*Funding for the study referred to in this paper has been provided by the South Australian Passenger Transport Research and Development Fund, administered by the SA Passenger Transport Board (PTB). However the discussions and conclusions of this paper are solely those of the authors and should in no way be associated with the PTB.

Providing a taxi service
for people with disabilities*

Ian Radbone and Jeremy Woolley
Transport Systems Centre
University of South Australia
GPO Box 2471
Adelaide SA 5001
tel: +61 8 8302 1771
fax: +61 8 8302 1880
email: ian.radbone@unisa.edu.au


People in wheelchairs have undoubtedly seen a big improvement in their lives as a result of the introduction of demand responsive accessible taxi services, particularly as these services are largely funded through government subsidized vouchers provided to the user. However it cannot be said that people in wheelchairs enjoy the same quality of taxi service available to the able-bodied. Accessible taxi services have always had difficulty providing a prompt and reliable service.

The Transport Systems Centre has been funded by the South Australian Passenger Transport Board to examine the operations of Adelaide's accessible taxis. This paper presents some of the preliminary findings of that study, focusing in particular on the extent of delays in the provision of service. The paper then discusses the reasons for these delays and some of the options to address the problem. The options are grouped in the following categories: making better use of existing licences, increasing the number of accessible taxi licences, introducing "generic" taxi licences designed primarily to service the regular market but with a wheelchair capability, and finally removing the monopoly of taxis over the provision of demand-responsive wheelchair accessible services.


Transport for people in wheelchairs is now an important issue facing governments in all western countries. Not much more than ten years ago it was not seen as a responsibility of the transport portfolio at all. However, factors like the de-institutionalisation process, a more politically salient stance by people with disabilities and the passage of human rights measures such Australia’s Disabilities Discrimination Act (1992) have all served to sharpen the attention of transport policy-makers on the mobility provided for those in wheelchairs.

This is still a new area of policy and the best approaches are far from clear. State governments have turned to making general public transport accessible to those in wheelchairs. For example, a 1994 agreement conciliated under the Disabilities Discrimination Act requires the South Australian Government to ensure that any new buses are accessible. This approach, while helping to overcome institutional discrimination, is limited. It will take many years to replace all the non-accessible vehicles and in any case there are often other physical and non-physical barriers to access in addition to features of the vehicle itself. Even if one had full access to the public transport system, mobility would still be very limited compared to the everyday mobility available to most of the population through the car. A focus on public transport alone would not meet a government’s political obligations to people with disabilities.

For approximately ten years, Australian state transport portfolios have used specialised taxis as a means of providing mobility for those in wheelchairs. Each state has special taxi licences specifying that the vehicle must be able to carry at least one person seated in a wheelchair and allowing further measures to compel the driver of the vehicle to provide a service for the wheelchair bound. Apart from these common features there are still variation and experimentation, particularly over matters such as whether there should be a single specialised radio network and the extent to which the accessible taxis should be tied to it and whether they should be integrated into the general fleet rather than separated as a specialised fleet.

There is no doubt that the subsidised provision of accessible taxi services has been a major advance for the disabled community. However it cannot be said people in wheelchairs enjoy the same service as the rest of the community in terms of response time and reliability.

This paper will provide some of the results of a major survey into Adelaide’s accessible taxi services. It will focus on the issue of waiting time and reliability, outlining the extent of the problem and discussing contributing factors. Possible options to overcome the problem will also be discussed. Before doing this, however, some background information about Adelaide’s accessible taxi service is needed.

Service provision in South Australia

South Australia’s first ten accessible taxis appeared on the road in 1987. A specialised radio despatch network was established and operated by a company called Specialised Transport Services (STS), which traded as Access Cabs. STS was owned by the three biggest taxi radio despatch companies of the time, though its board of directors also had a government nominee. The vehicles themselves were owned by the government, operated by STS and driven by drivers employed on a bailee basis — they kept 50% of the fare.

