of submissions refer to results of an Australian Quadriplegic Association survey of accessible taxi fleets in NSW outside as follows: 

Town/Region

Population

No of Taxis

No of WATs

No of People per WAT

Albury

41 491

28

3

13 800

Armidale

21 330

16

3

7 000

Ballina

16 056

8

4

4 000

26 029

27

1

26 000

Broken Hill

20 963

21

1

21 000

227 657

73

13

17 400

Cessnock

17 540

14

2

8 500

/ Sawtell

35 417

18

4

9 000

Dubbo

30 102

20

2

15 000

Foster-Tuncurry

15 943

7

4

4 000

Goulburn

21 293

28

1

21 000

Grafton

16 562

14

1

16 500

14 209

11

2

7 100

Katoomba

17 700

22

1

17 700

Kiama

11 711

5

1

11 700

Kurri-Kurri

12 555

6

1

12 555

Lismore

28 380

27

3

9 500

Maitland

50 108

31

2

25 000

270 324

157

5

52 000

Nowra

23 823

13

4

6 000

30 705

31

1

30 700

Port

33 709

15

7

4 700

Queanbeyan

25 689

16

1

26 000

Richmond-Windsor

21 317

8

2

10 600

Singleton

12 519

6

2

6 250

31 865

22

3

10 600

Taree

16 702

14

1

16 700

37 775

20

3

12 500

Wagga Wagga

42 848

29

5

8 000

219 761

127

5

44 000

These figures are presented in detail to show that there is not a simple division between urban and regional experience - rather there is substantial variation in the accessible proportion of cab fleets, from less than 3% in some cases to 50% or more for some small fleets. The much poorer ratios of WATs to population in and the low fleet proportion accessible were one reason for the inquiry conducting a hearing there, which confirmed correspondingly poor service outcomes. Some other regional centres have similar proportions of WATs to population but HREOC's limited resources did not permit hearings in those centres to examine experience in detail. 

Victoria

The Victorian Taxi Directorate provided the following figures:

Metropolitan taxis 3209 includes 168 wheelchair accessible (or around 5.2%)

Outer Suburban taxis

(Frankston & Dandenong) 139 includes 16 WAT's (around 11.5%)

Ballarat 55 includes 5 WAT's (around 9%)

42 includes 4 WAT's (just under 10%)

125 includes 13 WAT's (just over 10%)

Country taxis 433 includes 48 WAT's (or around 11%)

TOTAL 4003 includes 254 WAT's (or just over 6%)

The striking feature for is that the proportions of WATs in rural and regional fleets overall are higher than those for the metropolitan area. Some submissions also indicate better service outcomes in some regional areas than in metropolitan .

Western Australia

The Western Australian Department of Transport indicates that in the metropolitan area there are 81 accessible taxis out of a total fleet of 1005, or just under 8.1%.

Outside this submission does not give the same level of detail of proportions accessible. However it does indicate that while Kalgoorlie, Mandurah, Bunbury, Geraldton, Broome, Albany, Karatha, and Busselton have some accessible services, in Carnarvon there appear to be no WATs out of 24 taxis; in Port Hedland none out of 22; in Collie none out of 11; in Derby none out of 7; in Esperance none out of 6; and no WATs present in any of the smaller fleets in other centres. 

South Australia

The South Australian Passenger Transport Board indicates that in the metropolitan area there are 68 accessible taxis comprising approximately 7% of the fleet. Figures for non-metropolitan were not provided (being outside the PTB's jurisdiction) but this submission notes that some towns lack any accessible taxi service due to lack of economic viability. 

Queensland

The Queensland Department of Transport advises that 10% of the fleet overall is accessible, with proportions varying from none in some regions to 30% in others.  

Tasmania

Figures for have not been provided at this point. 

A.C.T.

The A.C.T. Department of Urban Services indicates that 20 new licences released in 1999 and 2000 have brought the number of WATs to 26 out of a current fleet of 243 taxis, or just under 9.4%. 

Northern Territory

The submission from Northern Territory Health Services referred to figures for taxis, private hire cars and mini buses. To enable comparison with figures from other jurisdictions for taxis only, figures were subsequently provided for taxis only, which indicate that at the time of the submission there were 9 wheelchair accessible taxis in the out of a total fleet of 184, or 4.9%. 7 accessible taxis were located in Darwin and 2 in Alice Springs.  

Proportion of WATs to WAT users

A number of community submissions refer to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicating around 19 per cent of the community as having a disability. However, other submissions point out that the relevant figure for present purposes - the number of people who rely on wheelchair accessible taxis - is a much smaller proportion of the population, in the order of half of one per cent. Not all people with a disability use wheelchairs and not all wheelchair users need or prefer to ride in a WAT (remaining seating in their wheelchairs) rather than transferring to a seat in a standard taxi.

This is not of course to dismiss the needs of people who do require WATs, only to provide an accurate starting point for discussion. It also needs to be recalled that the proportion of wheelchair users in the population is likely to rise with continued ageing of the Australian population.

