Uber’s explosive growth in the Washington region may take yet another turn. The app-based ride company is eyeing a piece of the region’s transportation services for people with disabilities and the elderly.
Metro is giving Uber’s interest serious consideration as it explores more sustainable alternatives to MetroAccess.
“At this stage, everything is on the table,” said Christian Kent, assistant general manager for the agency’s Access Services department, noting that Metro plans to invite companies like Uber to make proposals of what they have to offer.
“The reason why we are talking about alternatives to MetroAccess is simply because of the cost of the service and the fact that the people who need MetroAccess– the numbers of people– are continually going up,” Kent told members of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee on Monday. “We have to have the capacity to serve them.”
As the population continues to age, and disability rates continue to rise, he said, the use of MetroAccess also is expected to grow. Expanding options and lowering cost, Kent said, are inevitable.
The door-to-door paratransit service provides about 2 million trips annually at a hefty price of about $121 million, of which more than 90 percent is paid with local subsidies. Metro projects the service– now the nation’s fifth largest paratransit service with 675 vehicles– could add at least a million trips and more than $50 million in operating expenses in the next decade. Partnering with other transportation services, however, could potentially lower costs by half.
“We think we can leverage our technology to be part of the solution,” Uber spokeswoman Kaitlin Durkosh said. “We would love to explore a partnership with them.”
Uber and similar services such as Lyft, which have a wide network of vehicles on the road, are an appealing option for Metro. But while they might be accepted among customers who crave prompter service and the convenience of app-based ordering, the idea gives some accessibility advocates pause. Some question Uber’s lack of accessible vehicles and the level of training its drivers receive in dealing with passengers with special needs. Others echo widely publicized concerns about the company, centered chiefly around safety, insurance coverage and its vetting process for drivers.
“I would want the highest amount of insurance,” one AAC member said at Monday’s meeting. “Insurance will be a big part for me. Safety will be an important part.”
Uber said all its drivers receive training in dealing with people with disabilities, and its app has some features to make the service more accessible to people with disabilities including audio capabilities for the blind. Uber vehicles are not wheelchair accessible, but Uber officials say they must be large enough to stow a foldable wheelchair. In December, the company introduced a wheelchair accessible vehicle option through a partnership with accessible taxis.
Metro also likely would face opposition and criticism over such a partnership from the taxi industry, which has been been threatened by Uber’s rise. In a letter to Metro General Manger Paul Wiedefeld, a coalition of labor, disability-rights, and taxi industry advocates conveyed opposition to a deal with Uber and its competitor Lyft, but appeared supportive of alternative paratransit programs inclusive of taxi services.
“We urge the [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] board and staff to consider an alternative paratransit program that: awards access for all; enforces compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA); prioritizes safety; improves working conditions, wages, benefits, and training of employees; and will result in the growth of the local economy and small businesses,” the letter said.
As part of its strategy to reduce MetroAccess costs, Metro has tried new programs such as D.C. Transport— a partnership with the D.C. Taxi Commission that makes city taxis available to MetroAccess customers for a flat rate of $5 a trip. The city subsidizes the trip, but the cost for service is still lower than MetroAccess.
“These pilots operate at about half the cost of MetroAccess,” a recent report on MetroAccess’s efficiency concluded, urging more partnerships of the kind to reduce costs.
Metro has also been encouraging users to choose bus and rail instead. The transit agency offers MetroAccess customers free bus and rail service. It costs Metro an average of $50 to provide a MetroAccess ride, compared to $3 to $4 a passenger for bus and rail. That makes the service heavily dependent on subsidies.
No deal has been made, Kent assured advocates, but the transit authority plans to eventually open the bidding process. A new program likely would be tested in Maryland where two-thirds of MetroAccess customers live, Kent said. Metro had set July 1, as an initial deadline, but the process could be extended given Metro’s recent changes in leadership.
Although accessibility advocates are urging that any deal make wheelchair-accessible vehicles a must, it might not be necessary because 70 percent of MetroAccess riders are non-wheelchair users and can be accommodated in regular sedans. In fact, the D.C. Transport program, which has grown exponentially, does not have all accessible vehicles. What people like about it is that they can book a ride when they need to, while booking a MetroAccess trip requires 24-hour advance. Kent said Metro will listen to what the customers want.
“It’s a problem if we come up with something cheaper, but the customers don’t like it,” Kent said in an interview. “I have to make sure the customer likes it.”