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Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing apps are ‘useless’ for disabled riders, NYC advocates say

A New York City advocacy group’s report says Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services lack enough vehicles that are equipped to handle wheelchairs and scooters for disabled riders. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

A report by an advocacy group in New York says Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services are virtually “useless” for people with disabilities because of the relative lack of vehicles equipped to handle wheelchairs and motorized scooters.

The report by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest also says that when riders summoned wheelchair-accessible vehicles from Uber and Lyft — the only ride-hailing companies to offer such a service — the wait time was more than four times longer than for regular service.

As if that weren’t bad enough, all these DIY taxi services are clogging city streets and slowing buses and paratransit vehicles that are equipped to transport people with disabilities.

The advocacy group called on Uber and Lyft, along with smaller operators Juno and Via, to do better by disabled riders, perhaps by offering more incentives to drivers to equip their vehicles to transport them.

“We see it as an equal rights issue,” said Ruth Lowenkron, director of the disability justice program for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Although the report focuses only on New York City, advocates in the disability community say there’s little reason to think the problem is any different in other jurisdictions where ride-hailing has become the go-to way to get around.

Uber and Lyft officials said their companies are committed to providing better service for people with disabilities.

Both companies highlighted their commitment to a pilot program under the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) intended to provide better service for disabled riders. The two-year pilot, which begins in July, will essentially pool wheelchair-accessible vehicles  and route them through a centralized dispatcher. It’s a permissible alternative to compliance with TLC regulations that would otherwise require for-hire vehicle services to have at least 25 percent of their fleets equipped to handle wheelchairs by 2022.

“Uber is committed to working with the TLC to make the [pilot program] a success and increase access to reliable service to New Yorkers in wheelchairs,” company spokeswoman Alix Anfang said in an email.

“Lyft feels strongly about ensuring that those who need rides most are able to get them and we are committed to working with the TLC on the For-Hire-Vehicle pilot program to expand service for New Yorkers in wheelchairs,” spokeswoman Campbell Matthews said.

Neither Juno nor Via responded to emails seeking comment before publication.

The report — which was written about in the Verge — casts light on an issue that poses a particular challenge for the ride-hailing services and their business model. As a sort of DIY taxi company, Uber got its start inviting ordinary people to use their spare time and their private vehicles to earn money ferrying other people around. But not all of those everyday drivers have vehicles that are equipped to handle wheelchairs or motorized scooters very easily.

As Uber and Lyft seize more and more of the on-demand transportation market, however, the companies face greater calls to conform to some of the standards that have long governed mass transit and other forms of public transportation. Those standards include the Americans With Disabilities Act’s requirement for equal access.

To highlight the disparities for disabled riders, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest conducted a test to see what would happen if they called for a vehicle to transport someone with a disability. They chose five locations in New York: Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, major medical centers in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and two major airports — John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia — in Queens.

The testers made a point of summoning wheelchair-accessible vehicles through UberWAV and Lyft’s Access Mode. They found that there were no such vehicles available 70 percent of the time. When a vehicle  was found, the estimated wait times were 17 minutes, vs. four minutes for the regular service, the report says. On 17 occasions, attempts to find a wheelchair-accessible vehicle for travel to the city’s two major airports came up empty — while efforts to book a regular ride met with 100 percent success, the report says.

The Independent Drivers Guild, a union affiliate representing thousands of ride-hailing drivers in New York, said financial incentives — perhaps from the city and the companies — are needed to encourage drivers to convert their vehicles so they can easily handle wheelchairs.

Moira Muntz, an IDG spokeswoman, said the group has been calling for a conversion fund similar to one available for taxis. Drivers of such vehicles also should receive higher rates, she said.

Justin Wood, the author of the report by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said he believes the ride-hailing services have the means to do just that.

“These apps have billions of dollars in revenue, and they incentivize drivers to do stuff all the time,” Wood said.

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