Image by Jesse Acosta licensed under Creative Commons.

Ride-hailing services have integrated themselves into our cities so completely that in just a few years, “Uber” has become a verb and spotting license plates from afar has become a valuable skill. Uber and Lyft have gotten flack for not providing riders the same level of service if they have service animals or mobility devices — if they are served at all.

Ride-hailing companies say that they’re exempt from many of the same accessibility requirements as public transit because they’re tech, not transportation, companies. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not consider them to be public transit or taxi companies because it doesn't include a definition of transportation that would apply to ride-hailing.

Nonetheless, many disabled passengers and advocates believe ride-hailing services have a responsibility to offer the same level of service to them as they do to other riders. Uber and Lyft are responding to criticisms with initiatives aimed at improving accessibility.

Uber and Lyft aren’t as useful for riders who use mobility devices

Recently disability advocates sounded the alarm on Uber and Lyft, saying the services are “useless” for riders who use mobility devices and pointing out that there aren’t enough vehicles that can accommodate wheelchairs and electric scooters. This impacts a lot of people: about 31 million Americans have mobility-related disabilities.

Advocates say that the companies discriminate against people with disabilities in various ways. Sometimes drivers refuse to pick them up, and often they don’t provide service at all. A recent report revealed that only 26% of attempts to hail wheelchair-accessible vehicles in New York were successful, while the success rate for finding non-accessible vehicles was 100%, according to the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. The longer wait time for the few vehicles that can accommodate mobility devices can negate any benefit of using the service.

So why aren’t Uber and Lyft and other ride-hailing companies providing good service to disabled riders? The big issue is the cost. Vans and SUVs may need ramps and lifts, which can cost $10,000 or more. Vans and SUVs, which are easier for some disabled people to use, can be more expensive than sedans and have less efficient gas mileage.

Momma Glo by Culture:Subculture Photography licensed under Creative Commons.

The ADA requires taxi companies to provide accessible vehicles, but any time you step onto the street, you’ll notice most taxis are sedans. That's because the ADA did not specify how much of a taxi company’s fleet had to be accessible, nor require taxi companies to provide accessible vehicles for a specific customer as long as they could prove that riders could also use sedan-type taxis, even if they prefer vans or use them more easily. The ADA does require new vans to be accessible, but some taxi companies buy used vans to get around this requirement.

Disability advocates say shirking ADA requirements is not only wrong, it’s poor business. At the heart of their advocacy is the desire to see riders with disabilities treated fairly and equally. Ride-hailing companies, for their part, say they're trying to get better and are launching a variety of initiatives to better serve all passengers.

“We will continue to work with our partners in the DC area and beyond to expand transportation options for all residents. We have a clear non-discrimination policy that includes serving riders with disabilities, and driver-partners who use the Uber app agree to accommodate riders with service animals and comply with all accessibility laws,” says Kasra Moshkani, Uber’s Southeast Manager, through Uber’s Public Affairs office.

How are Uber and Lyft lacking?

Uber and Lyft have been extremely useful for many people with disabilities, says Heidi Case with the DC chapter of disability rights organization ADAPT, but advocates have had to push for changes so the service can be more useful for everyone.

For example, Lyft has gotten into hot water over directing wheelchair users to taxi services. A lawsuit in California alleged that Lyft provided a “Lyft Access” option on its app for passengers with disabilities to schedule a pickup with a wheelchair accessible vehicle, but that the feature was a false advertisement. Passengers received a text message saying the vehicle being sent to their location would only be able to accommodate passengers who could get out of their wheelchairs.

“[With Uber] if you requested a wheelchair accessible car, it sent you to the local taxi service. Wheelchair users waited longer,” says Case.

Another issue is that some passengers who have service animals have been denied service. In 2017, Uber settled a lawsuit brought on by the National Federation of the Blind, which alleged that Uber violated the ADA when it allowed drivers to refuse service to disabled passengers and their service animals.

As part of the settlement, Uber implemented a training and awareness program that asked drivers to acknowledge their obligations to comply with the ADA and to not discriminate against disabled passengers. It also instituted a way for passengers to lodge complaints specifically related to being denied service due to their disability or to having a service dog.

In training by Stephen Wolfe licensed under Creative Commons.

“[Uber and Lyft] keep saying they’re not a transportation company, they’re a technology company. They tried to say that for service animals, and were overturned,” Case says. “This is about equity. Disabled people have places to go and things to do, and they don’t have the time to sit in a car with their service dog while a driver refuses to drive.”

The Disability Rights Advocates legal group sued Uber and Lyft numerous times for failing to provide wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) as well as for their policy of rejecting service dogs. Two men in Jackson, Mississippi sued Uber in 2017 because it did not provide wheelchair accessible vehicles in the city.

Campbell Matthews, a Lyft spokesperson, says, “Lyft is committed to maintaining an inclusive and welcoming community for all. Refusing disabled passengers or service animals is a violation of our terms of service, and all complaints are thoroughly investigated from both the passenger and driver sides. Discrimination of any kind may result in the offender's immediate deactivation.”

