Uber has entered into a contract with MV Transportation, a paratransit firm, to provide service for customers with disabilities. MV will supply drivers and vehicles, while trips will be arranged through the Uber app. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Uber is launching wheelchair-accessible service in the District and five other cities, the company announced this week, pledging a 15-minute wait time for customers with disabilities for fares equivalent to UberX.

The ride-hail giant has entered into a contract with MV Transportation, which calls itself the country’s leading paratransit firm, to provide the service for customers with disabilities. MV will supply drivers and vehicles, while trips will be arranged through the Uber app.

Uber has long been criticized for its lack of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Equal Rights Center in 2017 called out the company for its failure to provide access for passengers in wheelchairs and motorized scooters.

The app has offered an option called Taxi WAV since 2015, allowing customers to hail a ride in a wheelchair-accessible cab — though advocates said it fell short of providing service equivalent to the door-to-door UberX. In a blog post announcing the deal with MV, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company needed to better accommodate customers who use personal mobility devices.

“We believe that ridesharing has the potential to significantly improve mobility for people with disabilities,” he wrote, citing Uber’s accommodation of passengers with service animals and folding wheelchairs. “But we know there is more that can be done, and believe that ridesharing can further improve options for riders who use motorized wheelchairs or scooters and want reliable access to wheelchair-accessible vehicles.”

Khosrowshahi said Uber would be bringing hundreds of drivers and wheelchair-accessible vehicles — specialized minivans that accommodate mobility devices — to six cities through the partnership with MV: Washington, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Toronto.

(MV Transportation is a contractor for MetroAccess, which provides paratransit service in the Washington region.)

Uber also aims to launch the service in two West Coast cities in 2019: San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In the Washington region, wheelchair-accessible trips hailed through Uber present a new, round-the-clock option for paratransit customers who have a number of options available, though not all have been reliable in recent years.

Tayjus Surampudi, a 23-year-old who recently held a Capitol Hill internship in D.C., took more than 30 trips using UberWAV this fall. He said it opened opportunities for him to commute in the rain, go out with friends and otherwise hail a ride at his convenience.

“It has increased my independence; it’s sort of made it easier for me to plan things last-minute without thinking about it as much as other times,” said Surampudi, a recent Harvard University graduate. “From a millennial standpoint, if you want to go out late, [Metro] closes early.”

Uber now gives wheelchair users a late-night option, he says.

Still, there are differences between UberWAV and UberX service. Surampudi recalled a time when he was out with friends and said he would hail a ride. The wait time for a wheelchair-accessible minivan: 15 minutes.

“I was like ‘oh the Uber is not that far’ and they were like ‘how many minutes?’” he said, relaying their response. " ’15 minutes away? That’s far’ The reality is it is far.”

Even so, he said, Uber’s wait times are substantially lower than those for other mobility options. He said wheelchair-accessible taxis were few and far between in Boston, for example, where it could take up to an hour to get a ride.

But there have been growing pains as Uber has rolled out its service.

In a couple instances, Surampudi said, UberWAV drivers either failed to strap down his motorized wheelchair or did so improperly. And service can be inconsistent.

“There were times when I could get someone in five minutes, other times where they would respond, but it would sometimes [be] 20 minutes,” he said.

In the District, a city service called Transport DC offers $5 subsidized trips for medical and employment purposes. (The service became so popular last year that the District had to scale it back.) MetroAccess offers door-to-door shared paratransit services for those who live near rail and bus stations, at two times the cost of the equivalent fare from a station or bus stop. In Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, a program called Abilities-Ride allows paratransit customers to hail accessible taxis for a discounted fare. Now Uber gives them another choice.

“Today, in most cities, wheelchair-accessible vehicles are unreliable and hard to find through existing transportation options. Paratransit options require booking a ride as much as a day in advance, and often mean riders have to wait until many other passengers are picked up and dropped off before they reach their destination,” Khosrowshahi said in his blog post.

He said there aren’t enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles on the road to make the service feasible without a third party dedicated to operating it.

Malcom Glenn, Uber’s head of global policy, accessibility and underserved communities, elaborated in an interview at the company’s D.C. headquarters this week. He declined to say, however, whether the initiative is tied to the WAV litigation in Washington, Chicago and other cities. The Equal Rights Center did not respond to a request for comment on the subject.

“This is the right thing to do, because this a population of folks for whom there has been such a huge barrier when it comes to transportation for so long that we can actually work to significantly improve that in a really, really meaningful way,” he said. “And we want to do that in as many places in which it is feasible.”

Glenn said that the Uber and MV contract is worth tens of millions of dollars in its first year, and that it includes the purchase, modification and maintenance of the vehicles, and the recruitment and hiring of drivers, among other duties.

“They handle the things in which they have the areas of expertise, and then they basically put those cars and drivers on our platform,” he said.

Because fares will be subsidized beyond what is typical for Uber, Glenn said the WAV service will operate at a loss. In Metro’s case, for example, paratransit is the fastest-growing and costliest service for the agency — with the true cost of trips averaging $50, though the maximum fare is $6.50. Paratransit service is mandated for transit agencies under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In Uber’s case, Glenn said, “it is very costly, but we recognize this is a thing where we can demonstrably transform the way that people have historically thought about transportation, a population of people whom there have been huge barriers.”

“And so it’s an investment that we’re willing to make.”

He said the contract includes performance benchmarks and safety-related stipulations to ensure that wait times are met and that drivers are properly screened.

Glenn said MV’s drivers are subject to Uber’s background check process, and must undergo sensitivity training and a WAV securement certification through a third party before they can be approved to drive on UberWAV.

Surampudi, who is moving to New York City for his next internship, hopes to make use of UberWAV while there. But he also wants to see improvements: the integration of lower-cost options similar to UberPOOL, and the elimination of surge-pricing among them.

“As a wheelchair user I didn’t feel like I should be paying surge pricing because I wait much longer,” he said. “That’s a little frustrating.”

And while Uber “adds one more way of getting around," he recognizes, that it’s not a feasible option for everyone. Uber, while cheaper than taxis in his observation, remains significantly more costly than government-subsidized transit options such as MetroAccess and TransportDC.

“Compared to MetroAcess and TransportDC I think it’s a better experience but I would say it’s probably cost-prohibitive to a lot of people,” he said. “Maybe the only caveat is that it does expand the transportation network — but I think only to certain people.”