Lyft has found meteoric success in part because the ride-hailing company has positioned itself as a more human and ethical alternative to Uber. The company also claims it has transport options that are accessible to people with disabilities—to that point, the company has a page of FAQs for drivers on how to assist people who use a wheelchair.
But according to Westchester County resident Harriet Lowell and the nonprofit Disabled on the Move, Inc. (WDOMI), Lyft’s actions are anything but compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, Lowell and WDOMI are parties to a class-action lawsuit recently filed in New York.
According to the lawsuit, Lyft has regularly failed to provide equal access and service to people with disabilities in Westchester County, New York. Among the complaints are accusations that Lyft texted a disabled citizen to find alternative transport since none of its drivers was available; the company made it clear that few wheelchair-accessible cars were within its fleet of cars; and that those who need to be driven in such vehicles often have far longer wait times.
Such news is nothing new for Lyft. In a mandatory investors’ prospectus (Form S-1) filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) earlier this year, the company acknowledged that it has been subjected to similar litigation—and would fight all such lawsuits tooth and nail:
“We are involved in a number of class actions alleging violations of consumer protection laws such as the TCPA as well as violations of other laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA. We dispute any allegations of wrongdoing and intend to continue to defend ourselves vigorously in these matters.”
And in an emailed statement that sounds Orwellian, a Lyft spokesperson told Politico reporter Samantha Maldonado, “We think about accessibility broadly and know that many who were previously underserved by transit and taxis are now able to rely on Lyft for convenient and affordable rides.”
The New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, which has jurisdiction over companies like Uber and Lyft in the Big Apple, would disagree. Last year, in describing people with disabilities as the city’s “largest minority group,” the Commission claimed it is the largest paratransit operator in the U.S. with over 6 million trips for 150,000 eligible city residents annually. Furthermore, the commission provides those rides for a price of a subway fare ($2.75), across New York’s five boroughs and certain areas of adjoining Westchester and Nassau counties. The commission also employs a full-time coordinator who does everything from answering accessibility-related questions to setting up hearings. On the Left Coast, Los Angeles has long deployed a similar program.
So while NYC has a very visible advocate who strives to ensure the city’s disabled residents can get around, let’s show you the optics: Lyft comes across as dodging any responsibility as being an inclusive transportation provider, and doing so through legalese. According to Maldonado, Lyft’s legal team attempted to dismiss Lowell's lawsuit by saying that users of the app have agreed to solve any disputes in arbitration, thereby waiving their rights to launch class-action lawsuits due to the company’s terms and conditions of service—a motion that a federal judge dismissed. Lyft is also fighting the lawsuit on the grounds that it is a technology company, not a transportation company.
Since Lyft relies on freelancers—one of many facts about the company's business model that the aforementioned class-action lawsuit mentions in a laundry list that is hardly flattering—and, of course, retrofitting each and every car in its fleet isn’t possible. But Lyft would do itself, and many riders, a huge favor and burnish its brand reputation if it could find a solution somewhere in the middle.
In the meantime, Lyft’s mission statement, “Improve people's lives with the world's best transportation,” rings hallow. Drivers for both Lyft and Uber are expected to strike in advance of Uber's IPO this week, calling for higher wages. Even as Lyft and Uber prepare to go public, this class-action suit presents another example of why many ESG (environmental, social and governance)-oriented investors are avoiding ride-hailing companies for now.
Image credit: New York City Department of Transportation/Flickr
Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.