NADINA LASPINA IS looking up from under her wide-brimmed hat at the heavy grey rain clouds overhead, watching the blazing July sun play peekaboo behind them, and worrying about whether she’s dressed appropriately for the weather. It’s too hot and humid for a raincoat when the sun is out, but when the clouds break open, as they have intermittently throughout the day, the rain pours down by the bucketful.
What to wear? It’s a question that most New Yorkers—who spend so much of their daily commutes outdoors—ask themselves on a day like today. But for LaSpina, it’s especially important to get it right.
Unlike most New Yorkers, LaSpina can’t just duck into the subway, hail a cab, or hide under scaffolding until an Uber arrives. LaSpina had polio as a child and has used a wheelchair for most of her adult life. She can’t transfer herself into a regular cab, so she requires a taxi with a ramp. Those are pretty scarce, though, especially since she has to share them with the millions of other New Yorkers who don’t use wheelchairs.
So if the clouds part and let loose another one of those furious summer storms, the only way LaSpina can get back home is the same way she got here in the first place: “I just rolled.”
“Here,” as it so happens, is Uber’s New York City headquarters, which is located all the way on Manhattan’s west side, between 11th and 12th Avenues. It might as well be Siberia for the average Manhattanite. No subways run this far west, and it’s tough to find any taxi, let alone one that’s wheelchair accessible. Which makes it a fitting—if somewhat ironic—place for LaSpina and about a dozen other wheelchair users from the advocacy group Disabled in Action to gather in protest of what they say are discriminatory practices by the car-hailing giant.
Uber’s issues with the disabled community have been widely covered. Uber drivers have been accused of refusing to pick up wheelchair users, as well as blind passengers traveling with service animals. Stories have surfaced of Uber drivers putting guide dogs in the trunk, and both Uber and its smaller rival, Lyft, are now facing several lawsuits in states across the country.
But the protesters gathered at Uber’s headquarters say those admittedly awful stories of misbehavior by individual drivers mask a much deeper, much more complex, systemic issue that cuts to the very core of how Uber runs its business. The problem, as they see it, isn’t just that Uber drivers won’t pick them up. It’s that they can’t.
More Than Skin Deep
Few if any vehicles in Uber’s network are wheelchair accessible. 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. Instead, to accommodate disabled riders, Uber has begun partnering with third party groups who do operate these vehicles in select cities around the country. In New York City, for instance, Uber has partnered with the Taxi & Limousine Commission on a feature called UberWAV, which hails a wheelchair-accessible city taxi. But the protesters say there’s an issue with this approach.
The fact is, as Uber has grown, the taxi industry has taken a major hit. In New York City, the Commission has seen a drop in the price of taxi medallions, which allow taxis to operate in the city, and a serious uptick in the foreclosure rate for medallion owners. And that, disability advocates say, is a problem because it’s only these medallion and permit owners who have any kind of mandate to put wheelchair accessible vehicles on the road.
Back in 2013, following a class action lawsuit that charged the TLC with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Commission agreed to make 50 percent of its taxis wheelchair accessible by 2020. Meanwhile, back in 2011, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the release of 2,000 new medallions for wheelchair accessible vehicles. To people like LaSpina, who have been fighting this battle for decades, it felt like progress. And yet, now that Uber is making it less desirable to get into the traditional taxi business, the majority of these new medallions are going unclaimed.
In other words, the protesters say, in New York City, Uber is using the taxi industry to serve wheelchair users, even as it threatens to overthrow the taxi industry altogether.
“Buying a medallion now is like buying a buggy in 1920,” says Jim Weisman, CEO of the United Spinal Association, who was part of the Uber protest and has been fighting for equal rights in the transportation industry since the 1970s. “You just don’t need them.”
It wasn’t long ago that Weisman and his organization were battling the taxi industry for similar rights. Now, he admits, the Taxi & Limousine Commission is a backer of United Spinal, which is aligned in its fear of what could happen if Uber is continues to take over New York City’s transportation industry. As Weisman put it, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Which is why Weisman and the others are here today, calling on Uber to stop relying on third parties to deliver services to the disabled and to start taking on the responsibility themselves. What disabled riders need, they say, are more wheelchair-accessible vehicles on the road, not more access to an already limited supply. They want to see Uber offer incentives to new drivers joining the network, urging them to to invest in wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Until accessibility is baked into the core network, they say, Uber will never be truly equal.
Of course, there is one tiny detail standing in the way of such a future: Uber’s entire business model. That model hinges on the fact that Uber is not a fleet operator capable of handing down mandates to its drivers. Rather, it’s a platform on which a loose network of independent contractor drivers can connect with riders. It’s this structure that enables Uber to compensate drivers as contractors, not employees, while also enabling Uber to skirt some of the laws that would apply to a traditional transportation company.
“Sometimes people from the outside think that Uber drivers are full-time drivers like taxi and limo drivers, that this is their career, and as you know, that’s not the case,” says Uber advisor and strategist David Plouffe, who managed President Obama’s 2008 election campaign. “The vast majority of our drivers come from every walk of life. They do it for a limited amount of time, in terms of hours per week.”
Uber’s strategy to accommodate disabled riders until now has been to partner with third parties who do this work full-time. And it does have a long list of initiatives to tout as outreach to the disabled community. For its UberASSIST product, for example, it’s partnered with a group called Open Doors Organization to help train drivers in select cities on how to accommodate drivers with folding wheelchairs, walkers, and scooters. UberWAV, which hails accessible city taxis, is fully operating in New York City, and the company says it has an average wait time of 7 minutes. Meanwhile, another feature called UberACCESS is being piloted in Austin.
Meanwhile, Uber has updated its app so that it works with voiceover iOS to accommodate blind riders. The company is also testing a feature that uses light instead of sound to signal new ride requests for deaf and hearing-impaired drivers.
“The organizations we’re partnering with, they do this for a living, and what we’re doing is matching our technology and our efficiency,” says Uber advisor David Plouffe. “That’s pretty powerful.”
But for Weisman and other members of Disabled in Action, these small scale, one-off projects don’t suffice, especially for a company that now has a $51 billion valuation and seems to raise another billion dollars every few months. [MORE]