The South Australian Passenger Transport Board provided information as follows:

"In , there are currently 68 wheelchair accessible taxi licences for a known market of around 5,000 users (i.e. members of SATSS who rely solely on wheelchairs for mobility). There are around 1,000 general taxi cabs for the rest of the population in metropolitan of approximately 1.1 million people. Wheelchair accessible vehicles comprise approximately 7% of the taxi fleet. These equate to: 1 wheelchair accessible vehicle to every (approximately) 70 wheelchair users; 1 general taxi cab to every (approximately) 1,100 people."

The Victorian Taxi Directorate submission indicates similar proportions of vehicles to users, even with a relatively low proportion of the fleet (5.9%) being accessible: "The Statewide ratio of wheelchair accessible taxis to wheelchair user population (as calculated from the Multi Purpose Taxi Program membership) is 1 accessible taxi for every 80 wheelchair users."

In the reported proportion of accessible cabs in the total fleet is 5.4% and while low relative to some other States, this is still around ten times the proportion of people who use wheelchairs and are reliant on WAT service.

Given these figures it needs to be asked why, rather than response times and reliability for WAT users being significantly worse than for general taxi users as evidence indicates, they are not instead overwhelmingly better than average.

Other factors affecting adequacy of service:

Greater reliance on taxis by WAT users

Community submissions point to a greater demand for taxi services by people using wheelchairs than by other members of the community because of a lack of alternative means of transport. Submissions argue that WAT usage would be significantly higher than it already is if the service were more reliable.

The NSW Taxi Council/Victorian Taxi Association submission, among others, points to a greater degree of reliance by WAT users on taxi transport compared to other members of the community, and points in this respect to large scale inaccessibility which still exists for the public transport modes which perform the major mass transit task in Australian cities - bus, train and tram. This submission argues that since the taxi industry is presently attempting the task of providing accessible mass transit which publicly provided transport modes are not yet ready to perform, funding responsibility for accessible taxi service should be more completely accepted by government as a public good.

However industry has also noted that taxis are not well placed to perform mass transit tasks in peak periods compared to higher volume transport modes (bus tram and train). HREOC therefore regards the taxi industry's comments in this area as an argument for other transport modes to press ahead with achieving accessibility, rather than as an argument that they need not do so since the taxi industry could perform the task instead. The issue of funding for the taxi industry is considered further later in this report.

Boarding and unloading time

Several submissions point out that additional time required for boarding and unloading also reduces the number of jobs a WAT can be expected to perform per day compared to a standard cab. Industry submissions with some support from disability community submissions call for recognition (or greater recognition) of this in subsidy arrangements.

Impact of school transport requirements

Many submissions refer to reductions in the number of accessible cabs available in peak periods due to demand on these cabs to provide school transport.

Physical accessibility of dedicated school bus services is exempted from the general requirement of the draft Standards for Accessible Public Transport for all bus services to become accessible over the next 20 years, because the cost of achieving a 100% accessible school bus fleet was assessed as disproportionate to demand. Although it should be noted that these services are to remain subject to the general anti-discrimination requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, it is likely to be many years before most children with physical disabilities are able to use accessible school bus services. Even where provided, accessible bus services as defined in the Standards may also fail to meet the needs of some children. Hence a particular demand may remain on WAT services in the morning school and work peak period and (possibly less severe in impact) at the end of the school day.

As recognised by some submissions, the transport requirements of a school student can hardly be regarded as less legitimate or pressing than those of other members of the community. The issue is rather what might be done about this factor contributing to a mismatch between peak demand and supply for accessible transport.

HREOC encourages education authorities and transport regulators to consult on possible means by which funding for school transport could be used to increase availability of accessible transport for all needs instead of there being competition for an inadequate supply at peak periods.

One possibility which HREOC suggests transport regulators could examine in consultation with education authorities is whether there is any scope for some funds presently applied in purchase of accessible taxi services, to substitute for accessibility of the main school transport, instead to be applied as incentives to bus operators to accelerate transition to accessible fleets.  Another issue is the relationship between school and community transport.

Status as specialised vehicle within fleets

Dr Jack Frisch's submission in particular emphasises that the status of WATs as a specialised vehicle with small numbers among overall fleets implies longer average journeys for pickup of passengers using wheelchairs. Hence there is less efficient utilisation of each WAT cab than standard cabs, requiring a higher proportion of WATs to users than general cabs to general users to deliver equivalent service.

This may have a particularly severe impact in larger cities given the spread out nature of Australian cities. On this basis it might be reasonable to conclude that Sydney and Melbourne, despite their larger absolute numbers of WATs than other centres, also require a higher proportion of accessible vehicles in their fleets to deliver an effective service rather than the lower proportions that they actually have relative to other capitals.

The South Australian Passenger Transport Board notes that similar issues apply to bookings of other specialised vehicles within taxi fleets such as station wagons.