Uber launched its UberWAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle) service in DC in 2015, but these cars are uncommon. It costs more for drivers to participate in the UberWAV program because it relies on drivers to purchase or already be driving wheelchair accessible vehicles. Uber contracts with taxi companies that have accessible vehicles to drive under the UberWAV banner, and taxi companies can only operate if they have valid taxi medallions. Those can still be pricey, even though ride-hailing companies are cutting into the taxi industry and driving prices down.

Several of these lawsuits have been settled, and Uber and Lyft now require drivers to give passengers with service dogs with the same service they provide to those without. A lawsuit filed in California in February 2018 against Uber over its UberWAV service is still pending.

UberHealth and Lyft's ABLE account could help

In March, Uber announced UberHealth, a service aimed at getting people to and from their doctors’ appointments with just a click. Unlike the traditional Uber service, this is specifically for medical offices to order rides for their patients. It can eliminate some of the technological barrier for people who can’t or aren’t comfortable using apps or websites.

At first glance, it seems like UberHealth could supplement UberWAV by providing accessible vehicles. Federal Medicaid law requires states to provide non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT), which is especially relevant in our region since Virginia recently expanding Medicaid and needs more such vehicles to serve new patients.

Nationwide, about 3.6 million people miss appointments because of unreliable transportation. While ride-hailing companies may be able to supplement NEMT, a study from 2016 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that several socioeconomic barriers remain.

For example, ride-hailing companies tend to operate in urban areas because it’s difficult to sustain enough business in rural ones. Booking an Uber or Lyft typically requires a smartphone, which presents a technological or financial barrier for some potential passengers. Uber’s business model incentivizes drivers to make trips quickly to turn a profit, but sick passengers may prefer a slower ride.

However, there isn’t much information on whether all UberHealth vehicles are accessible. There are also questions about whether UberHealth is responsible for passengers with medical conditions.

Image by Chris licensed under Creative Commons.

For its part, Lyft has launched various partnerships to help passengers with disabilities get around. In May, the company announced it had partnered with National Down Syndrome Society to subsidize transit for disabled passengers with an ABLE account, a benefits program and savings account for those who need assistance because of poverty or disability. Passengers with ABLE accounts can use them to pay for Lyft rides just as they would with a credit or debit card.

Campbell Matthews, a Lyft spokesperson, affirmed the company’s commitment to providing services, saying, “Lyft is committed to ensuring that those who need rides most are able to get them. We think about accessibility broadly and the value that rideshare brings to communities who may have previously been underserved by other forms of transit.”

Lyft has also partnered with the National Federation for the Blind and recently started providing its Lyft Amp technology to drivers in the DC region. The Lyft Amp is an LED display that mounts on the dashboard of a driver’s vehicle. When the Lyft driver approaches their passenger, the Amp will light up with a color that also appears on the passenger’s app to make it easier to find the right vehicle.

The Lyft Amp “helps us to build on our commitment to the deaf and hard of hearing community by providing greater independence and mobility for those who drive with Lyft,” says Matthews.

What else can be done?

In 2017 a European Union court ruled against Uber, essentially saying that a technology company that operates like a private transit company is actually a transit company, and should be regulated like taxi services. Taxi companies in the European Union are required by law to provide equal service to passengers with disabilities, though drivers don’t always comply. The taxi services must provide wheelchair accessible vehicles, and cannot refuse calls for service.

The EU and the United States have the ability to enforce the law against taxi companies, but at the moment, the ADA only sets requirements for public transit and taxi companies, not ride-hailing. Until there is similar regulation for Uber and Lyft in the United States, they can continue settling lawsuits without an overarching law ensuring they offer service to the full extent that disability advocates would consider equitable.

Case points out that Uber and Lyft aren’t incentivized to help disabled passengers, because: “Offering a new driver, a voucher, and a pledge to do better is cheaper than complying with the ADA.”

Eventually, technological advancements might help make the point moot. In 2016, Wired wrote that the ADA requires taxis that are new vans to be wheelchair-accessible, and the definition of “van” is nebulous. Since Uber is testing self-driving vehicles that are mostly new SUVs and SUVs are close to being vans, this puts the company on even more tenuous legal ground. It might post just enough of a risk for a lawsuit for Uber to make its autonomous fleet accessible now, rather than retrofitting it later.

For now, though, ride-hailing companies want a seat at the transportation planning table, use city streets and parking lots, and take a share of public transit without the responsibility of complying with the ADA. Lyft and Uber clearly have a place in cities, but they aren’t providing the level of accessible service that public transit does (and neither do taxis and private cars).

All transportation providers, whether they are public transit or private companies, should strive for better accessibility for passengers with disabilities. How they go about that can be a complex equation. The high costs can make it difficult to sustain such a service, even when there are people waiting to use it.

Nonetheless, the logistical challenges of improving accessibility does not change the fact that many riders with disabilities and advocates like Heidi Case feel left out in the cold. Ride-hailing is useful for many people, and that’s why advocates say these services should be equally accessible for all types of passengers.

Joanne Tang is a Northern Virginia native and a graduate student in public administration and policy, focusing on resiliency and emergency response. She lives in Alexandria and enjoys learning about pretty much everything, including the history of pencils.