Ride-Hailing Services Present Major Gap in Access for People with Disabilities in the D.C. Area

Many regions – like the Washington, D.C., area – are fortunately and rapidly adding a multitude of transportation options, especially in the realms of on-demand mobility and ride-hailing.

In August, Arlington Transportation Partners set out to highlight this variety of modes and options in the District through a creative “commute race” from Petworth to ATP’s offices across the Potomac River in Rosslyn, Virginia. This race featured Uber, Bridj, Split, Capital Bikeshare and Metro.

However, one aspect overlooked in this and many other endeavors when comparing transportation choices is the accessibility of certain modes for people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities.

Ride-hailing companies are uniquely positioned to offer an essential on-demand transportation service for people with disabilities, but currently offer little in the way of accessible options in the D.C. region.

Uber has taken criticism nationally in recent years for its generally lackluster approach to integrating wheelchair accessible vehicles, or WAVs, into its fleet and all of its services. In February of 2015, the Justice Department weighed in on a California case, noting that the company should comply with ADA mandates for accessibility. Uber, however, “considers itself a technology platform, not a taxi company, and so it doesn’t require any of its drivers to have wheelchair-accessible vehicles,” as Wired’s Issie Lapowsky notes.

While Uber is testing several piecemeal city-by-city approaches to incorporate wheelchair-accessible cars into its fleets, it currently offers no such vehicles in its D.C. fleet. Currently, the company is operating experiments in a handful of cities, including, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Chicago, in which the company offers accessibility options for app users. In Chicago, for example, the UberACCESS program partners with disability access nonprofit Open Doors Organization to offer UberWAV, for wheelchair-accessible options, and UberASSIST, for customers who would like to request a specially trained driver.

In the Washington, D.C., region, the company offers no vehicles in its own fleet that can serve people with disabilities. Instead, Uber has attempted to build partnerships with taxi companies with WAVs in it their fleets, but has had little success. Currently, Uber and competitor Lyft are required to ensure their apps and websites are accessible to the blind and visually impaired, and submit wheelchair-accessibility plans to the D.C. Council by January 1. Rather than require companies to add WAVs to their fleets, the Council is considering providing Uber and Lyft drivers with Transport DC grants to pay for the vehicles.

Newer ride-hailing services face these same gaps in their coverage. Bridj, a bus-hailing company relatively new to the D.C. area, notes on its website that it “will make every effort to be accessible to all riders,” but does require an advance reservation to do so. Split, also recently launched, has no available information on its website about access for people with disabilities.

WAV taxi - NY MTA

A wheelchair-accessible taxi.

For customers with disabilities, D.C.’s taxis have begun to offer WAV options for riders. Unlike ride-hailing companies, taxis operate under a mandate of accessibility. While many companies did not initially meet the first of three deadlines to make a percentage of their fleets wheelchair-accessible, WAV taxis are providing the option for spontaneous travel to many District residents for the first time.

There is concern, though, that competition from Uber and Lyft will make it difficult to maintain and increase taxi accessibility. In San Francisco, the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis has decreased from 100 in 2013 to 64. Last year, New York City rolled out a plan to ensure 50 percent of its taxi fleet is accessible by 2020. This year, taxi companies are going bankrupt and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is having difficulty selling WAV medallions. Advocates in New York are pushing for a cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles to level the playing field for taxis.

The D.C. Taxicab Commission’s Accessibility Advisory Committee recently released its annual report on Accessible Vehicle for Hire service, in which it recommends requiring ride-hailing companies to provide accessible service, along with regulatory changes and incentives, to allow for increased accessible on-demand service.

In 2014, Houston, Texas, passed legislation requiring all vehicle-for-hire services (taxis and ride-hailing) provide accessible service, though options for how to achieve equal access are debated. Other jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, Maryland, are assessing a surcharge on ride-hailing app trips to be used towards increasing accessible taxi service. Both DCTC and Montgomery County are working towards apps that would allow passengers to request taxis.

Whatever the local regulations, ride-hailing companies should seek early partnerships with local disability advocacy organizations, as a general best-practice, so that they are aware of local transportation issues, and guarantee they are providing quality service.

The world of app-based ride-hailing services is a rapidly growing field that provides many with more flexible transportation options. As ride-hailing and transportation apps become more prevalent, it is key that they incorporate plans for serving customers with disabilities from day one. Other equity concerns related to provision of adequate wages and benefits must also be addressed. Doing so will set a better precedent for ensuring effective on-demand transportation benefits all people.

Photo credits: Sozialhelden, Flickr, Creative Commons (top); NY MTA, Flickr, Creative Commons (bottom)

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Mike Collins

Hopefully DC will ‘step up to the plate’ by requiring equal access to ALL modes of transportation for PWD. That example might help sway other cities that have been reluctant to exercise their rights to demand such access. Why is this situation still happening 25 YEARS after passage of the ADA?

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