Jose Luis Garcia makes conversation with another patient as he waits for his Paratransit bus to pick him up from Zuckerberg General Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Report: Uber and Lyft’s rise tanked wheelchair access to taxis

A new city report details the devastating drop in on-demand rides for the disability community after the rise of Uber and Lyft.

A new city report details the devastating drop in on-demand rides for the disability community after the rise of Uber and Lyft.

The financial blow to the taxi industry, the report alleges, was also a blow to the availability of on-demand trips for anyone who uses a wheelchair.

The report also points a way forward for the multi-billion dollar ride-hail industry to roll out wheelchair accessible vehicles and inclusive transportation for people with disabilities more broadly.

It’s a bit of an uncharacteristic kumbaya moment between old-school taxicab regulators and the tech transportation darlings, but one San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director of Taxi and Accessible Services Kate Toran said is necessary to provide people with disabilities the service they need.

“We take a positive view because we’re trying to increase service on the street,” Toran told the San Francisco Examiner. “Really, the end goal is to make sure the rider gets the service, that’s what we stay focused on.”

The report also comes on the heels of recent workshops to implement Senate Bill 1376, authored by State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), which implemented a 5-cent per-ride surcharge on ride-hails to set up a fund so Uber and Lyft could finally provide wheelchair accessible vehicles. The bill set up a process for the California Public Utilities Commission, to establish rules requiring ride-hails to provide rides to all Californians regardless of disabilities.

In a letter supportive of SB 1376, which paved the road for newly accessible ride-hails, Uber noted “Uber is committed to advancing this issue and working toward innovative solutions to better serve the disability community.”

Lyft, in a statement to the Examiner, said “We are always looking for ways to expand our offerings, and are actively engaging with issue experts, community organizations including disability rights groups and local leadership on how we can improve access across California. We expect to have more to say on this topic in the coming months.”

The SFMTA report recommends Uber and Lyft provide wheelchair accessible services in all California cities in which it operates — a key question state regulators are pondering even now. The report also recommends Uber and Lyft send state regulators data on response times for people with disabilities, versus trips for all users, to ensure equity in service.

State regulators should “increase transparency” and make that data public, so people with disabilities can ensure they have equitable access themselves, SFMTA wrote.

SFMTA also recommends state regulators instate a local “advisory body” to keep a watchful eye on Uber and Lyft’s disability services.

That’s especially key, as without any prompting from state or local lawmakers Uber and Lyft have for years left wheelchair users at the curb.

The report highlights a steep drop-off of ramp-enabled taxi services for people who use wheelchairs during the rise of Uber and Lyft. While wheelchair users can ride Muni buses, and have access to pre-planned trips using San Francisco’s robust paratransit services, impromptu trips are needed by us all, the report notes.

From a scheduling change at the doctor’s office to a sudden (and perhaps welcome) romantic date, life happens. But whereas years ago San Francisco’s estimated 5,000 people who use wheelchairs could catch a cab, that’s less possible now, especially because Uber and Lyft do not widely provide wheelchair accessible vehicles in San Francisco.

While SFMTA cannot track all wheelchair taxi trips, it can measure the riding habits of wheelchair users who partake in city subsidies.

In 2013 there were roughly 1,400 monthly subsidized wheelchair-ramp taxi rides, but by 2018 that number dropped to roughly 500 monthly requests.

That’s not because there were fewer wheelchair users, or because those wheelchair users requested fewer rides, according to SFMTA. There simply weren’t enough taxi drivers available anymore after the rise of Uber and Lyft, with people left stranded.

Uber riders began to notice a change in that narrative in 2018, the report’s authors found. The now more robust “wheelchair accessible vehicle” program, a partnership between Uber and MV Transportation, a national paratransit provider, is “still in its early stages,” however, “and it is not yet clear whether availability and response times are consistent enough, and comparable enough to service provided in nonaccessible vehicles, for riders who use wheelchairs to depend on it.”

It’s a more robust effort than Lyft’s wheelchair accessibility program, the SFMTA noted. If you note in Lyft’s app that you use a wheelchair, the app will simply link you to a paratransit blog, which ultimately links San Francisco riders to the SFMTA website.

Indeed, Lyft, hasn’t updated their California disability accessibility plan since 2013.

The report does lay out some strengths of Uber and Lyft’s accessibility programs.

While much of Uber and Lyft’s disability service data is with state regulators under lock and key, the ride-hail industry does offer “unprecedented” level of access to people who are visually impaired via their apps, the report’s authors found. “In April 2017, Lyft announced a partnership with the National Federation of the Blind to increase driver awareness of blind passengers’ rights, implement effective public policies, and expand transportation options for those who are blind or have low vision,” the report reads.

And in 2015, Uber rolled out opportunities for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Wheelchair users, perhaps, will soon see the same opportunities come their way.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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