Married couple pioneers Uber’s wheelchair-accessible fleet

Transit options for wheelchair users are dwindling.

Now one married couple, Jennifer and Peter Mendoza, are on a mission to restore service the disability community has lost.

Together, the couple is working with Uber to expand its driver’s fleet to include wheelchair-accessible vehicles for people with disabilities.

Currently the subject of lawsuits from the disability community nationwide, those vehicles are reportedly few and far between.

Uber did not respond to the San Francisco Examiner’s request for comment on the issue.

Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry — that’s commonly known. Less known is that the taxis driving for wheelchair users are slowly vanishing from San Francisco streets.

Jennifer, who drives a wheelchair-accessible Dodge Charger for Uber, didn’t lay that problem at Uber’s feet, but did say the company could be part of the solution.

“In the beginning, people against Uber were very vocal in saying there wasn’t enough access,” Jennifer said, citing a frequent complaint from the taxi community.

Peter, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, said “It’s not about which is better than the other, it’s about making sure they’re all accessible.”

Though services like paratransit vans and wheelchair-accessible Muni buses still exist, the paratransit cabs served a unique purpose, allowing a direct ride for wheelchair users available immediately by phone.

Paratransit vans are a separate service through the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, and are scheduled in advance.

Wheelchair accessible paratransit taxi trips in San Francisco have dropped from as many as 1,300 a month in 2012 to as low as 700 trips in 2015, according to data provided by the SFMTA. That’s not because demand has dropped, the SFMTA said, but because the taxis themselves are less available.

Kate Toran, head of taxi and accessible services for SFMTA, told the Examiner “it’s something we’re looking at really carefully and it is a concern.”

Uber and Lyft have yet to replace the paratransit taxi fleets with wheelchair-accessible cabs of their own. So the Mendozas are disrupting the disrupters, in the name of equal-access for all.

But they’re not critics of Uber, actually, they’re “big fans,” they said.

Peter has a fiery history of advocacy for those with disabilities. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he and others pushed Golden Gate Transit and Muni to install wheelchair ramps. He now regularly consults businesses and agencies on wheelchair access.

As a daily wheelchair user, his go-everywhere schedule was tough to meet via bus or paratransit. For years, Jennifer would drive Peter to work in San Francisco in their wheelchair-accessible van.

Soon, like many drivers with spare time and a need for cash, Jennifer decided to drive for Uber.

Her white Dodge Grand Caravan was fairly nondescript in many ways, save one: thousands of dollars in modifications the couple made to make it wheelchair accessible with a ramp.

Jennifer was shocked to discover her vehicle was nearly entirely unique among the 16,000 or so on the Uber platform because of its ramp. But, she said, she reached out to Uber to recruit drivers with wheelchair-accessible vehicles and wheelchair-using passengers for the fledgling UberACCESS service.

The service launched in late 2014 and purports to provide wheelchair accessible vehicles. But the couple said it provides few vehicles with ramps, and tie-down areas for wheelchairs to be secured.

The Mendozas say in their experience, most vehicles on the platform simply allow passengers to fold and store their wheelchairs, and for the passenger to sit in the vehicle. But that leaves out people who use motorized wheelchairs, they said, or people with disabilities who have more difficulty leaving their chair.

The California Public Utility Commission, which regulates Uber, recently fined the company $7.6 million for not providing data on its number of annual wheelchair trips to the commission.

On a Monday during commute hours, the Examiner tried to hail a wheelchair accessible vehicle on Uber. The app stated simply, “No Cars Available.”

Jennifer is driving with an Uber “guarantee” of $30 an hour for 30 hours a week for the month of January. Uber wants her to demonstrate to them that there’s a demand for wheelchair users, she said, before they invest in recruitment of drivers with wheelchair accessible vans.

It’s tough going. Out of her many rides last week, only four were wheelchair users.

The couple said they now face a catch-22, as Uber is hesitant to invest in training wheelchair-accessible drivers until there is more demand for the service. But wheelchair users are hesitant to call for UberACCESS vehicles if there’s no one driving.

Uber should invest more up front, Peter said, which he feels would aid recruitment.

The Examiner met with Peter to demonstrate the service. Clad in an Uber T-shirt, he tapped his iPad to activate the UberACCESS portion of the app. Jennifer then rolled up to 5th Street downtown.

She walked out of the vehicle, lowered its side-loading ramp and Peter rolled in easily. She secured him in and off we rolled.

“It’s a skill, and a new world, knowing where to pick [wheelchairs] up,” she said, making some training from Uber necessary.

For instance, parking on hills is problematic for wheelchair users, and side-loading vehicles help wheelchair users disembark more safely, since they roll onto sidewalks. Vehicles which load from the back usually deposit their passenger onto the street.

As Jennifer explained this, the pair charmingly bickered. He puts up with her pink Lucille Ball shower curtain, he says, she puts up with his Superman posters, she says.

“I give him a hard time,” Jennifer says. “You still do,” he quips back, with a smile.

Uber would not provide numbers on how many wheelchair accessible vehicles drive on the platform. Jennifer said she attended a certification class specifically for wheelchair-accessible drivers, the only one of its kind to her knowledge.

Peter and Jennifer hope Uber’s management embraces accessible transit. First though, it will need to embrace a lesson the couple learned when they first met in high school:

As a teen, Peter said, he fell in love with Jennifer because she treated him like she’d treat anyone else: with respect. She didn’t see his chair. Instead, she saw him.

Warriors roar back to win behind a Looney performance

Golden State takes 2-0 lead against Dallas in Western Conference Finals

San Francisco courts logjam update: Trials getting back on track

Public defender, supervisor continue fight to get jailed defendants their right to speedy justice