This issue would of course be minimised if price differentials between standard taxis and accessible taxis were reduced sufficiently to require 100% fleet accessibility - whether through lower license fees, other forms of subsidy, or technical developments.

Even if a 100% accessible fleet is regarded as unjustifiably expensive, this reasoning supports WATs at least being combined with other specialised vehicles, that is those delivering larger luggage space or higher passenger occupancy. This strategy has in fact been adopted to some extent with the "maxi-taxi" approach. As noted below, however, this approach also presents some problems.

Priority for passengers using wheelchairs

While WATs are required at least in theory to give priority to work from wheelchair users, they are not a dedicated service reserved exclusively for people with disabilities.

The Victorian Taxi Directorate notes for example that a smaller dedicated fleet would be likely to be able to provide a much more efficient service, but that this would require a greater government contribution to provide a reasonable operator income in the absence of an ability to take general taxi fares.

"An alternative (as discussed previously) to the combined use of accessible taxis for wheelchair and conventional bookings would be for the booking network (or agent) to exclusively "hire" the required number of accessible taxis to cover demand between (say) and . These taxis would then be used exclusively for wheelchair bookings and as the drivers would be paid continuously during the hired time, could be directed to cover all bookings irrespective of location or length of journey.

In a manner similar to the mainstream public transport route services, the fares collected from the passengers would be used to partially off-set the cost of providing the service. It is estimated that an arrangement of this type in metropolitan would add around $2.4M annually to the Multi Purpose Taxi Program budget."

The approach of licensing WATs to take general business as well as people who specifically require wheelchair accessible transport appears a reasonable strategy on an economic basis, and on the basis of the strong preference of people with disabilities to be served as far as possible by mainstream rather than segregated services. In the transport area this rests in part on reported experience that transport provided by mainstream transport providers is generally more effective and economical than "paratransit" from organisations which are not professional transport providers.

Mixed use of WATs however clearly presents two sets of issues: first, it means that the number of wheelchair accessible vehicles required to service the market is higher than if a completely dedicated service was used; second, it presents issues of whether passengers requiring wheelchair accessible transport actually receive higher priority (to offset the lack of accessibility of the majority of cabs) or whether they in fact received lower priority.

Issues of effective priority for passengers using wheelchairs have been raised consistently across , indicating that passengers using wheelchairs frequently not only do not receive higher priority but actually receive lower preference.

Some community submissions ascribe this to operator prejudices or lack of appropriate awareness. Other submissions however point out that drivers of WATs should in general be expected to be less affected by prejudice or ignorance than the general population and that attention should be given in the first instance to market issues of incentives and regulation.

Submissions from industry bodies propose incentives to take wheelchair work (or increased incentives where some operational incentive already exists as in ). Consumer and government submissions generally emphasise increased enforcement of priority requirements.

A few submissions, such as that provided by Dr Jack Frisch, call for a combination of economic incentives and increased enforcement and monitoring. These issues are discussed further later in this report.

Relationship of fleet proportions to service outcomes

The discussion above indicates that there is considerably more to the issue of effective WAT service than the simple proportion of WATs in taxi fleets.

Nonetheless, relatively low levels of fleet accessibility at least in NSW and Victoria appear a substantial part of the reason for higher reported levels of dissatisfaction with services - although those States are also the subject of industry and consumer dissatisfaction with regulatory arrangements, acknowledged in recent changes to booking systems in and in moves to adopt hitherto lacking performance standards and monitoring.

The NSW Taxi Council and Victorian Taxi Association call for the DDA standards on accessible public transport to give a more explicit percentage requirement for accessible fleets to supplement the current general performance requirement.

A number of other submissions, however, take the position that the percentage of accessible vehicles in a fleet is not the decisive determinant of whether equal response times are achieved.

For example the ACT Taxi Proprietors' Association stated in its submission that "it is not considered appropriate to nominate a particular percentage of the fleet as being the "sufficient" number of WAT taxis".

The Victorian Taxi Directorate provides the view of a consultant engaged by them to conduct a competition policy review of the taxi provisions of the Transport Act as follows:  

"it would be wasteful, inefficient and extravagant to continue down the path of issuing further wheelchair accessible taxi licences simply to comply with an arbitrary figure set by the Commonwealth. The issue is not about inputs, it must be about service outcomes".

Although it is not clear what is meant here regarding an arbitrary figure set by the Commonwealth since no such figure has in fact been set, the point being argued is otherwise clear.

The Western Australian Department of Transport makes similar points:

"In general terms the answer to whether there is enough MPTs in the taxi fleet to meet the needs of people with disabilities is yes. The extent of trips made by taxi by people with disabilities is relatively low. There is at any one time throughout the week significantly less that 10% of the MPT taxi fleet occupied undertaking taxi trips with people with disabilities, excluding private taxi trips. The quandary that these statistics raise is that if it is believed that the size of the fleet is sufficient then why isn't the level of service better. If there are sufficient taxis in the taxi fleet in order to meet the needs of people with disabilities then the way to improve service is through fleet management. Performance standards have been in place since . The Taxi Unit is hopeful that the performance standards process provides a clear and substantial opportunity to improve performance of the MPT fleet for people with disabilities."