At the same time, along with the other states, the SA Government established a voucher scheme providing a subsidy for the taxi fare for people whose physical impairment was such that they could not use public transport. Only 16% of the South Australian Transport Subsidy Scheme (SATSS) members are confined to wheelchairs. Since 1990 these people have received a 75% subsidy, as opposed to a 50% subsidy for ambulant members. In metropolitan areas the subsidies apply to taxis only, with the one exception of a company called Handibus which pioneered accessible transport on a commercial basis and was allowed to take vouchers from the beginning. All taxis, whether accessible to people in wheelchairs or not, can take both 50% and 75% vouchers, though of course the non-ambulant members are generally confined to Access Taxis.

Over the eleven years since the fleet was established there have been a series of changes to the point where almost all licences are now privately owned and transferable. Licence conditions allow owners to have a second radio in addition to the Access Cabs service. Taxis can be leased, but only on a “shift” basis, preventing licence-only leasing. There are now 66 Special Purpose licences, specifically designed to provide a wheelchair accessible service. On a per capita basis, this is now the largest accessible taxi fleet of all Australia’s capital cities. The most recent issue of licences was in May 1997, when for the first time transferable licences were offered for tender. Winning tenders ranged from $40,000 to $60,000 in comparison to regular taxi licences which begin at $150,000.

The responsibility for providing the radio service has from the beginning been subject to five year contracts. In 1997 the contract was awarded to Yellow Cabs, one of the three major radio despatch companies in Adelaide. Yellow Cabs was also given responsibility for processing the vouchers used under the SATSS Scheme. The change of operations occurred on 1 December. This company was far more technologically advanced than STS, with at that stage Adelaide’s most advanced computer-based booking and despatch system using Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. It could also offer an Internet-based booking service — an advancement for people with verbal communications difficulties.

By 1997 the original taxis were ten years old and due for replacement. Funds had not been set aside for this and the government faced the problem of finding the necessary capital to keep the fleet on the road. Rather than provide the capital itself, it offered the remaining non-transferable licences for sale to their drivers for $20,000 on condition that they put a suitable vehicle on the road by 31 March 1998. What had been a financial problem for the Passenger Transport Board became a financial windfall for the government as the money for licensing went into general revenue and the cost of replacing the taxis was borne by the operators.

Access Cabs has never been able to match the general taxi service in terms of response time and reliability. Accurate data is hard to obtain for the period before 1997, but the general problem of delay has been well-known. (Tisato, 1995, pp. 23-24; Llewelyn, 1992) Tisato, for example cited a national survey which found average delays of 30 minutes for Access Cabs, compared with 12.5 minutes for regular taxis. (Tisato, 1995, p. 24).

Under the contract made between Yellow Cabs and the Passenger Transport Board, the average delay must be no more than twenty minutes. However this is still well above the twelve minutes typically specified by the accreditation of regular taxi services and much higher than the average six to seven minutes regularly recorded for those services. (Transport Systems Centre, 1997, p. 34)

The Accessible Taxi Operations Study

In late 1997 the Passenger Transport Board of South Australia commissioned a study to investigate the operation and characteristics of accessible taxis in Adelaide. The study provided information from an intensive survey of accessible taxi operations during the weeks of 18-24 January 1998 and 22-28 February 1998. These are referred to as Survey 1 and Survey 2 respectively. Survey 1 occurred during school holidays and Survey 2 during school term.

The study was designed to provide worksheet data covering all access taxis but for a variety of reasons the sample used for analysis constituted approximately 50% of the working fleet. There may be some bias in the worksheet data the following factors should be borne in mind:

  1. those who replied may have not represented a genuine cross-section of all drivers (i.e. it represents those who were willing to respond)
  2. there are obvious incentives to misreport some data; specifically relating to the overall amount of work, the type of work and its origin.

