Ride-hailing apps are designed to be convenient, unless you use a wheelchair. While municipal transport systems add better and better access for disabled people, ride-hailing services have no such obligations. The shame is double, because cheap, on-demand transportation would arguably be even more useful for disabled people than for the non-disabled, who have no problem walking to a taxi rank or bus stop.
The situation is improving, but lack of regulation means the results are mixed. Changes are usually the result of pressure from the public and from accessibility advocate groups. Uber shirks responsibility for adding wheelchair accessible vehicles, or WAVs, to its fleets, says Carol Tyson, of the United Spinal Association, writing for Mobility Lab. His piece details how it goes so far as to ignore a Justice Department request “noting that the company should comply with ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] mandates for accessibility.”
In an ironic turn, Uber is partnering with taxi companies to provide WAVs, but it’s less than surprising that the taxi companies aren’t happy with sweeping up Uber’s leftovers. Taxi companies, like other public transport, are required to provide disabled access under the ADA. Title III of this act says that “public accommodations and in commercial facilities” cannot discriminate against disabled people. Uber argues that it is exempt because its product is an app and a platform, not a public accommodation.
“Few if any vehicles in Uber’s network are wheelchair accessible,” writes Wired’s Issie Lapowsky. “That’s because Uber considers itself a technology platform, not a taxi company, and so it doesn’t require any of its drivers to have wheelchair-accessible vehicles.”
Other ride-sharing services like Lyft and Bridj are as bad, writes Tyson. Bridj says that it will try to accommodate disabled customers, but that they have to make an advance reservation, which defeats the point of on-demand transport.
As long as companies like Uber skirt the law to avoid expensive regulations, only customer pressure will have any effect. And as disabled passengers are in a minority, this seems unlikely. You could just argue that things haven’t got any worse for disabled travelers. After all, they can still call a taxi like before, right? But this ignores the effect that Uber and other ride-sharing companies are having on the taxi business. The head of San Francisco’s taxi industry thinks that ride-sharing will put taxis out of business “soon,” but already the squeeze is being felt. “In San Francisco, the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis has decreased from 100 in 2013 to 64,” says Tyson. In New York plans to make half the taxi fleet wheelchair-accessible are collapsing as taxi companies go bankrupt. It’s tricky to enforce accessible taxis if there are no taxis left.
This may end up being a big problem, since Uber’s drivers use their own vehicles. Maybe you, the reader, picks up the odd Uber rider from time to time to make a few bucks? Would you consider adding wheelchair access to your car? Or letting a blind person ride with their dog? After all, your car isn’t a public space. Or is it?
Looked at this way, it’s a surprise that ride-sharing companies manage to make any accessibility accommodations at all.