Queensland Transport similarly stated that it

"does not consider that fleet proportions and vehicle-to-population ratios are an effective means of managing demand as they do not necessarily correlate to actual service delivery. Service delivery can be impacted by a range of factors such as topography, urban density, urban sprawl, traffic and road conditions and even weather. Driver and booking company behaviour and despatch practices also impact significantly on service delivery. For example, in , thirty percent of the taxi fleet is accessible. However, waiting times for wheelchair accessible services still fall well below the stated targets. On the other hand, only seven percent of the fleet is accessible in Bundaberg and targets are being achieved."

However, this comment should not be taken to mean that the proportion of accessible vehicles is viewed as completely irrelevant to service outcomes - since for some years Queensland Transport has been applying a policy of requiring all new licenses to be for accessible taxis, until 10 per cent fleet accessibility is reached.  

Regional WAT services and community transport

The lack to date of figures from meaningful monitoring in most jurisdictions makes it difficult to come to definite conclusions on whether the proportion of accessible vehicles in fleets is sufficient - and thus whether attention should be directed only to issues of effective fleet use, enforcement of priority for people travelling in wheelchairs in access to WATs, and adequacy of incentives for drivers to take WAT work, or whether and where there is a need to increase the proportion of WATs in fleets.

HREOC proposes to revisit this issue in future when results of monitoring are more widely available.

This difficulty however does not apply regarding those places where fleets include no accessible taxis at all.

It is not acceptable that many regional towns even with quite sizeable taxi fleets have no accessible taxis. In these circumstances issuing of taxi licenses without requiring accessibility appears to involve particularly strong potential for liability under the DDA.

For these regional towns there is a clear need for transport regulators to examine means by which provision of accessible taxi service might be made viable or more attractive to operators.

This should include examination of the impact of funding for community transport on the viability of accessible mainstream taxi transport, and possibilities for redirection of funds from purchase of community transport vehicles to subsidising capital costs of accessible taxis in appropriate cases.

The Victorian Taxi Association and Taxi Council of NSW argue strongly that community transport services, particularly in rural areas, "have the effect of distorting the economics of disabled Taxi services, by taking some but not all work" and that a significant majority of these services could be more cheaply and efficiently delivered by the Taxi fleets, particularly in rural and regional areas.

's taxi industry similarly raised concerns regarding the impact on accessible taxi services in rural and remote areas of public and charitable subsidies to community transport. They refer to

"well meaning donations of buses by H.A.C.C. or casino funds. These operate in direct competition with the private taxi operator, who is already trying to supply a needed service in marginal economic circumstances. Two possibilities could assist this disastrous scenario. Direct government funding to the taxi operator of the price difference between a conventional sedan and the wheelchair accessible vehicle, and /or direct purchase of a number of contract hours from the taxi operator, using the funds that are now used to supply the bus. This would improve the viability of a marginal operation and assist its continuity."

HREOC urges transport regulators, together with other relevant areas of governments, to assess the impact of HACC or other community transport funding on supply of accessible transport through the taxi industry and consider means of improving cross government coordination of programs for provision of accessible transport. We also urge the taxi industry to pursue possibilities for closer cooperation with organisations which fund or provide community transport, and vice versa.

Where the specialist taxi regulator does not have a role regarding non-metropolitan services, transport authorities need to ensure by other means that appropriate attention is nonetheless given to regional service issues.

Reasons for low proportions of accessible vehicles

HREOC accepts views not only from industry but from a number of community submissions that where accessible taxis are not present at all in fleets or are present only in insufficient numbers, this is most likely to arise principally from economic factors rather than from prejudice or lack of information.  

Some submissions call for the taxi industry to focus less on profit and more on public service. The reality of this industry as it operates in , however, is that it does in fact operate on a private enterprise basis. In most cases drivers operate as individuals and many cab owners own only a small number of vehicles, so that there is less scope than in other transport modes for more financially rewarding services to cross-subsidise uneconomic work as a public service.  

Submissions and evidence at public hearings for this inquiry have emphasised that the issue is not only one of number of accessible cabs on the road but also of preparedness of drivers to drive them and to take jobs from passengers travelling in wheelchairs. 

The inquiry has received evidence from several sources of inadequate driver income and inadequate incentives to take WAT passengers. 

The conclusion is unavoidable that if drivers cannot put food on the table by driving WATs (or owners by owning them) then they simply will not drive or purchase them, whatever their individual attitudes to people with disabilities.  

Similarly, for those who are driving WATs, if jobs serving passengers travelling in wheelchairs are significantly less financially rewarding than other work it would be surprising to see these passengers getting a higher priority for services or even an equal turn - at least in the absence of very close monitoring and enforcement. 