The worksheets exhibited a high level of consistency in reported data suggesting that the second factor at least did not influence the results to a large extent. The two other major sources of data were radio booking data provided by Yellow Cabs and data from SATSS vouchers.

A further survey is being undertaken (during July 1998) in which information will be compulsorily acquired in order to provide reliable information and draw comparisons with the earlier surveys. In addition to Yellow Cabs, data will be obtained from all other radio companies.

General Findings

A total of 154 shifts involving 1674 individually reported trips were recorded on the worksheets. Table 1 summarises the findings from the worksheet data. To enable comparison, equivalent data from the 1996 Baseline Study of all of Adelaide’s taxis has been included.

Summary Finding Table

The bulk of access work occurred during the daytime, with the typical taxi working from about 8am to 6pm during weekdays. With the average number of taxis logged onto the network during weekdays being 49.5, night time rates are far lower, where evidence suggests that the number of taxis logged onto the Access Cabs network after 6pm is typically four or fewer.

Worksheets recorded the average number of trips undertaken in a day as eleven in Survey 1 (school holidays) and twelve in Survey 2 (as noted above there are incentives to not report work not obtained from the network, so this figure should be regarded as a minimum). Average earnings in the second week were 13% higher than in the first, presumably reflecting the effect of school contracts in boosting income.

Delay Times

The average response time for all booked trips over the entire day throughout the two surveys was 20 minutes overall and 19 minutes for weekdays. The hours between 7am and 3pm were consistently below this figure. Those outside these hours were frequently above 20 minutes. Other things being equal, delays will occur at times of highest demand. Figure 1 shows the demand for taxis by time of day in terms of the times at which individual jobs are despatched.

Demand for taxis by time of day

Figure 1 Demand for taxis by time of day for Surveys 1 and 2 combined

It can be clearly seen that the weekday pattern differs considerably from that of the weekend. Weekday peak demand occurs in the morning between 9am and 10pm and in the afternoon from 1pm until 2pm. These peak periods are just after the school starting times in the morning and just before the school closing times in the afternoon, perhaps suggesting a scramble by customers to obtain a taxi before school based bookings occupy half the fleet. Figure 2 shows the average weekday hourly delay by time of day combined for the two survey periods. Note that these delays were probably somewhat higher than would occur outside of the transition period (as mentioned previously).

Combined average weekday hourly waiting times

Figure 2 Combined average weekday hourly waiting times by time of day for the two survey periods

It can be seen that a morning peak occurs at 8am to 9am and a marked afternoon peak occurs between 3pm and 4pm corresponding to school based travel. The average delay during the morning school run was slightly under 19 minutes while the afternoon was just under 22 minutes. Figure 3 shows the difference between school run delays for both the holiday and school term periods.

Comparison of morning school run period delays

Figure 3 Comparison of morning school run period delays during holiday and term periods

Figure 2 displays average delays on an hourly basis. In a sense the picture presented is misleading because of the very small numbers of jobs despatched during certain hours. On the other hand, the figure also points out the problem of unreliability in the service. While an average waiting time may be under 20 minutes, this can be cold comfort to a customer who may not know whether to expect the cab in six or 60 minutes.

Reasons for delays

Yellow Cabs own internal studies found that 30% of delays longer than 30 minutes could be attributed to some sort of administrative problem. The surveys associated with the Accessible Taxi Operations Study were undertaken just one and two months into the new contract. It is expected that some teething problems will occur, particularly given new computer arrangements used. While administrative problems can explain some of the delays, there are undoubtedly more systemic problems causing delays and unreliability. These all relate to how many cabs are available and willing to service despatched jobs at any one time.

As large as it is by comparison with other capital cities, 66 Special Purpose licences still provides only a relatively small taxi fleet when compared with the regular taxi service. By comparison, Adelaide’s three radio despatch companies each have about 300 vehicles to draw on. Small radio despatch services can provide a reasonable service by confining themselves to a defined geographical area or by developing a service based on advanced bookings only. Access Cabs’ clients are scattered across the metropolitan area and expect to be able to call for a cab without making an advanced booking. Even if cabs are available at the time of the call, with such a small fleet the chances of there being cab in the area are much less than for a large despatch company. We can expect there to be a delay while the nearest cab makes the journey to the job, as well as reluctance by drivers to take distant jobs.

