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.”
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.
“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.
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.