The focus of this inquiry is on booked services. It should also be noted however that many submissions raised issues of discrimination where accessible vehicles were present on the street or particularly on airport ranks but refused to carry a passenger using a wheelchair because of a preference for more lucrative group bookings: see for example the submission from People with MS Australia.  

People who are refused carriage because of their disability should consider using complaint services established by transport regulators and/or by the industry. Regulators and industry need to ensure that complaints are acted on effectively. 

More active enforcement

It appears clear from consumer experience reported to this inquiry that more active enforcement is justified for requirements for priority to passengers using wheelchairs, given the issuing of licenses for WATs at much lower cost than for other cabs on condition of such priority. Transport regulators need either to undertake effective enforcement and monitoring of priority requirements themselves, or ensure that networks have their own effective priority systems in place. 

Enforcement approaches alone may not be effective

However, enforcement approaches alone may not be effective in all circumstances - particularly in view of the fact that the owner who benefits from a lower license cost and the driver who makes decisions about which jobs to take are commonly not the same person.

Industry representatives refer to additional capital costs for accessible taxis. The joint submission from the NSW Taxi Council and Victorian Taxi Association gives a figure of $45,000 for a new standard taxi fully fitted, with $75,000 or more for an accessible taxi. They also make the point that the generally lower value of wheelchair accessible taxi licenses, although a benefit in buying a license, makes it more difficult to finance vehicle capital requirements.

Accordingly industry submissions call for increased capital support from government for WAT services.

This is queried in other submissions which point to the effective subsidy involved in licenses being issued free or at a heavy discount.

HREOC is not in a position to make definite conclusions on this issue. However, recent experience with take up of WAT licenses in some jurisdictions provides some evidence.

It is hard to see a justification for additional capital subsidy on a statewide basis in when the regulator there reports recent license issues not only as fully taken up but as oversubscribed. In such a situation the principal issue appears to be rather that of securing appropriate access and priority for people using wheelchairs to these cabs, whether through improved incentives, enforcement or booking and monitoring technologies or a combination of these.

The Victorian Taxi Directorate notes that in recent years the only new taxi licenses issued have been WAT licenses and that the most recent issue had 98% takeup. This might cast some doubt on whether additional capital subsidy for WAT licenses is in fact required in . However, given the low proportion of WATs in relative some other jurisdictions there may nonetheless be a need to examine incentives for holders of existing licences to acquire and operate accessible vehicles.

By contrast, the lack of full subscription of recent WAT license issues in NSW seems strong evidence that the package is not sufficiently attractive. The NSW Department of Transport's submission notes that the poor take up rate of recent WAT license releases indicates that supply of WAT licences is not an impediment to increasing the availability of WATs on the road, and that impediments of more significance are the economic viability of such a service, and the availability of suitable drivers.

Whether this reflects a need for further cost offsets or direct subsidy, or rather reflects other issues highlighted in industry submissions regarding regulatory uncertainty for the industry requires further consideration by government in consultation with industry and community representatives.

NSW Department of Transport's submission identifies capital issues - a 2 wheelchair requirement for accessible cabs and the additional purchase cost of accessible vehicles -as relevant economic barriers.

As noted by this submission, a requirement for accessible cabs to carry 2 passengers travelling together in wheelchairs is a requirement imposed by the NSW regulator itself, rather than by the draft Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport.

As already noted the NSW Taxi Council in its submission raises issues of capital cost (and impacts of regulatory uncertainty on investment) and calls for direct capital subsidies as well as tax relief on importation of accessible vehicles.

However industry also emphasises operational issues - that is, the lack of sufficient income generated to make carrying of passengers travelling in wheelchairs sufficiently attractive. In addition to the Taxi Council submission these issues were also emphasised by operators at hearings in the Hunter region in particular. It is not clear whether any currently proposed initiatives in NSW address this issue. Recent initiatives outlined in NSW Transport's submission appear to deal with enforcement and monitoring issues but not with incentives.

The Victorian Taxi Directorate's submission notes reductions in that State from 1999 of up to $2000 in stamp duty payable on accessible taxis, and provision by government of a $6.60 surcharge designed to compensate the driver for additional loading and unloading time.

In , the Department of Planning and Infrastructure regards a different approach to incentives (combined with their recently improved approach to setting and monitoring of performance standards) as likely to be effective. In the taxi market (which is smaller than that for Sydney or Melbourne) the approach has been to tendering for a single preferred WAT provider and to make the contract sufficiently economically attractive that there is an incentive to gain and keep the contract by meeting performance standards.

The appropriate form of incentives (whether through contract payments as in Western Australia for a single company contracted to provide WAT services, or operational subsidies to individual operators as with Victoria's boarding time fees) requires consideration in the context of particular markets. Further consultation between industry, government and consumers on how to increase effective supply of WATs to consumers in each jurisdiction and in different area within jurisdictions appears desirable. Jurisductions which consider that no further economic incentives are required are encouraged to provide further information on alternative approaches which they consider more appropriate.