Given the relatively small fleet to cover a large geographical area, it could reasonably be assumed that a large proportion of the Access driver’s kilometres would be unremunerative; driving to or from distant jobs. Of course the smaller the available fleet, the worse this would be. Interestingly the worksheet data does not support this as shown in Figure 4. The number of “dead’ kilometres is remarkably similar to that recorded by the Baseline study for Adelaide’s taxi fleet as a whole — 48.1% as compared to 51.9%. (Transport Systems Centre, 1997, s. 3.5).

Proportion of average dead kilometres

Figure 4 Proportion of average dead kilometres travelled

Also the Access Cabs were reported to be much busier than the regular taxis. Once again, about half the shift was spent with carrying passengers as shown in Figure 5. This compares with a figure of only 33.9% for the regular taxi fleet.

Proportion of average shift dead time

Figure 5 Proportion of average shift dead time

There are a three reasons why the dead kilometres are lower than expected. Firstly, with only a small proportion of the Access Cabs fleet leased, there is less incentive to work at times which are not very busy then there is for the rest of the fleet. Secondly, at 10.1 kilometres, the average trip length of Access work is longer than the average 7.3 kilometres for regular work (this is no doubt helped by the 75% subsidy available to wheelchair trips by members of the SATSS scheme and by trips paid for by hospitals and the Education Department). Finally, Access work is more predictable than regular work. Drivers soon learn to anticipate when and where jobs will be and so can position themselves more efficiently to minimise dead kilometres.

At the time the study was conducted only about fifty of the 66 licences were actually available for the despatch service in any one day. At night the number of cabs available was usually five or fewer. In addition to the eleven vehicles not on the road because of changing ownership, there are several reasons why all the fleet was not available:

  1. There are only 110 accredited drivers; not enough for two shifts (i.e. day and night), even assuming each accredited driver was actively in the business and each driver was willing to drive twelve hour shifts, seven days a week. The typical cab is owner-driven during the day shift and is parked at home at night.

  2. For two periods a day during school term, thirty one cabs will be unavailable for general work because they will be carrying out school contracts engaged by Access Cabs. This can cause delays on both occasions, but is generally much worse in the afternoon, which would normally be a busy time anyway. The afternoon “school run” generally starts about 3pm but because drivers will be looking to ensure that they are in the right area to begin the run, the overall service is affected from about 2pm until 5pm.

  3. There is a temptation on the part of drivers not to use the radio network, and instead rely on direct phone bookings. They may do this in order to build up a clientele that suits themselves and keeps them busy. They may do this because they want to provide a personalised service for customers or because they are embarrassed about delays with the Access radio service and want to avoid being part of it. Customers phoning directly can get the driver they want and avoid the delays of the despatch service, particularly if they book ahead. Drivers can get to know their passengers needs and to some extent can “massage” the demand to give themselves steady work. Building up a local clientele enables drivers to stay in a particular area and so minimise dead kilometres.

  4. Some drivers may use the radio network but spend most of the time with the taxi meter on so that they cannot be required to undertake a job. With the meter on they can still see what jobs are available on the “cover” screen and choose one of these if they wish to. In this way the drivers can avoid travelling long distances to perform short duration jobs.

The third and fourth problems can have a serious snowballing effect. On numerous occasions the authors have been told of instances when a conscientious driver agrees to take distant jobs that he or she knows is not worth the fare and passes other taxis which were closer but had not made themselves available to network. Seeing the system unravelling in this way, the temptation for them to also ignore the radio becomes stronger. An internal study undertaken by Yellow Cabs for three weeks in May reveals the extent of the problem. Of the privately owned and working cabs, the range in the number of access jobs undertaken during the three weeks was from 316 in one case down to fewer than 50 for three cabs. Half the fleet did less than half the jobs done by the busiest cab.

