The Future of Wheelchair Accessible Transportation: How Uber and Lyft (and maybe Waymo) are Transforming How People with Disabilities Get Around

UberWAV in Washington D.C.

I just moved to D.C last month and I was really excited to see that Uber has its UberWAV (wheelchair accessible vehicles) program in the city. Unfortunately, Lyft Access does not work in the city. Now previously, when you would order a WAV, you could only order a metered WAV taxi and you were charged the metered rate. This has of course changed. Now, when a user confirms there pickup/drop off addresses, they simply swipe through the vehicles and select WAV.

Ordering an UberWAV in D.C.

Of the now 26 or so times that I’ve requested a WAV, I’ve had an 88% (23 successful pickups) success rate for getting requests accepted. It has also usually only taken around 1 minute (sometimes up to 5 minutes) to get confirmation of a pickup. In terms of wait times, they have ranged anywhere from 5 minutes to 25 minutes depending on where I’ve put out the request. (Interestingly, as I was writing this, I was unable to get an UberWAV on 2 occasions, both during a rainy rush hour with heavy surge pricing). But for most part, UberWAV in D.C. has worked quite well for me and has good range. I’ve been able to take it throughout the city, to the DCA airport and back, and even to UMD College Park. I was also pleased to know that UberWav also runs from 4 A.M. to 2 A.M.

An UberWAV in D.C. and How I Enter

UberWAV in D.C. has gone through 2 phases. Initially, when UberWAV was first started in various cities, Uber converted vans into wheelchair vans and then leased these out to drivers. The drivers had to pay for insurance and other things, but Uber would cover some things like an oil change. Through this program, drivers received a bonus for every WAV pickup they did and received a monthly bonus for doing a certain number of pickups. From talking to some of these drivers, I learned that when the program launched, Uber paid these drivers $15 for any WAV trip they completed in addition to what they earned through completing a trip and possible tips. They also received a monthly bonus of $345 for completing 55 trips in a WAV vehicle. Currently, drivers through that program are paid $13 for any WAV trip and a monthly bonus of $220 for completing 55 trips. When that program began, it was a small cohort of drivers and they had to complete a safety training at the Uber office. The driver I spoke to who started in this program enjoyed driving a WAV because of how much they could earn in bonuses. These drivers can also drive for other ride sharing companies like Lyft or Via despite the fact that they are leasing the vehicles from Uber and most likely at a discounted rate. After something like 3–4 years, the drivers can get ownership of the vans.

Uber is now phasing out that program in D.C. and about 3–4 months ago relaunched the program. Under the new program, Uber has contracted out UberWav to MV Transportation, the largest privately-owned passenger transportation contracting service firm in the United States. I am not quite sure if it’s Uber or MV Transportation that provides the vehicles and does the van conversions. These UberWAV drivers are employed by MV Transportation and are paid $16/hour and can keep the tips. The drivers only use the vehicles during their shifts and return them to a depot. The drivers I’ve spoken to really like the program because they are paid hourly, there is no wear and tear on their own personal vehicle, and they don’t have to pay for the car insurance. They also receive benefits including health insurance after a 90-day probation period.

Overall, I wouldn’t say there is much of a difference in quality between the programs. I’ve had some great drivers through both programs and some not so good ones who didn’t properly secure my wheelchair with the tie downs despite having to complete a safety training. Now the vans from the initial UberWAV program seem to all be rear entry vans and all the vans in the new program are side entry vans. All the vans are white Dodge Caravan vans. Overall I’ve been pretty satisfied by the program and because their are so many vehicles on the road, I don’t have to wait too long. Uber is likely to dissolve the initial program perhaps because they are losing money and it’s easier to have MV Transportation deal with the WAVs. I don’t believe Uber has launched this model yet in other markets, but maybe they have and I really hope to see it in other cities.

UberWAV and Lyft Access in Boston and Elsewhere

The only other place that I personally have used UberWAV (and Lyft Access) is in Boston. October 2017 was when I first discovered the program in Boston, but I didn’t actually try using it until February. When I first used it, I had to wait around 20 minutes. When the driver arrived, he pulled up in a rear entry Dodge Caravan and properly secured my wheelchair. Now because there weren’t so many drivers in Boston, I ended up taking his cell number and he told me to text him in advance whenever I needed a ride and he would come to the area. After sometime, he asked me to start using Lyft Access instead. Apparently, through Lyft Access, he received a higher premium for each wheelchair accessible pickup than he did through Uber. I usually always just used this driver, but on two occasions I used other drivers, one through UberWAV and one through Lyft Access. The other UberWAV driver I used was a friend of my regular driver and I had some idea of what to expect. The second time, I decided to just try the app directly and see how it would go. I used the Lyft app and I had to wait around 20 minutes. This driver was professional and properly secured the chair and put my seatbelt on. The only strange thing was that he had removed 2 seats so he could more easily tie the wheelchair down and as result, 2 of my friends had to sit on the floor. It seems that in Boston UberWAV and Lyft Access use the same model of leasing out the vehicles, conducted a safety training onsite, and paying WAV drivers a premium for each WAV pickup. At the end of May, there weren’t too many WAV vehicles available through either apps. But, when I was in Boston in September, there appeared to be a lot more WAV/Access vehicles out on the road.

