Ride sharing a hit in Philly, but city's disabled are still left behind

Liam Dougherty wants more accessible rides. He recently needed a car that accommodated his disabilities. Finding one for a 5-minute drive took 2 to 3 hours.

January's big snowstorm had Liam Dougherty feeling trapped in his apartment.

A few days after the storm he wanted to meet his fiancée for a movie at a theater on 40th and Walnut Streets, less than a mile from his apartment, but Dougherty has a neuromuscular disorder, Friedreich's ataxia, and the wheels on a scooter he sometimes uses don't handle snow well. He needed a car that could accommodate his disabilities. Finding one for a five-minute drive took two to three hours.

In Philadelphia, finding a car for hire, whether it's a cab or an Uber, can be a skyscraper-size hurdle for people with disabilities.

"Next to getting in places, when people have steps getting into doors, it's probably the biggest impact on what my day looks like," said Dougherty, 26.

Wednesday, lawmakers will begin debating a bill that could legalize the use of ride-hailing apps in the city. What that will mean for riders with disabilities remains an open question.

Businesses such as Uber and Lyft could dramatically change the city's transportation picture but officials say their arrival has hurt the cab business, and by extension, that industry's efforts at outreach to the disabled.

"We're not anti-innovation," said Matt Clark, a member of Fair Ride Philly Coalition, which has pushed for an amendment to the legislation that would require 10 percent of ride-hailing fleets be wheelchair accessible. "We just want accessible innovation."

Today the city's cab fleet has 32 wheelchair accessible vehicles, or WAVs. Uber has some WAVs available through its app, but the company will not say how many. There are very few, say coalition members, and they estimate there are 200,000 people in the city with mobility limitations.

The state bill includes language to protect disabled riders from discrimination and price gouging, but it does not promise the kind of quick service able-bodied people take for granted.

Getting a WAV cab, for example, can sometimes require planning hours, even a day in advance.

Since 2012 the Philadelphia Parking Authority has sold taxi medallions for wheelchair accessible cabs, with the goal of having 150 WAVs in 10 years. That plan is stalled, PPA officials said, as ride hailing offered a popular alternative to cabs that has contributed to a collapse in that industry.

Of 50 WAV medallions sold for about $80,000 each, 20 sales fell through because the buyers could not secure financing, said Dennis Weldon, the PPA's general counsel. The PPA also proposed a regulation that would require any new cabs added to the fleet be wheelchair accessible, but that, too, has stalled.

The fluctuations in the industry have left things uncertain, Weldon said, but it also could create an opportunity.

"There's no reason someone can't start a business and say all of our vehicles will be wheelchair accessible," he said.

Uber pleased disabled rights activists in recent months when it reduced the prices for WAV rides to match those for UberX. The wait time for a wheelchair accessible vehicle has gone from 35 minutes to 15, said Craig Ewer, an Uber spokesman.

Uber wants to increase the options for riders with wheelchairs on its app, Ewer said. About 1,000 paratransit vehicles are available in the Philly metro area, he said - all potential Uber partners.

jlaughlin@phillynews.com

215-854-4587@jasmlaughlin