Hail an ambulance? Medical van owners tell taxi commission to get lost

Taxi and Limousine Commission chief David Yassky at hearing on street hails for medical vehicles and car services. Photo: Aidan Gardiner

Forget calling 911. New Yorkers might soon be able to hail their own ambulances.

Under proposed new rules expanding taxi service across the city, medical transport vehicles, popularly known as “ambulettes,” would be required to pick up passengers who hail them on the street, the same way taxis do. The ambulette industry, though, is fighting the measure, saying it will impede its ability to help save lives.

“What’s going to happen is that while an ambulette takes someone to the airport, a dialysis patient will have to wait for their trip to a life-saving facility,” said Neal Kalish, a board member of the United Ambulette Coalition, who attended a hearing of the Taxi and Limousine Commission on Wednesday.

The new rules intend to expand taxi service to boroughs outside Manhattan by licensing livery vehicles to pick up passengers off the street, much like a yellow cab. Livery companies don’t have to buy the licenses, which will start at $1,500 and increase over three years.

But a small provision buried deep in the rules would force street-hail licenses on all ambulette operators with fleets of 10 vehicles or more, which would have to outfit at least five of their wheelchair-accessible vehicles to pick up street hails. Ambulettes operate on livery licenses but normally ferry the sick and elderly to and from medical treatment.

“We’re adamantly opposed to the way this has moved forward,” said Thomas Doherty, a spokesperson for the ambulette coalition. “They’re mandating that ambulettes operate like a taxi, which is totally unfair.”

The ambulette industry has an ally in Assemblyman Micah Kellner, a Democrat representing Manhattan’s Upper East Side, who has threatened a lawsuit against the commission unless it drops the street-hail mandate.

Owners of street-hail licenses would have to outfit their vehicles with a credit card reader, a meter, a rooflight, and either an interior camera or partition between the driver and the passenger. Commission officials estimate the new equipment could cost as much as $3,000 per vehicle.

Ambulette bases already operate on a threadbare budget, according to Kalish, and can’t afford the equipment and the other costs associated with the license.

Taxi commission chairman David Yassky said the rule may be revised, but added his office needed to provide wheelchair accessible taxi service to all New Yorkers and this was one way of doing that. Last year, a federal court ruled that the city’s taxis need to provide more wheelchair service. The Commission is undertaking several initiatives under the new plan to encourage livery vehicles to be wheelchair accessible.

Doherty said he’d never seen anyone in a wheelchair hail a taxi, to which Yassky replied, “Whether there’s two people or 2,000, we have an obligation to meet that demand.”

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