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Uber, Lyft to pay into fund to provide wheelchair-accessible trips

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Jose Luis Garcia makes conversation with another patient as he waits for his Paratransit bus to pick him up from Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital on Feb. 20, 2019. The wheelchair-accessible ride-hail program is mandated by Senate Bill 1376, which was signed into law late last year. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

People using motorized wheelchairs have largely been left in the dust by the ride-hail revolution.

Now Uber and Lyft are set to start paying into a fund that will create California’s first wheelchair-accessible ride-hails — but the details of how that service will work have yet to be worked out.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates ride-hails in the state, will vote to begin its rulemaking process to implement a wheelchair-accessible ride-hail program on Thursday.

“The devil will be in the details,” said Melissa Riess, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit that filed a class action lawsuit a year ago against Uber for allegedly discriminating against wheelchair users by not providing vehicles they can ride in.

Exactly who will provide wheelchair ride-hails under the program is still an open question, but regardless, Riess said “we think Uber and Lyft are obligated under federal law to provide full and equal access.”

The program is mandated by Senate Bill 1376, the “TNC Access for All Act,” which was authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) and signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown late last year. Transportation Network Company, or TNC, is jargon for ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft.

The new law will levy a five cent surcharge on every Lyft and Uber ride in particular geographic areas set by the utilities commission to fund a wheelchair ride-hail program, which the commission must implement by July 1, 2019. Uber supported the bill, according to state records, while Lyft was not listed among support or opposition.

Vans modified with ramps to allow motorized wheelchair access cost anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000, and are expensive to maintain, disability advocates noted.

Over the coming months, the utilities commission will convene workshops where members of the disability community, ride-hail providers, cities and others will provide input on what an ideal service for wheelchair users would look like and determine which cities need it the most. The utilities commission aims to accept applications for access providers by July 1, 2020.

Curiously, the bill leaves open the possibility that one ride-hail company could provide wheelchair accessible services while both pay a fee for them, so if Uber provided wheelchair trips, and Lyft did not, Lyft would be paying Uber to do so.

Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi penned a blog post in November last year touting Uber’s recommitment to wheelchair accessible vehicles with MV Transportation, a third-party transportation provider.

Lyft said in a statement that it “supports the goals” of the wheelchair-accessible ride-hail program.

In the age before ride-hails emerged, taxis used to provide more wheelchair ramp services.

Kate Toran, director of taxi services for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said the advent of ride-hails diminished the taxi industry’s ability to provide wheelchair trips through ramp-equipped taxis — an expensive fleet of modified vans that Lyft and Uber do not regularly provide in The City.

The SFMTA, which runs Muni and regulates The City’s taxi fleet, played a key role in advocating for more wheelchair-accessible options in ride-hails statewide.

“The goal of SB 1376 is to achieve equivalent service for wheelchair users,” Toran said in a statement. “This will be realized when a person using a wheelchair requests a trip and receives a ride as regularly and within the same response time as a non-wheelchair user.”

That’s not the case in San Francisco, or California, today — even for the advocates working to ensure access for wheelchair users. Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior Disability Action in San Francisco, was riding BART to work when the San Francisco Examiner called her for comment on the new wheelchair ride-hail program.

A wheelchair user herself, she was running behind. She noted that people without wheelchairs could easily call a taxi, an Uber, or Lyft, and make up for their lost time.

“I really wish I could call an accessible cab right now,” she said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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