Options to reduce waiting time

There are many potential ways in which the problems discussed above could be addressed. The following section will discuss these options grouped under the following headings: making better use of the existing licences, increasing the number of licences, introducing “generic” taxis which are primarily designed for regular taxi work but could also take those confined to wheelchairs, and finally removing the taxi monopoly for demand responsive accessible services. It is assumed that measures to manage demand to better fit fleet capacity would be counter to the Disability Discrimination Act and so these will not be discussed.

Making better use of the existing licences

One approach is to make better use of the existing fleet. We have seen that there can be a conflict between what is in the interest of the individual driver and what is in the interests of the fleet as a whole. There are many claims by both management and drivers that a number of drivers will ignore wheelchair work for non-wheelchair work. There are a variety of options to encourage drivers to be out on the road, providing a service, most of which are already in place.

Drivers were given access to a second radio to make the job more financially attractive but under the proviso that they not use this radio during certain hours of the day. Currently, these hours are from 7 to 9:30am and 2:30 to 5pm on weekdays. All jobs not taken through the Access Cabs network should be reported to the management as part of the licence conditions. Both of these rules are difficult to enforce.

Drivers who refuse work must formally provide a legitimate reason for doing so. But drivers can only be offered work while their meter is off, indicating that they are available to take work. To date, management has not worked out how to prevent drivers leaving their meter on to wait until there is a backlog of jobs from which they can choose. GPS tracking of movements could provide some solutions.

As another means of getting drivers to service the access network, there has been a long standing requirement that each driver undertake a quota of despatched jobs. The quota is currently calculated as the number of cars available divided by the number of jobs required, with a 20% tolerance. Demerit points are issued for failing to meet the quota. The Passenger Transport Board’s Passenger Transport Standards Committee can discipline drivers who reach twelve points. The quota seems not to have been enforced under the STS regime. Yellow Cabs management only started to do so in February 1998 and although several drivers quickly accumulated sufficient demerit points, there have been delays in bringing these to the Passenger Transport Standards Committee, apparently because of a need to ensure that the evidence is clear. At the time of writing (June 1998), the Committee is yet to deal with any case and so we do not know how the matters will be dealt with and what will be the effect on the management of the fleet. One can imagine that when there is a shortage of drivers the matter will need to be handled carefully, for fear of reducing their number further.

The management of the Access Cabs service does have the power to roster drivers in order to provide a service. Until recently it has chosen not to do this, for fear of straining relations with the drivers. Rather than be coerced in this way, the drivers would prefer that they be employed to be on the road at night, or at least given some basic retainer to supplement the income from fare revenue. Management has not taken up this option, presumably because of the expense and the legal liabilities involved when drivers are defined as employees.

Drivers clearly do need to supplement their income with work beyond the Access network. The worksheets suggest that only 69% of a driver’s jobs involved carrying people in wheelchairs. This possibly over-estimates the actual situation, because although the response rate to the survey was over 50%, it is quite possible that those who did not provide worksheets did not do so because they would have indicated a higher proportion of non-wheelchair jobs. Another interesting statistic is that during the two weeks of the surveys the Access Cabs network despatched 5264 jobs. If all 66 licences had been used for all fourteen days, this would have amounted to an average of only 5.7 trips per cab per day. School runs are a reliable source of income for 31 of the cabs but even these cabs would need to undertake extra work. Having said that, if wheelchair work were channelled through the Access Cabs network it would provide a bigger proportion of total fleet income.

