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Ridesharing Firms Struggle to Meet Needs of Americans with Disabilities

Mike Hower
| Friday March 14th, 2014 | 1 Comment

handicappedLike many living in San Francisco and other major cities across the United States, I have come to rely on transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar to get me around town. TNCs have revolutionized the way many of us get from Point A to Point B, but not for all of us — not yet, anyway. There is a significant group that has long been let down by public transportation — the disabled community — and TNCs are struggling to break this trend.

I was reminded of this during a recent Lyft ride, where I happened to be picked up by one of the few wheelchair accessible vehicles in its (or any other TNC’s) fleet. My driver said her husband uses a wheelchair for mobility and regularly faces difficulties getting around the city when attempting to take taxis and MUNI (San Francisco’s light rail and bus system). MUNI buses often pass him by rather than stop to pick him up, and even wheelchair-accessible taxis often refuse to pick him up because they don’t want to lose the time it takes to lower and raise the lift and to strap him in.

To be fair, as a regular MUNI passenger, I can say first-hand that they seem to do a good job with accessibility — most buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts and can “kneel” (lower the front of the bus) if a person has trouble moving up stairs. I have witnessed drivers make space for wheelchair users, and personally assist them to fasten the safety straps and wheel lock.

As for taxis, many fleets require a certain number of accessible vehicles to be on the road at any given time, which can be dispatched by phone. In December, Taxi Mecca New York City settled a major class-action lawsuit and adopted regulations requiring half the city’s more than 13,000 yellow cabs be accessible to people with disabilities within six years.

But with taxi fleets shrinking in several major cities as TNC popularity grows, the disabled community will have fewer transportation options — that is, unless TNCs act.

In addition to helping some TNCs fully live up to their principles of fostering community, opening up to the disabled community makes business sense. Approximately 56.7 million people in the U.S. have some kind of disability — and roughly 30.6 million of them have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or use a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency says people with disabilities “make up a significant market of consumers, representing more than $200 billion in discretionary spending and spurring technological innovation and entrepreneurship.”

With TNCs — especially Uber and Lyft — fighting a bitter battle for ridesharing supremacy, the disabled community is a market they cannot afford to ignore. In California, they no longer have a choice.

Last fall, California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) outlined the first regulations for TNCs (and created the name), which included requiring driver background checks, driver training, drug and alcohol policies and minimum insurance coverage of $1 million. CPUC also mandated that TNCs develop an “Accessibility Plan,” including modifying apps so they “allow passengers to indicate their access needs,” among other things.

Lyft, Uber, Sidecar and two other TNCs filed disability-access plans with the CPUC, claiming that they will ensure drivers don’t discriminate against disabled customers. While the companies said they already have or soon will make their apps and websites accessible to blind users, they maintained drivers can still determine whether or not to allow service animals in their vehicles.

Uber recently came under fire for this when an UberX driver refused to transport a blind man because he was accompanied by a service animal. The Americans With Disabilities Act clearly states that “public transportation authorities may not discriminate against people with disabilities in the provision of their services,” but since most TNC-affiliated vehicles are privately owned and operated by independent contractors, this remains a legal gray area.

Offering wheelchair accessibility also is proving to be problematic, as Lyft, Uber, Sidecar and other TNCs profess only to provide the technology platforms that allow passengers and drivers to match themselves for a shared ride. As such, they can’t provide wheelchair accessible vehicles in the same way that taxis and sedan services can. However, CPUC is considering requiring rideshare companies to provide their own vehicle fleet for the disabled community.

TNCs can’t force drivers to go through the expensive process of modifying their vehicles for accessibility. The most realistic solution seems to be TNCs partnering with paratransit companies, which already have the proper vehicles and trained drivers to assist the disabled — much easier said than done.

In 2012, Uber tried unsuccessfully to partner with a San Francisco paratransit company. But paratransit providers might be more receptive now that TNCs have become more mainstream and partnering could be more lucrative. Even so, wheelchair-accessible vehicles used by individuals do not always have a securement system, which commercial transport must have. This could lead to legal complications.

TNCs have come a long way in very little time, but they still have a long way to go. Several social, legal and business questions have yet to be answered. When they finally are, perhaps we will learn that TNCs aren’t just about logistics – getting from Point A to Point B – but about bringing communities together, so that we can move forward.

Image Credit: MyDoorSign.com

Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, social entrepreneurship, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with strategic communications and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower)


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  • Russ T

    This is a good observation to make and folks with mobility issues should absolutely have the same access to transportation as everyone else. But I have a somewhat politically incorrect viewpoint about this.

    I think it’s crazy to spend the money to make everything wheelchair accessible – and that includes busses. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to equip busses with these things, not to mention the fact that they slow down busses considerably. My solution is to spend less money on a fleet of vans which are available on demand at all times for anyone with a valid disability card – FOR FREE. This also means Lyft and Uber are out of the obligation because there would be a FREE system for folks with debilities (or at least very low cost)

    Back of the envelope calculations suggests that a city could run such a system providing vastly better service for everyone at reduced costs. But some enterprising lawyers have figured out they can milk cities for money by filing lawsuits about accessibility and so on. The result is wasted time and money and a system that doesn’t do anyone any favors…