I still have yet to try UberWav or Lyft Access in any of the other cities (Chicago, NYC and Philadelphia) where Uber has officially launched the program so I personally can’t speak to that. However, I’m told by a friend that UberWav in NYC is quite good. He said the vehicle is either a yellow taxi or just a van, but you are charged a rate through the Uber app. Lyft Access does not seem to be widely available or in use. In D.C, I couldn’t find any WAV vehicles through the Lyft Access app and the driver I spoke with had never heard about. In fact, when you go the Lyft Access web page, Lyft actually lists paratransit services and other wheelchair accessible taxi companies. So Lyft certainly needs to catch up.

Disability Lawsuits Against Uber and Lyft

Much of the efforts to ensure that people with disabilities can use Uber/Lyft are the result of heavy criticism and lawsuits by the disability community since 2014.

Likely due to these lawsuits, Uber in 2015 had begun to offer UberAssist, which allows users to request a driver trained to accommodate disabled people, UberAccess, which allows users to call vehicles that can fit larger wheelchairs, and various features for blind and deaf users including VoiceOver iOS, wireless Braille display comparability, as well as visible and vibrating alerts. Uber however argued that discrimination is against the Uber code of conduct and that drivers should know because they receive documents that discuss discrimination when they sign up for Uber. In fact, in response to the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind of California, Uber actually argued that because they are app-based technology, Uber does not fall under the ADA’s definition of public accommodation. The DOJ however ruled that even if a company contracts out transportation, it still must comply with the ADA.

What Changes I Want to See

Uber/Lyft certainly made some major improvements for users with disabilities and deserve some praise for that. I definitely think that the Uber’s program in D.C is a step in the right direction. Wheelchair users for the most part can rely on the service and can get around city almost as easily as others. The key is definitely increasing the total number of vehicles available, which should reduce the wait times. If contracting out is the best way to do so, then that’s the best way and I hope to see Uber and Lyft launch a similar program in other cities. I would think the best solution would be for Uber and Lyft to partner together and contract to a transportation company like MV Transportation for WAV vehicles. Users could then use either apps to order a WAV. I also think that surge pricing shouldn’t apply to WAVs. There are already more limited vehicles, longer wait times, and the times when surge pricing goes into effect such as when it’s raining are often when people with disabilities need Uber/Lyft the most. In terms of app design, Uber makes it very easy to find and order a WAV. It’s really no different from ordering any other vehicle. Lyft should implement a similar design as currently you need to enable Lyft Access on the app.

Enabling Lyft Access

Paratransit Partnerships with Uber and Lyft

I would also love to see more partnerships between paratransit systems and Uber/Lyft much like we’ve seen in Massachusetts with the RIDE. Paratransit programs are known for providing poor services. Users must schedule well in advance and when scheduling, often have no other option than to choose a pickup times hours before they need to be somewhere. Drivers are also quite unprofessional, showing up late or marking you as a no show even if you though you were on time. You then might need to spend hours on board as there may be many other dropoffs. And unfortunately, many disabled people have no other option. The MBTA partnership has sought to address many of the major issues in the RIDE service. It was launched as a pilot program in October 2016 in which the 400 participants could begin taking subsidized trips through Uber/Lyft. On the program website, they advertise trips as low as $2 (paid to Uber, Lyft, or Curb), shorter wait times, instant, same-day booking, faster trips, and wheelchair-accessible vehicles as major benefits of the program. (I qualified for the RIDE and I’m not sure why I never signed up for this).

Benefits of the Pilot Program for Customers

The MBTA, aware of how successful and effective the program has been, extended it to January 1, 2019. I’ll go into further detail about the partnership, the cost savings, and my thoughts in another blog post soon!

Final Thoughts

Overall, I would say that Uber and Lyft (currently more so Uber) are doing a lot to improve accessibility and ensure the people with disabilities can use these ride-hailing apps. While most of the improvements are confined to just a few places, it’s encouraging to see even this much happening. It needs to start somewhere after all. Hopefully, these companies see how beneficial these appx can be for people like myself and will expand UberWAV/Lyft Access nationally and internationally. My hope is that we see more wheelchair accessible Ubers/Lyfts on the road, better trained and more aware drivers when it comes disabled customers, and more partnerships/program like MBTA On-Demand Paratransit Pilot Program across the country.

Waymo WAVs?

I’m now also excited to see how autonomous vehicle technology can fit into all of this. In Phoenix, Waymo has been running an Early-Rider program (amongst apparently 25 other test cities), and users can simply request a vehicle using the Waymo app, much like Uber/Lyft. Waymo is now preparing to launch the first commercial self driving ride-hailing program in Phoenix, is in talks with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV to develop a self-driving personal car, and in July, Waymo announced a partnership with the Phoenix public transportation system, Valley Metro with plans to include pickups for people with disabilities through the RideChoice program (taxi service at a deeply discounted rate to qualified seniors and people with disabilities) with hopes that this could help cut costs and expand service. This is first I’ve heard of Waymo trying to expand their service to include people with disabilities. People with disabilities are a group that can really benefit from driving technologies and really have yet to experiences these benefits. I’m hoping that this means that we’ll be seeing wheelchair accessible vehicles in the Waymo fleet in Phoenix. (If this is the case, I kind of wish I could go to Phoenix just to try it out!) Perhaps soon we’ll see full adoption of on demand self driving WAVs by various public transit agencies around the country!

Are We Going to See Waymo WAVs Anytime Soon?