One measure often advocated by drivers to make wheelchair work more attractive is the introduction of a “lift fee” of four or five dollars. This would cover the extra time involved in loading and unloading the passenger. Victoria allows such a surcharge, at a rate of six dollars a trip. Drivers in Adelaide already normally charge waiting time while loading and unloading passengers. At about six minutes per job and retention time of just over twenty dollars per hour, this amounts to about two dollars per trip. Taxi drivers in Victoria may charge waiting time while loading a passenger, in addition to the lifting fee. Such a measure would provide a better service for people with disabilities, but at a cost to either themselves or the institutions that are paying for the trip.

One clear restriction on service is the number of drivers willing to be on the road servicing wheelchair users. There are only 1.67 specially accredited drivers for every accessible taxi licence, compared with 4.4 accredited taxi drivers for every regular taxi licence.

Discussions with officials of other radio companies in Adelaide suggest there are about 17 accessible taxis on the road in a typical night which do not even use the Access Cabs network. This number would be higher if not for the general shortage of drivers. We have been told that in many cases the driver of the accessible taxi at night is not trained to do wheelchair work which is in breach of the licence conditions. This situation will be clarified in a later survey.

Measures to increase the number of available and willing drivers would enable a better service for wheelchair customers. There appears to be little promotion of the sector as a desirable career, either by the government, Access Cabs or by the accredited training authority. This is despite higher wages, a safer working environment and arguably more job satisfaction. Conversely, policy measures which may depress the working conditions and wages of drivers would need to be carefully considered for the net benefit.

Increasing the number of special purpose licences

We have seen that even in a theoretical situation in which all licences were attached to cabs available to be used by the despatch system, there would be times of the day when only 34 cabs would be available because of school runs. The later afternoon is a time of high demand, even without the school runs. This problem suggests the need for more licences, at least for part of the school day.

The issuing of new licences is resisted by the drivers, who worry that more cabs on the road will mean less work for them. Despite this opposition the government has steadily increased the number of special purpose licences to the point that the accessible fleet is, on a per capita basis, the largest of Australia’s capital cities. Now that the fleet is largely privately owned we can also expect opposition based on fear the devaluation of the “fleet” — the scarcity value of their licences.

While waiting times have probably been reduced during this time, we cannot tell to what extent any improvement in waiting times is the result of a bigger fleet or better management of the existing fleet. The increase in the number of licences has been a blunt instrument for achieving reduced waiting times, as the more difficult a driver perceives earning an income from wheelchair work is, the more likely it is that he or she will use the licence for obtaining regular (non-wheelchair) work. Licence holders were allowed the use of a second radio network in order to keep them reasonably busy. Tisato found in that owner-drivers were particularly likely to prefer regular taxi work, as this category was easily the worst in terms of meeting the quota of wheelchair jobs (Tisato, 1995, pp. 38-39). As a consequence Tisato recommended against expanding this proportion of the fleet.

Given a situation in which new licences would be granted to owner-drivers it can be expected that the more licences issued, the greater the incentive to ignore the Access network, so possibly worsening the service in the long run. To avoid this happening, new licence issues would need to be accompanied by better enforcement of measures to make sure the Access network’s demand is met and possibly new restrictions imposed. This would impact on the revenue to drivers, though it may actually improve the revenue of the current “loyal” drivers by reducing the number of dead kilometres they have to travel.

It should be noted that increasing the number of licences as such will not help all that much if the real limitation is the number of drivers. While it could attract more individuals into this sector as owner-drivers the attractions of driving per se may diminish further. Estimates of driver income are hazardous, but worksheet evidence and numerous discussions with both regular and accessible taxis drivers suggests a about ten dollars an hour is probably a reasonable upper limit to the earnings of drivers of wheelchair accessible taxi drivers. Whatever the earnings, it appears that they are insufficient to compensate for the additional responsibilities of the job. This is particularly apparent at night. It is a shortage of drivers rather than a shortage of licences that appears to be the bottleneck for most of the time. If the issuing of new licences does depress earnings further this may only exacerbate waiting times.

