A photo of a wheelchair user in the New York City subway.
Even with the advent of on-demand ride-hailing, getting around can be a drag for wheelchair users. Tina Fineberg/AP

Uber says it’s committed to better serving wheelchair users, but accessibility advocates say the ride-hailing industry has been reluctant to make progress.

If you want to complain about your commute with Valerie Piro, chances are she’ll one-up your horror story. “Recently, there was an issue on an express bus with getting me off the bus and this loud alarm started blaring for, oh, a solid five minutes while the driver got me off,” said Piro, who’s working on her Ph.D in medieval history. “I’m not sure what was wrong. I felt so bad. There was a woman on there with her baby.”

For Piro, who uses a wheelchair, getting around her hometown of New York City is a daily challenge. She avoids using the subway, since less than a quarter of the city’s stations are accessible to wheelchairs. And the city’s Access-A-Ride door-to-door paratransit system is often a “hit or miss” experience, she said. In the 10 years she’s used a wheelchair, Piro has been routinely stranded by no-show vans and trucked around for hours on tangled routes. (Piro refers to some of her extended Access-A-Ride trips from her parents’ home in Bay Ridge to Manhattan as “the Great Tour of Brooklyn.”)

And unlike other New Yorkers, who can just hop in an Uber Black or Lyft Pool when the subway is down or the bus is late, Piro generally can’t use ride-hailing services, due to a dearth of wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Currently in New York City, Uber’s largest U.S. market, just 554 of the nearly 118,000 active vehicles used to drive passengers for Uber, Lyft, Via, Juno, and other such transportation network companies (or TNCs) are wheelchair accessible.

But Uber is eager to let the world know that it’s getting better at providing wheelchair-accessible rides. Last month, the company announced that it has partnered with one of the country’s largest paratransit providers, MV Transit, promising pickups for riders using wheelchairs in 15 minutes or less in six of the company’s largest markets. Now, dozens of wheelchair-accessible vehicles in New York, as well as vans in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Toronto are operated by MV drivers using the Uber app.

Uber is the first major TNC to form a major partnership with a paratransit operator in an effort to improve service for disabled passengers. Lyft, which also provides a wheelchair-accessible option in a few cities, said in a statement it was “working to bring [the wheelchair-accessible] mode to more regions.”

But some accessibility advocates argue that Uber’s announcement doesn’t make up for the company’s past efforts to avoid serving riders with disabilities. “Uber has fiercely opposed accessibility in its services, particularly for people who use wheelchairs,” Joseph Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for the Disabled, said. “They’ve lobbied against proposals, they’ve sued, and they’ve spent millions of dollars to prevent a requirement that they provide accessible service…. The only reason that they’re even doing this is because they face legal action.”

When ride-hailing companies first began gaining prominence, some public planners and think tanks pinned their hopes that these services had the potential to help improve mobility options for those who use wheelchairs. But those expectations have not been met. Since 2014, accessibility advocates have hit Uber and Lyft with least ten lawsuits nationwide, claiming that the companies provide substandard or nonexistent service to people in wheelchairs. While both firms have made wheelchair-accessible cars available in select cities for years, wheelchair-users allege in these lawsuits that the small number of such cars on the road makes these services all but impossible to access, and that companies like Uber have the means to close this service gap, but choose to focus resources elsewhere.

“It is fully within Uber’s power to provide accessible service,” a class action suit filed by the group Disability Rights Advocates in California last year reads. “Uber tightly controls all aspects of how drivers and riders use the service, mediating all payments, regulating the types of vehicles drivers use, and offering financial incentives to insure that there are enough drivers on the road to meet the demand for rides.”

This legal action against the company is part of a wave of activism from disability advocates frustrated at what they see as pattern of exclusion by the ride-hailing industry. A study conducted earlier this year by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest found that while the Uber app always located inaccessible vehicles in New York, it located accessible vehicles for barely half of all requests and predicted wait times more than three times as long for these vans. Lyft performed even worse: the app located accessible vehicles only 5 percent of the time. Juno, Via, and Gett provided no accessible rides. Ride-hailing services, the study concluded, are “useless” to wheelchair users.

Since Uber and Lyft’s operations vary by state and city, the lawsuits bring slightly different claims. Three of four recent cases—two against Uber and one against Lyft—were filed on behalf of riders in cities where wheelchair-accessible services from these companies are not available at all (New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi, and White Plains, New York). Conversely, a 2017 lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C. alleges that Uber’s wheelchair-accessible option simply redirects riders to a city taxi service, where they are forced to pay additional fees. All the lawsuits allege that ride-hailing companies are creating a separate transportation system for disabled customers, violating their responsibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In court, Uber has claimed that it is not subject to ADA regulations because it’s a technology company, not a transportation provider. Its lawyers paint a picture of its drivers as part-time contractors who use their own vehicles make extra cash, arguing that the company’s hands are tied because of the lack of people who own accessible vehicles signing up to drive.

