By Josie Byzek, May 02, 2016
The thing you’ve got to understand about transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft is, they’re so damn convenient. You download an app on your smartphone, enter your credit card info, and then whenever you need a ride somewhere, just push the button on your phone. Usually within 10 to 15 minutes a driver who uses her own personal car, possibly your neighbor, whisks you off to your destination.
And this new way of getting around is gaining popularity worldwide. In 2012 Uber Technologies went global, and as of April 2016 riders can submit ride requests in 60 countries and 404 cities worldwide — including all major cities in the U.S.
There’s only one problem, and in this post-ADA, disability-enlightened era, it’s a maddening problem: It was not designed to include people who use powered mobility devices.
Don’t worry, says TNC giant Uber, they’re working on it. “We are constantly refining and renovating our products and technology to provide even more options for consumers,” says Uber, in a statement emailed to NEW MOBILITY for this story. “For example, we are piloting several different models nationwide to determine which solutions best meet the needs of our riders and drivers. These pilots run the gamut from licensing our technology to WAV [wheelchair accessible vehicle] taxi drivers to providing our own WAV options through partnerships with commercial providers.”
To see how they’re doing, we spoke with wheelchair users and advocates from around the nation about how well Uber is working in their region. We focused on Uber, since right now Uber is the most responsive TNC to our community.
Philadelphia: The Coolest Thing Ever
College student Shayna Pulley is an enthusiastic Uber rider. “I just use the regular UberX and we break down my rigid Quickie Q7 — pop the wheels off, fold down the back, and then it either goes in the trunk or the driver puts it on the front seat,” says Pulley, 25. “I’ve never had any issue, all of the drivers have been really respectful.”
Sometimes she’ll get a driver who asks if they can break down her chair themselves. “There’s a video Uber put out on how to break down a rigid wheelchair, and a lot of them have watched the video. If they haven’t, it’s still a teaching moment and they’re always so excited, they think it’s the coolest thing ever. I explain how the back folds down on mine, but that it may be different on another chair, so they’ll be educated the next time they come across a manual chair.”
Pulley, who lives outside of Philadelphia, has a cocktail of neurological conditions, including syringomyelia at C5-6, and depending on the day will use her manual chair, forearm crutches or her rollator. The first time she used Uber she was in a jam. “We share cars in our family and all the cars were gone. My mom left her cell phone home, so when I called her, I heard it ring in the house. Then I thought of Uber. Luckily a few months ago I had downloaded the app and entered my credit card.”
And that, she says, brings her to another point about how awesome Uber is. “In a cab you’re fumbling for your wallet and when you use a wheelchair, your hands are busy all the time, so this way, when you reach your destination, you’re ready to get out of the car as quickly as possible and get on your way.” Since your credit card info is in Uber’s system and Uber drivers do not accept tips, no money changes hands.
Another advantage to the Uber app is that it is GPS-based. It tells the driver where you called from, so the driver doesn’t need you to give your address. “So when the driver says ‘where are you,’ they mean ‘are you next to the flag, at the curb cut or at the door.’ I’ve used it in residential settings, urban settings, everywhere.” She tells them to look for the wheelchair with the hot pink wheels.
Pulley says Uber cars tend to be cleaner than cabs. “In a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I used a cab once and Uber four times. The Uber car was so clean and the drivers were so respectful. When I used the cab, the driver had no idea how to handle my wheelchair, and he was sick, and his car was very dirty. I was concerned because my immune system doesn’t work properly.”
And in her hometown Philadelphia, good luck catching an accessible bus. “They will pass you right by,” she says. And once, when using Amtrak to attend her classes at Philadelphia Community College, she fell asleep and passed up her stop. “I would have missed class if I hadn’t called Uber. With Uber I’ve never had a driver say, ‘oh, sorry, I can’t deal with a wheelchair.’”
Uber also employs wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the Philadelphia area via its WAV program. Pulley has only used that system once. “It costs more, but I usually go with UberX because I don’t need an accessible vehicle.”
The Fare Isn’t Fair
In Philadelphia, according to Uberestimate.com, Uber has a few options for its riders, ranging from the most affordable, UberX, with a base fare of $1.25 to the most expensive, Uber SUV plus Carseat, with a base fare of $24. Most, like Pulley, use UberX, which in addition to the base fare of $1.25, also charges 18 cents a minute, $1 per mile, a service charge of $1.25, and a minimum fare of $5.