The substantial spending by government on subsidies to users has to be acknowledged. This only accentuates, however, the need for all jurisdictions to ensure that they set, monitor, and ensure public accountability in relation to, appropriate standards for the effectiveness of the service being purchased. 

Comparison with funding of other transport modes

Industry submissions draw attention to public funding being applied to achieving accessibility for other transport modes. 

provides substantial subsidies to the private bus industry to encourage acceleration of the transition to an accessible fleet. Other jurisdictions such as NSW and Victoria do not provide equivalent specific subsidies to the private bus industry, beyond the more general forms of support incorporated in payments for school transport. All public operators are investing substantial resources in acquiring accessible vehicles - although these are generally being acquired in the course of normal fleet replacement schedules and the cost premium for accessible vehicles is not substantial where the now standard industry product of low floor buses can be used. 

Urban rail passenger services in are operated by or on behalf of governments in all cases. Rail accessibility involves substantial additional costs where retrofitting of existing inaccessible infrastructure is required, with figures of over $1 million per station applying depending on the structures concerned.  

It may be argued on this basis that except for very heavily patronised stations, a subsidy even for the full difference between the price of an accessible cab and a standard cab would give a better cost/benefit ratio in achieving benefits to people using wheelchairs compared to government investment in rail accessibility.

However, part of the economic justification for accessible train and bus services is increased accessibility to wider population groups - people with prams or small children, older people, people with other disabilities.

Some accessible cab designs do not achieve comparable wider benefits, and in fact appear to be less useable by and attractive to these user groups. An exception to this however is reported success in promoting "maxi-taxis" for use as high occupancy vehicles, by groups or by people with luggage as at airports. In fact submissions raise concerns that maxi taxis are so effective as mainstream vehicles that it is difficult to get them to fulfil demand specifically as WATs .  

Universal taxi and design issues

Part of the purpose of the concept of a "universal taxi" is to achieve a vehicle which does deliver benefits for use and acceptance by other passengers, and hence for operator income, at the same time as providing safety and acceptable levels of comfort for passengers riding in their wheelchairs.

Submissions express strong concerns regarding the safety of some designs of WAT and regarding the comfort of most current designs.

Dr Frisch's submission calls for further investigation of barriers to importing higher quality wheelchair accessible taxis.

This submission and a number of others argue that most existing accessible taxi designs in are either uncomfortable for wheelchair users or unsafe.

Several submissions make a connection between the design of some wheelchair accessible cabs and the reported resistance to using wheelchair accessible cabs by passengers who do not travel in wheelchairs (with consequent effects on driver income and willingness to take up licenses for or drive these cabs).

Mr Angus Downie's submission raises issues of accessibility of current wheelchair accessible cab designs to elderly users in particular. He also raises safety issues for wheelchair users regarding hoist boarding, as well as safety and comfort issues regarding securing and alignment in vehicles. He particularly criticises "flash cabs" for lack of compliance with Australian Design Rules requirements on rear end or rollover crash safety.

Other community submissions including the Physical Disability Council of Australia, the Disability Council of NSW and the Australian Quadriplegic Association support further investigation of options for universal taxi designs and of barriers to their adoption in the Australian taxi market.

In particular these submissions call for attention to the import duty and tax treatment of accessible vehicles. Mr Downie also calls for government support for proposed establishment of universal taxi manufacturing in to a European "TaxiRider" design which he assesses as meeting 's draft standards as well a other passenger requirements.

Industry submissions from around note the higher capital costs for proposed universal taxis.

Although other submissions point out that costs would be lower if a universal taxi was adopted as a standard vehicle, in HREOC's view it must be accepted that for the foreseeable future the cost of an accessible vehicle taxi meeting "universal taxi" objectives will be substantially higher than for a standard sedan. The price differential at present is such that it appears highly likely that, except where significant cost offsets or other forms of subsidy are available, taxi owners would be able to argue successfully that it would impose unjustifiable hardship to require them to operate only accessible taxis. (This is not to prejudge whether the same result would apply where there is a significant capital or operating subsidy in place.)

The Notice of Inquiry asked whether a completely accessible taxi fleet was necessary and if so what might be done to achieve this. Some community submissions did call for a fully accessible taxi fleet - for example the Physical Disability Council of NSW calls for 100% fleet accessibility within 10 years.

Industry and government submissions however all argue strongly that 100% fleet accessibility is not economically achievable.

A very helpful submission from Dr Jack Frisch provided some economic analysis indicating that requiring all cabs to be accessible would be difficult to justify economically - unless additional costs of accessible vehicles were to fall close to sedan taxi levels; or unless a standard taxi design were adopted for other reasons, in which case it ought to be an accessible design; or unless the requirement were for equal results for hailing taxis on the street rather than for booked services (which under the draft Standards it is not but which remains an available position for complainants to argue for under the existing discrimination provisions pending authorisation of Standards).

