Barraged by criticism that they have created an unfriendly city for the disabled and the elderly, Bangkok authorities have finally begun to redress the issue by introducing taxis specifically designed for those less mobile.
The van’s interior can now accommodate two people in wheelchairs and three passengers.
Unveiled on Dec 5 to celebrate His Majesty the King's birthday, the new service initially will offer 10 wheelchair-accommodating taxis. It will be operated by Krungthep Thanakom Co Ltd, a subsidiary of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA).
Krungthep Thanakom managing-director Amorn Kitchawengkul said each dedicated taxi is capable of accommodating two people in wheelchairs and three other passengers.
The taxis, which cost about 1.5 million baht each, are fitted with a platform for mounting the wheelchairs to the vehicle, a global positioning system in case of emergency, closed-circuit cameras and first-aid kits.
The drivers of the taxis have been trained in first-aid by the BMA's health office. More drivers will likely be taken on if the service proves popular, Mr Amorn said.
The service must be booked a day in advance by phone.
"In the trial period, the service will be free of charge until Jan 31," Mr Amorn said.
The disabled-friendly taxis will charge the same fare as other taxis. However, a 20-baht extra on-call booking fee will be levied.
During the trial period, passengers will pay only half of the on-call charge which is being subsidised by the BMA.
Mr Amorn said response to the service has been promising so far with five to 10 disabled passengers using the service each day. Almost all of them travel to hospital, he said.
Almost 100 people have signed up to use the service, he added. But registration is not compulsory.
The service has received favourable feedback from customers, Mr Amorn said, adding that many users were satisfied with the drivers' politeness and the good condition of the vehicles.
However, he said some customers complained that the main taxi queue on Rama III Road is rather far from busy areas which users can easily access.
Mr Amorn said if the demand for the service rises, more taxis will be procured and made available throughout Bangkok's 50 districts.
Wansao Chaiyakul, a coordinator with Disabled People International Asia Pacific, said the service offers the handicapped more choices of travel.
He said some drivers of regular taxis were not inclined to pick up disabled passengers due to fear of bad luck. Some just ignore the disabled because they do not know how to handle them.
But he insisted a wheelchair-accommodating taxi service is a step in the right direction for urban transport.
"The project will definitely benefit the disabled and the elderly, and I must praise the BMA for having us on its radar," Mr Wansao said.
He also called on the BMA to provide more wheelchair taxis in the future.
"The 10 taxis currently in service are rather too few as passengers must wait in a long queue. We hope that the number will increase to hundreds in the future," Mr Wansao said.
"Although we are a small group, our need for convenience and safety is no different from other people," he added.
According to Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the capital is home to about 64,000 wheelchair-bound people of whom 16,000 are physically-challenged and the rest elderly.
The governor said the project will provide greater ease of travel for the disabled and the elderly who have to get around.
"When Thailand joins the Asean Economic Community in 2015, more foreign disabled people are expected to travel in the country and the service will be improved to meet the rising demand," he added.
In order to book the service by phone, the passenger can call 02-294-6524 or the 1555 dedicated line from 9am-4pm every day.
The service operates from 6am-midnight. More information can be found at http://www.thanakom.co.th.
One of the vans modified for disabled people by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
About the author
- Writer: Supoj Wancharoen