But UberWAV in Philadelphia — the only option possible for power wheelchair — charges significantly more. The base fare is $7, then add on 25 cents a minute, $2 a mile, a service charge of $1.25, and the minimum fare is $7.25. This is the same pricing for an inaccessible SUV, for sure, but nondisabled passengers can choose whether or not they would like an SUV. Power chair users in Philadelphia don’t have that luxury and, because of their disability, cannot choose the lower rate.
They can in some parts of the country, such as Portland, Oregon, where a 25 cent surcharge is added to all TNC rides to subsidize the WAV rides.
But back to Philly. Turns out, not all wheelchair users in the City of Brotherly Love are as enamored with Uber as Pulley. Dissatisfied users and advocates took to the streets on Feb. 11, along with cab and limo drivers, to protest both Uber and Lyft. The cab drivers are pissed at the competition and claim Uber is creating anarchy in the city and ought to be taxed more. Plus, say the cabbies with a straight face, they were protesting for public safety and wheelchair accessibility.
No one in their right mind would or could ever believe that the cab companies in Philadelphia give a damn about people with disabilities. After all, the only reason that dozens of shiny new taxi WAVs hit the street in 2015 is because disability advocates won a lawsuit in 2011. And the best the industry says it can do is have 8 percent of its fleet accessible by 2021.
But wait … alongside of the cabbies are … can it be? My goodness, yes! Disability rights activists, including many wheelchair users.
“Seeing wheelmen and wheelchair users united was a curious sight, given that less than a year ago, the taxi industry was fighting accessibility advocates over a Philadelphia Parking Authority proposal requiring all new taxis to be wheelchair accessible vehicles,” noted an article by Jim Saksas on PlanPhilly.com. Yet just a few months before that, disability rights advocates praised Uber for launching UberWAV.
And this unlikely alliance between wheelchair users and the taxi industry isn’t just happening in Philadelphia, but in New York City, also. Or should we say, especially in New York City, which is, after all, home of the original Taxis For All campaign and the city that won an agreement for 50 percent of its taxi fleet to become accessible by 2020.
Activist Nadina LaSpina
protests Uber in New York City.
New York City: The Only Ones Losing Something
New York City is the only city that is losing existing accessible transportation because of Uber. “New York is different than any other city because we have a mandate for 50 percent accessible taxis, and Uber is cutting into that,” says United Spinal Association CEO James Weisman. “Uber operates over 30,000 vehicles in New York City, and not one is accessible. They have an UberT on their app, which gets you a taxi, and in there is another tab, UberWAV, and that will call you an accessible cab that advocates worked two decades to get, and Uber is putting them out of business.”
Although cabs are owned by their companies, to drive a cab in New York City, you need to purchase a medallion. Because of the advocacy of groups like United Spinal and the Taxis For All campaign, for a brief shining period about four years ago, cab drivers slavered after medallions for accessible cabs, and it looked like the golden dream of a power wheelchair user being able to actually hail a cab was coming true.
Then came TNCs, including Uber, “and now in 2016 no accessible medallions have been sold and there are no plans to sell them,” says Weisman. “There are no buys, they’re worthless.”
And the city is just letting it happen. “The city fought us for years on accessible cabs and the Taxis For All campaign is 19 years old now,” says Weisman. “And now they let Uber just take over. They could have protected the Yellow Cabs and regulated Uber by treating it like a taxi company, but they would not do that.”
So in a twist of fate, Weisman has thrown in — for now — with the cab companies. “We are not your average disabled population that has nothing,” says Weisman. “We had 50 percent taxi access. If Uber doesn’t do something like that, or that is as effective, our population loses. We can’t just walk away from that.” Half of the city’s cabs will still have to be accessible, but the fleet will have significantly shrunken.
United Spinal has vigorously campaigned against Uber, including running anti-Uber ads, in hopes of saving the taxi industry and, by extension, saving the deal for a dramatic increase in accessible cabs. Without the taxi companies, after all, the deal for 50 percent of all cabs to be accessible is worthless. And then UberWAV is worthless, too, since there won’t be enough WAVs for UberWAV to connect with in the city.
Still, there are ways that Uber’s business model could benefit all people with disabilities, says Weisman. Think about all the types of transportation that exist just to serve our community. “You have Medicaid ambulettes, Voc Rehab types of transportation, paratransit, VA medical center transportation … in New York City hundreds of millions of dollars are spent getting wheelchair users to the doctor,” and think of how much money and time could be saved using a platform like Uber’s that connects people directly to a WAV driver. Still, says Weisman, “They should not receive government money if they’re going to keep their for-hire business inaccessible.”