“We’ve found [Uber] to be pretty resistant to voluntarily taking on far-reaching accessible policies, and when they do something it tends to be as minimal as possible,” said Melissa Riess, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates on its lawsuit against Uber in San Francisco. Riess was previously involved in a legal battle with the company to end discrimination against drivers with service animals.  

The skyrocketing value of some TNCs certainly hasn’t endeared them to wheelchair users who feel discriminated against. “[Uber is] a $50 billion company with an office here in Manhattan where they have wine on tap,” said José Hernandez, a motorized wheelchair user who works at the United Spinal Association. “You can’t tell me that they can’t purchase accessible vehicles and have them in service.”

TNCs like Lyft and Uber have also sparred directly with cities over their lack of accessible vans. In 2016, Uber lobbied against a proposed measure in Chicago that would have made 5 percent of ride-hailing vehicles in the city wheelchair-accessible. After New York City, which is striving to make 50 percent of yellow cabs accessible over the next two years, rolled out similar regulations for ride-hailing companies last December, Uber, Lyft, Via, and Juno sued the city, claiming that the “staggering” cost of meeting the guidelines could cost the companies over $1 billion. In the suit, the companies said they “have embraced” the goal of increasing access and “have already been investing substantial resources” to improve accessibility for customers, “since it is the right thing to do.”

Malcom Glenn, Uber’s head of global policy for accessibility and underserved communities, said that the company is aware of the lack of options for wheelchair users in major cities, and is committed to improving its service. “We’re cognizant that we have a lot of work to do,” Glenn told CityLab. “Once we learn from the cities where we’re in, we want to think about where we can expand and where we can ultimately deliver a high level of reliability.”

When asked about the theoretical $1 billion laid out in the New York suit compared to the new contract with MV, Glenn said that the company was “investing very heavily” in making sure accessible rides are available. “We’re planning to spend tens of millions of dollars to make sure we’re getting vehicles on the road,” he said. “We’re committed to this in the long term.”

For wheelchair users who have been largely locked out of the ride-hailing revolution, the alternative—door-to-door paratransit—leaves much to be desired. Using these services in 2018 is an oddly retro experience: In most cities, rides need to be booked a day in advance, often by calling a telephone line and speaking to an operator. Riders are often forced to wait for late vans or spend long stretches on a bus following a scheduled pickup. For cities, paratransit is also a very costly business. The Brookings Institute estimates that agencies spent $5.2 billion on paratransit in 2013—around 12 percent of total transit costs—up from just 3 percent of costs before the ADA. And demand keeps growing as more people move to cities and populations age.

Increasing accessible paratransit fleets may be in the unprofitable ride-hailing industry’s best financial interest, and such an investment could help attract public subsidies for paratransit services. Already, even without many traditionally accessible vehicles in their fleets, TNCs have been are working with some city governments to transport riders who can’t access traditional transit. Many paratransit passengers, such as the elderly and those who use foldable wheelchairs, have some mobility and can use a regular Uber or Lyft; in New York, only 25 percent of passengers using Access-A-Ride need lifts for wheelchairs. As such, Uber is able to operate its pilot with Boston’s paratransit program to provide subsidized paratransit rides. Lyft began running a pilot program with Las Vegas paratransit and entered into a pickup contract for senior residents with Royal Palm Beach, Florida this year.

In some larger cities, potential Uber and Lyft partnerships with paratransit have been challenged by the companies’ lack of accessible vehicles. Crain’s New York reported that the MTA “quietly” conducted a study in 2016 that used Uber, which was reportedly interested in a share of the non-wheelchair-accessible paratransit sector in New York, to provide rides to paratransit passengers; disability advocates panned the move and lobbied to end the partnership. And while Uber and Lyft were both reportedly under consideration by DC’s transit system to run a contract to alleviate stress the city’s paratransit system, a spokesperson told the Washington Post that the lack of an ADA-compliant fleet from some proposals meant that they were eliminated from the running. Adding more traditionally accessible vans could help Uber become more competitive for these types of partnerships.

Riess said that while Uber’s recent announcement on wheelchair-accessible vehicles represents a “positive” step, her organization is “intending to closely monitor what happens now to make sure that the level of service is what it needs to be in order for this to be a real transportation option for people with disabilities and compliant with the law.” Several of the lawsuits filed against TNCs, she said, are “ripe” for a decision. Some of the rulings could significantly change how Uber and Lyft approach accessibility.

Still, advocates decry what they see as the ride-hailing industry’s imbalanced priorities on advancing accessibility. A more thorough overhaul of TNC fleets is what’s needed. “Instead of spending $100 million to defend a lawsuit, put a hundred vehicles on the road,” said Hernandez of the United Spinal Association. “Show that you’re trying to make progress. You find a loophole to ignore the ADA, eventually it’s going to be closed. And then you’re going to have to do it anyway.”

Meanwhile, Piro is at least cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a 15-minute wait for an Uber ride. “If something works and I can get from point A to point B, I’ll definitely use it,” Piro said. She recognizes that Uber might have had some issues in the past related to accessibility. But when it comes to getting from one place to another, she continued, “it’s like, well, I don’t have that many options.”

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