Uber and its ride-hailing competitors have enjoyed as warm a welcome in the District of Columbia as anywhere in the world, embraced by the D.C. Council with favorable legislation and celebrated by their customers for providing reliable and inexpensive transportation around a congested city.
But at a time when regulated taxicab companies slowly are increasing their fleets of wheelchair-accessible vehicles (under mandates imposed by regulators), disability rights advocates are turning their focus to Uber, Lyft, and other tech companies. In a city with only about 100 vans capable of accepting motorized wheelchairs, Uber and its competitors offer exactly zero rides for people in wheelchairs.
“Uber really needs to step up to the plate and provide the vehicles,” said Dennis Butler, the vice-chair of the D.C. Taxicab Commission's Accessibility Advisory Committee.
In D.C., local legislators are considering proposals that would not force ride-hailing app companies to change their business models to provide wheelchair access. In other cities, advocates have taken matters into their own hands, filing lawsuits across the country alleging Uber and Lyft deny services to blind people with service animals and to people in wheelchairs.
Uber: we’re “100 percent committed”
For months, Uber has been seeking agreements with a handful of D.C. cab companies, including two of the largest, Yellow Cab and Transco., to access the companies’ wheelchair-ready vans for use on the Uber Taxi platform. Those vehicles are dispatched through the growing TransportDC program for people who are eligible for paratransit service.
The cab companies are not interested in working with Uber.
“I don't know exactly what the problem is. I think our technology is a way to provide better accessibility through partnership,” said Zuhairah Washington, Uber’s D.C. general manager.
Uber is testing partnerships in four cities — New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Diego — with wheelchair-accessible transportation providers.
“In most of those cities we partner with taxi companies to access their fleet,” said Washington.
But not so in the District, where some cab companies have invested in expensive vans to participate in TransportDC.
"The focus of the story should not be on the D.C. taxicab industry. It should be on why Uber is not providing wheelchair-accessible services as part of their product offering. The D.C. taxicab industry is doing its part,” said Roy Spooner, Yellow Cab’s general manager and a key TransportDC participant.
Disability rights advocates say sharing the small fleet of wheelchair-accessible vans is not the answer.
“If Uber just goes ahead and uses the existing accessible taxis that we have managed to get on the road, they are not helping to solve the problem. They are not helping to increase the number of accessible vehicles available to people that really need to use them,” said Carol Tyson, the director of disability policy at the United Spinal Association.
Uber and the ADA
A growing number of lawsuits may resolve larger issues relating to Uber’s business model and how the company eventually may be compelled to serve people in wheelchairs: does the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to Uber? Is Uber a technology company, as its representatives contend, or is it a transportation company?
“The Department of Justice has found that the ADA does apply to Uber and its competitors,” said Tyson, referring to a statement of interest filed by the department in February concerning a lawsuit in California.
Federal lawyers intervened in the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of Blind alleging Uber violates the ADA. Uber moved to dismiss the case on the grounds it is a “technology company” but the Department of Justice disagreed.
In D.C. Uber’s representatives are sticking to the company line.
“We are a technology company that partners with entrepreneurs who own their own vehicles and run their own businesses,” said Uber’s Washington. “We have gone with the incentive approach in trying to find favorable financing for individuals to make it easier for them to purchase a vehicle that qualifies.”
Whether Uber is a tech or transport company may ultimately not matter, according to Clyde Terry, a member of the National Council on Disability, a government agency that advises the president and congress. The ADA applies to both classifications, Terry said.
“The question is whether the ride-sharing companies are actually public accommodations. If they are, then they are covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Terry in an interview with WAMU 88.5
Terry contends that Uber and its competitors would be better off complying with the law than fighting litigation.
“One would think their business model would embrace the ADA rather than fight the ADA,” he said.
The D.C. Council is not unaware that disability rights advocates find Uber’s position unacceptable, but legislators are not considering any mandates that would force Uber to acquire vans with wheelchair ramps; Uber does not own any vehicles at all.
Instead, Council member Mary Cheh (Ward 3) is weighing whether to provide individual Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar drivers the same grants now available to licensed cab drivers to purchase new vans.
“Persons with disabilities in the District must have access to the same transportation options as everyone else, whether through public taxicabs or private for-hire vehicle services,” said Cheh in a written statement to WAMU 88.5.
“With the implementation of the Vehicle-for-Hire Innovation Amendment Act of 2014, we are beginning to collect the funding and information needed to determine how best to increase the accessibility of the private for-hire vehicle industry,” said Cheh.
The ride-hailing app companies are currently under no requirements to provide wheelchair-access. By Jan. 1 Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar are required to submit plans detailing how they intend to increase accessibility, but Cheh’s office may move sooner to make grant money available to drivers.
“In this Council period, I will be working to develop policies, and potentially legislation, that will help the District achieve this goal,” Cheh said.
To advocates such as Tyson, the move toward expanded access is long overdue.
“Uber and its competitors have had several years to do the right thing. Obviously it is not happening. We would hope mayor and council will step up and require that Uber and its competitors ensure all District residents have access to their services,” Tyson said.
“Disability advocates laid down in front of buses and were arrested countless times decades ago to ensure access to transportation for everyone, and Uber and its competitors and all these new transportation companies need to respect disability and civil rights, and prioritize access.