Why you won’t be getting in a wheelchair accessible Uber anytime soon

Advocates, drivers and regulators clash over ways to increase accessibility in hired vehicles

Stevie Hertz
Oct 8, 2017 · 4 min read
Yesenia Torres, riding in a wheelchair accessible Uber (Sarah Wyman)

By Stevie Hertz and Sarah Wyman

By the time her Uber arrives, Yesenia Torres, who uses a wheelchair, has been waiting for 40 minutes. The promised wait was 20 minutes, but the closest wheelchair accessible car is 2.5 miles away. And even then, that car picks up extra fares along the way.

Torres says this isn’t unusual. Although there are over 80,000 for-hire-vehicles in New York City, such as those provided by Uber and Lyft, only 105 of them are wheelchair accessible, according to the drivers’ union.

But this could soon change.

New rules proposed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), which regulates the industry, would require 10% of trips in 2018 to be completed in a wheelchair accessible vehicle, regardless of whether the user has requested one. By 2021, it would rise to one in every four trips.

Mohamed Mowad, president of XYZ Cars,an executive car service with 350 vehicles, said small car firms, also covered by the proposed rules, would bear the financial burden of meeting the TLC requirements.

He would need to purchase new wheelchair accessible vehicles or retrofit existing ones, at over $20,000 per car. “Somebody must pay for it,” said Mowad, suggesting that the cost would be passed onto customers.

“In the last year, I only get less than 5 requests” for wheelchair accessible vehicles, said Mowad. “It’s not worth the effort.”

Three parties with stakes in the meeting. Left: Josh Gold, Policy Director for Uber in New York, takes a break during testimony at the public hearing. Middle: Members of The Independent Drivers Guild, the union representing for-hire vehicle owners, applaud as a coalition of for-hire vehicle base owners present a competing proposition to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Right: Advocates listen to testimony at the hearing. (Stevie Hertz, Sarah Wyman)

But for companies with larger fleets and high-tech algorithms, there could be ways to game the system, warned disability rights advocate John Grisham. Instead of making a quarter of their cars wheelchair accessible, a computerised system could dispatch a few accessible vehicles exclusively for short trips, until they are completing 25% of all requests

“One accessible vehicle as your workhorse for all your short trips that are in a concentrated area,” said Grisham.

While this would spell pay-day for drivers who already own wheelchair accessible vehicles, other drivers could be left on the side of the road. As many Uber drivers own or lease their vehicles, it’s not an easy upgrade to make.

Over 300 people attended a public meeting hosted by the TLC to discuss the plan. At the meeting, a coalition of 75 car agencies, including Uber and Lyft, declared their opposition to the TLC’s plan and announced their own alternative.

Under their proposal, wheelchair accessible vehicles would be pooled. Customers would still order a car through their preferred company, but the closest car would be sent, regardless of its owner.

The benchmark of success would change from completing 25% of all rides in wheelchair accessible vehicles to meeting all requests within a 15-minute window. More accessible cars would still be needed, but a much smaller amount.

Commissioner Lauvienska Polanco during the fifth hour of testimony at the public hearing. (Stevie Hertz)

“It will work faster and it will actually guarantee rides to wheelchair users,” said Anat Gerstein, president of one of the public relations firms hired by the group.

But TLC Chair Meera Joshi expressed concerns about the plan in a press conference prior to the public meeting.

“I think it’s difficult to know how exactly they’ll provide the same level of service in a centralised dispatch that they provide independently,” said Joshi.

Advocates from the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID) testify in favor of the proposed change at the public hearing. (Stevie Hertz).

Under the new scheme, companies would no longer be competing for customers, but passing them onto their competitors. Wheelchair users would be unable to choose — or avoid — a specific company. “What’s your incentive to improve service?” Joshi asked.

The TLC is reviewing testimony on the two plans and a decision is expected later this month. While neither plan is likely to go through in its current form, given pressure from the City Council and advocates, some change is probable.

Yesenia Torres waits for an Uber outside the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled. (Stevie Hertz)

Transit New York

Covering transit and transportation in New York City

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