Generic taxis

In 1993 the current Liberal Minister for Transport issued a policy platform saying that a Liberal Government would investigate the idea of requiring all taxis to be wheelchair accessible. (Liberal Party of Australia (SA Division), 1993) The Tisato Report had this as one of the items on its terms of reference. While Tisato pointed out the costs of such a policy, he left open the question of whether the policy should be pursued and recommended further investigation. (Tisato, 1995, p. xi; pp. 87-88)

Certainly the cost of making all taxis wheelchair accessible would be large given the current sedan-based fleet. The United Kingdom’s policy of having all cabs wheelchair accessible has been made easier by the widespread use of the Metropolitan Conditions of Fitness (the ‘London Cab’) and by a large Private Hire Vehicle (“minicab”) sector. Essentially the British government has determined that taxis will have common carrier status and operators will need to choose whether they wish to provide a common carrier taxi service or a Private Hire Vehicle Service. (Radbone, 1996) But there are other advantages to having a specialised vehicle for taxis, particularly if they are having to compete with an increasing private hire vehicle sector. A clearly identifiable market image as a reliable service would be an important plus.

The use of generic taxis would need to be accompanied by a radical change in the qualities of taxi drivers if a wheelchair accessible service were to be acceptable to many customers. Passengers in wheelchairs are often far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation than regular taxi users, particularly if their physical disability is accompanied by some sort of intellectual disability. Wheelchair accessible taxi drivers currently undergo special training to enable them to handle the different circumstances they may face. In the course of the study the authors have interviewed a number of institutional users of wheelchair accessible services. Concern to maintain the quality of drivers was a universal theme. Llewelyn’s survey of SATSS users recorded many instances of complaints of rudeness, fraud and a refusal to accept SATSS by regular taxi drivers and a strong preference for the dedicated accessible cab driver (Llewelyn 1992).

We have seen that the times of greatest delay are during the afternoons of school days and at night. The first time period suggests simply that there are not enough cabs. (Although note that this survey was during a transitional period when there were fewer cabs on the road than normal). The night time period suggests there is not enough incentive to attract accessible taxis onto the network.

Both these problems could be tackled by the introduction of a new class of licence with special conditions: although mainly designed for regular work, the vehicle would be able to take at least one wheelchair and the driver would be required to service the Access network in the afternoon peak. The requirement for a specially trained driver would only be in place for that period, though it is to be hoped that the possibility of obtaining more work in the nights would also lure such drivers at nights. Such licences would obtain their own market price, either if traded on the open market or if leased from the government.

Removing the taxi monopoly

The government has restricted entry to the supply of wheelchair accessible services. As noted above, except for the Handibus exception, only taxis are allowed to accept SATSS vouchers. Owners of all Special Purpose Licences must use the Access Cabs radio network and accept its conditions.

The government has created a single monopoly accessible taxi service network in order to maximise the number of taxis available to call on. The larger the fleet, the easier it is to service demand. At least two other states have since moved to this model after having their accessible taxis scattered among a number of radio despatch companies. The Adelaide model is an example of competition for the market, with the franchise being competitively tendered every five years. But nevertheless it does lead to frustration on the part of some users that they have no competition. Possibly a duopoly would be a good compromise, but both companies would have the same difficulties in disciplining their drivers to cater for the wheelchair demand.

One way of providing competition while minimising fragmentation of the fleet would be to allow a hire car company to bid for a franchise. Taxi despatch companies have little control over the taxis in their fleets. Indeed, because they are funded from the base fees paid by taxi owners in a real sense the taxis owners are the companies’ customers. In the case of the Access fleet Yellow Cabs does have more control. As we have seen, it has special powers granted by government (subject to the Trade Practices Act) and there is no other despatch service that dissatisfied operators can turn to. Nevertheless, the taxis themselves have a monopoly of sorts — there is only a limited number of vehicles that can provide the service and as a result it is quite possible for drivers to ignore the Access Cabs network, relying instead on direct bookings and other taxi work.