Whether a "universal taxi" should be achieved as a substantial part of fleets and whether the whole fleet should be accessible are clearly separate questions in HREOC's view. HREOC also does not believe that discussion of universal taxi approaches presupposes mandating a single design - since in principle a number of different vehicles might meet the same set of universal design criteria.

Evidence to the Inquiry clearly indicates the desirability of a taxi design, or designs, offering greater comfort and safety for WAT passengers as well as greater acceptability to general taxi users.

HREOC urges and Territory transport regulators to re-activate consideration of issues of appropriate universal taxi design or designs and means of having such a design or designs enter service as a substantial part of Australian taxi fleets. Transport regulators, including the Federal government, should examine possibilities for cost offsets for "universal taxi" designs, including import costs. 

Single design or several designs of accessible vehicle

A number of submissions refer to economies of scale in adopting a single accessible taxi design. However other submissions point to issues of limiting consumer choice in such an approach.

It is not clear that a single standard design of WAT should be mandated.

In particular, although current maxi taxis or high occupancy vehicles may not be the ideal in comfort for people using wheelchairs, these vehicles are not subjected to the same severity of criticism in submissions as the "flash cab" approach. Accessible high occupancy vehicles clearly do serve a definite mainstream market (including tourist and airport use) which makes it economically possible to have more accessible vehicles on the road than would otherwise be the case.

Also, even if these vehicles were on the road principally for group use, there would be stronger justification for requiring all such vehicles to be accessible than for all standard cabs. The probability that a random group of six people contains one person requiring wheelchair access is very close to six times the probability that an individual passenger in a standard cab is such as person.

One space or two

Some submissions express concerns that not all accessible cab designs permit two WAT users to travel together.

Clearly, it is desirable that some vehicles should cater for this requirement for cases where a couple or other associates are both WAT users. However, HREOC does not accept that this means that all WATs must accommodate two passengers travelling in wheelchairs. After very extensive consultation and analysis the requirement in the draft Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport was set at one rather than two. Many WAT users will be travelling either alone or with partners, friends or other associates who do not require a wheelchair allocated space in a taxi. In the standards process it was concluded that requiring two spaces as standard could not be justified and might lead to less WAT service overall.

Compatibility of mobility aids with taxis

Evidence to the inquiry highlighted the inability of taller people seated in most designs of electric wheelchair to enter or ride comfortably in some current WAT designs. 

In some cases because of the nature of his or her disability the passenger may have no real choice about the design of mobility aid used. In recognition of this the draft Standards do call for entry height for WATs to increase over time to allow a greater proportion of WAT users to board and alight more comfortably. 

In other cases, however, compatibility of taxi and mobility aid may rather be a matter for wheelchair users to consider in selecting an appropriate mobility aid. It cannot be assumed that in order to achieve compatibility between a public transport vehicle and one of the great variety of wheelchair designs in use it is always the public transport vehicle which can and should change. 

There is a clear need for better consumer information on compatibility of mobility aids with public transport vehicles. The draft Accessible Public Transport standards are accompanied by guidelines which state some "assumptions about mobility aids" to provide a start towards better consumer information. However taxi industry submissions state strongly that this material does not provide sufficient guidance. HREOC urges Federal and State transport regulators to discuss with other relevant areas of government means for improved information to consumers on compatibility of mobility aids with various public transport modes. While most regulators have expressed support for a certification process, a viable means of achieving this or who should be responsible has yet to be identified. Pending this, industry and passengers remain exposed to considerable uncertainty. 

In particular, submissions raise various views regarding carriage of passengers riding on "scooters" in taxis. HREOC's understanding from transport regulators is that most scooters and passengers riding on them simply cannot be safely secured in a taxi. If a person and their equipment cannot be carried consistent with safely obligations there is no discrimination in refusing to carry them (or at least requiring them to transfer). Clearly however there is a need for definitive safety rulings from relevant regulators rather than drivers and passengers being left uncertain and disputes arising at the point of boarding.  

Marketing of accessible vehicles for mainstream use

Although submissions do not address this issue directly, there is a possibility that in addition to issues with the suitability of current vehicle designs, some of the reported reluctance of general taxi users to use WATs may be not because of prejudice against people with disabilities and hence against use of vehicles associated with disability, but because of a desire to give priority to people with disabilities or potentially a belief that vehicles marked with the accessibility symbol are reserved exclusively for disability use.

, which as noted has reported no difficulty in filling recent subscriptions for WAT licenses, also reports substantial effort and success in marketing vehicles as multi-purpose vehicles so as to enable these vehicles to derive acceptable financial returns.