That’s for the future. Right now, advocates are grappling with a brand-new system that works beautifully for everyone but those who use power chairs or scooters. “People don’t notice when wheelchair users are not included,” says Weisman. “A whole transportation mode has been created without wheelchair accessibility.”
Phoenix Uber hopes to entice more owners of
wheelchair accessible vehicles to drive for its network.
Phoenix: It’s in Our Community’s Interest to Help Uber
When Uber announced it would begin providing UberWAV service in Phoenix, wheelchair users were excited … followed quickly by disappointment. “We started pressing the button for a ride and only got ‘check back later’ from the app,” says NEW MOBILITY community partner Loren Worthington, the communications and marketing manager for Ability360. “We reached out to Uber through the front door and all we got was, ‘we’re working on it.’”
At this point, Ability360 had a choice. The organization publishes the quarterly LivAbility magazine and considered publishing a story on the lack of accessible service, but instead decided to try to work with the company. “Our opinion is that it’s going to take some time, but in the long term it’s in the best interest of our community to try to help Uber develop successful programs to serve our community,” says Worthington, a C5-6 quad.
The problem is that transportation network companies such as Uber are profitable because their app-based software connects private drivers directly to riders. “We were able to connect with a person at Uber responsible for making their program work in our city,” says Worthington. “He told us their challenge was finding drivers with accessible vehicles. He told us ‘we thought we’d get accessible drivers, and they didn’t materialize.’”
Worthington says of an evening program held at the local Uber headquarters to recruit WAV drivers: “They had drinks and some snacks, and anyone interested could come in and discuss the program with Uber.” But only a few came.
Uber will be running an ad seeking drivers in an upcoming edition of LivAbility Magazine, and Worthington thinks that may help. “I am optimistic that Uber can find drivers and that its model will find success in Phoenix,” he says.
But in the meantime, Uber is not working for people who don’t transfer independently. The City of Phoenix is trying to entice TNCs to provide access with an ordinance that would allow them to fully operate at Sky Harbor International Airport on the condition that equitable wheelchair accessible vehicles be available within 30 minutes. Currently, TNCs can drop off but not pick up at Sky Harbor International Airport. Being able to fully operate at the airport is coveted by the TNCs and their partners.
Portland Disability Program Coordinator Nickole Cheron
welcomes more transportation options.
Portland: Uber Creates Another Option
Portland, Oregon, is another city in which the local government cultivates community-wide accessibility, and so it’s probably no surprise that in Portlandia, when you push the UberWAV button, you are given an actual time of arrival. It’s not perfect. When our senior editor Ian Ruder attempted to use it one Saturday night, the wait was over an hour.
What’d you do? “I had my attendant come get me in my van,” says Ruder, a C5 quad who doesn’t drive. He checked the app randomly for this story and the wait was a reasonable 25 minutes — but that was on a weekday.
Portland’s Disability Program Coordinator, Nickole Cheron, a power wheelchair user, has had better luck than Ruder. “The few times that I have endeavored to call, Uber has gotten to me within 10 to 15 minutes,” says Cheron, who has spinal muscular atrophy. She says cabs are iffy in Portland. Even if you call a day ahead, they may still be an hour late, and so far Uber’s outperforming the taxis. “With Uber, if there’s a ride available, I can see their progress on the app, that they’re coming.”
As of press time, Uber Portland had between 15 and 25 peer-to-peer operated WAVs — privately-owned wheelchair accessible vans — and they are trying to recruit more so it can continue to meet the city’s 24-hour service requirement. “Uber is meeting this, Lyft is falling short,” says Cheron.
The city estimates a WAV ride can cost $30-40, and so has instituted a 25-cent surcharge on every TNC ride. “We’ll figure out a way to reimburse the drivers of the vehicles or the companies since we recognize WAVs cost more,” says Cheron. “We want WAV rides to be competitive.”
In Portland, a wait for an UberWAV cannot be more than twice the time of UberX. “Whatever the status of the regular service is at any given point, say around 10 to 12 minutes, the wheelchair accessible service can’t be outside the range of 20 to 25 minutes,” says Cheron. “So if wheelchair users are getting consistently longer wait times, they can make a complaint.”
Cheron says UberWAV is still not equal, “but it’s equitable, and it’s an option that we’ve not really had. So many people who rely on paratransit wait up to two hours, so I feel like anything that makes more options available to folks, it’s a good thing.”