Entry into the private hire vehicle ("hire car") sector was deregulated in 1991. Since that time the number of hire cars regularly on the road has risen from 50 to approximately five times that number. Hire car companies are able to impose a much greater degree of discipline over their operators, as hire cars are confined to work that is booked through the company and in any case the company can easily replace operators whom they do not see as performing. Given this situation it may seem surprising that the government uses a taxi network at all to provide the service. One of the reasons is simply history. In Adelaide, as in other capital cities, taxis were looked to when accessible services were established, simply because there was no alternative. At that stage, hire cars were confined to limousine services. Today Adelaide has a healthy hire car sector, providing on-demand passenger transport. The most important restrictions on its activities are the requirements that their services must be pre-booked and they cannot call themselves taxis. With a negligible number of wheelchair jobs by hail or rank, this restriction would be of no real concern.

One barrier to using a hire car company to provide wheelchair accessible taxi services is that hire cars are forbidden by law to have a meter. The government has confined the use of SATSS vouchers to metered cabs in the metropolitan area (though not, it should be noted, in the rest of the state) because it is concerned about fraud. Meters were restricted to taxis under the 1994 Passenger Transport Act to help protect taxis from hire car competition. It has not proved particularly effective as a protective measure. Hire car companies often claim to prefer to provide fixed rate services between zones and within zones. If customers are happy with this arrangement there seems to be no reason why the institutions subsidising wheelchair services should not be also. In any case the government would regulate the fare, given that it ultimately pays for so much of the service.

A much more significant barrier is the value of the existing tradable licences. This value is based on their scarcity. If hire cars were allowed to compete, either through the provision of a franchise or by allowing them to accept SATSS vouchers, this value would be undermined. The owners would have a case for compensation, particularly as they paid the government for these licences so recently. The cost of compensation could be offset or even recovered through the leasing of licences by the government for a period, before the hire cars were allowed to compete.


The paper has canvassed a number of options to improve the service available to people confined to wheelchairs. While each of these options has its merits, space does not permit more detailed consideration. Unfortunately, despite the statistics gathered, policy makers still face uncertainty as to the effects of particular policies. An increase in the number of taxis may make waiting times worse by depressing the wages of drivers and so making it even more difficult to attract drivers to the job. On the other hand it may reduce the amount of “dead” travelling, actually enhancing the wages of drivers as well as improving the service, particularly if it were accompanied by stricter controls over the fleet.

Despite the uncertainty, there are three options that do stand out as being both effective and having minimal harmful effects.

The first is making a concerted effort to attract more drivers through advertising and training. The second is to issue special licences for generic cabs, with some requirement to meet peak demand. Both of these are straightforward measures that would be implemented immediately.

Third, there seems little sense in confining the franchise to taxi services. The greater discipline available to hire car companies would enable them to dispense with drivers who weaken the value of a networked service by pursuing their immediate interest at the expense of other drivers.

The current contract with Yellow Cabs expires in December 2002. It would probably take that long for the political barriers to using hire cars to be overcome and for financial compensation to be arranged. By then the relationship between hire cars and taxis may well be quite different and it is quite possible that one or more of the taxi despatch companies will also provide a hire car service. It is to be hoped that from then on people confined to wheelchairs will enjoy a level of service comparable to that available to the rest of the community.


Liberal Party of Australia (SA Division) (1993) Passenger Transport Strategy, January

Llewelyn, R (1992) User evaluation of the South Australian Transport Subsidy Scheme Adelaide: SA Director-General of Transport

Radbone, I (1996). Passenger Transport Developments in Europe — Report to the Passenger Transport Board South Australian Passenger Transport Board, January

Tisato, P (1995) Review of taxi services in Adelaide for people with disabilities: a report to the Hon. Minister for Transport University of Adelaide: South Australian Centre for Economic Studies, January

Transport Systems Centre (1997) Adelaide Taxi Industry Baseline Study 1996 University of South Australia, April

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