As already noted, WATs performing mainstream taxi work presents issues of priority and effective availability for people using wheelchairs, which need to be addressed by appropriate enforcement and incentive approaches. Almost all submissions, however, accept that WATs need to have shared use between people with disabilities rather than being an exclusive or dedicated service - in the interests of economic viability for accessible cabs and driving these cabs as well as on grounds of concerns about the effectiveness and appropriateness of segregated services more generally. 

Industry and government in other jurisdictions are encouraged to consider experience in promoting mainstream use of accessible taxis. 

Planning for accessibility

Many transport operators, both public and private sector, in other transport modes have already embarked on programs of implementation of the draft Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport.

In some cases this has been accompanied by development and provision to HREOC of an Action Plan under the DDA and in some instances a temporary exemption has been applied for and granted to protect operators from liability while they implement actions committed to in their action plans.

Further operators in the rail, coach and aviation industries are considering Action Plans at present. In some cases these are being developed at the level of individual enterprises and in some cases on a wider industry basis.

HREOC encourages the taxi industry to consider similar approaches to planning for compliance with the Standards, in consultation with consumers.

When the Australian Transport Council endorsed the authorisation of the draft Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport, it also decided that once the Standards were in force there should be regular reporting to the ATC on progress in implementation of the Standards. This would include reporting on performance in the taxi industry and progress towards meeting the target at the five year point for equal response times for WATs as for other taxis. 

As already noted in this report, however, authorisation of the Standards has been delayed very substantially beyond the initial expectations of all parties concerned, with more than five years having already elapsed since their approval in principle by the ATC in June 1996.  

Whether or not the draft Standards receive final authorisation in the near future, HREOC urges those taxi regulators which have not already done so to commence regular publication of reports on performance in WAT service, including progress towards achieving equal response times, and to ensure that these reports are notified to HREOC, to industry and consumer bodies and to regulators in other jurisdictions. 

Appendix: Inquiry process

A Notice of Inquiry was issued on requesting submissions by 3 July. Responses were requested on the following issues:  

Response times: Are response times significantly longer for passengers requiring wheelchair accessible taxis than other passengers making taxi bookings in any part of ?  

Proportion of taxi fleets accessible: What proportion of existing taxi fleets is wheelchair accessible?  

Are these proportions sufficient: Is the proportion of taxi fleets which is wheelchair accessible insufficient in any areas of Australia to enable services to be provided to passengers requiring wheelchair accessible taxis, with equivalent reliability and waiting times to those for other passengers booking taxis? If so, what proportion of taxi fleets being accessible would be sufficient?  

Measures to ensure sufficient proportion accessible: What measures have transport authorities taken or could they take to ensure that a sufficient proportion of taxi fleets is accessible?  

Universal taxi: If 100% fleet accessibility (the "universal taxi" approach) is necessary or desirable to ensure fully equal access to services (whether to achieve access to hailed services as well as booked services, or to reduce problems regarding priority for wheelchair user passengers, or to increase general public acceptance of wheelchair accessible vehicles, or for other reasons), what measures may be feasible and necessary (currently or within a reasonable period) to make possible the achievement of this level of accessibility? 

Dedicated services: What experience or issues are there with operation of wheelchair accessible taxis as a dedicated service rather than also being available for mainstream service?  

Economic factors: Are there any economic disincentives to provision of wheelchair accessible taxi services (either in provision of accessible vehicles or in their use to serve passengers using wheelchairs) which could be addressed by taxi regulatory authorities, by other relevant government agencies or by industry? In particular:  

  • Issues affecting capital or running costs of accessible vehicles
  • Any other distinctive costs in providing wheelchair accessible services
  • Fare structure and fares income received for wheelchair accessible taxis in comparison to other taxi services .

Effective use of accessible fleets: Are there any regulatory or technical measures being taken or which could be taken which would ensure that any given level of accessible taxi fleet meets demand for wheelchair accessible taxis more effectively? In particular:

  • Possibilities for more effective implementation or enforcement of priority systems including issues affecting use of GPS and other new technologies, and barriers to effectiveness of priority systems
  • Relevant performance standards and licence conditions
  • Clarification of responsibilities of booking services, taxi operators, regulators and any other relevant industry participants
  • Issues regarding competition or co-ordination of services
  • Measures to ensure accessible taxis are complete with necessary equipment and driver skills to ensure accessible service with an equivalent degree of safety to other passengers is available in practice
  • Issues regarding compatibility of different types or sizes of wheelchairs or other mobility aids with accessible cabs and possibilities for certification or consumer information regarding public transport compatibility of these aids
  • Issues regarding co-ordination with or substitution for other modes of accessible public transport (generally or for specific purposes such as school transport), including relationship to "community transport" services

86 submissions were received, including from taxi regulators and industry bodies in most States and Territories and from consumers around . Of these, 71 were submitted electronically and made available on the Commission's web site : see www.humanrights.gov.au/disability_rights/inquiries/taxi/subs.htm .

The submission process was followed by a small number of face to face hearings and meetings. Participants were invited to provide comments on submissions by other parties and to discuss possible solutions to problems identified in submissions.