Uber and Lyft's wheelchair access grows, with room to improve

Liam Dougherty, 26, has a neurilogical condition called Friederich Ataxia. He is an activist trying to get more wheelchair access vehicles (WAV) taxis on the streets of Philadelphia since regular taxis, like the one here, cannot accommodate him. Photo taken June 21, 2016. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Uber and Lyft have met a state directive to put a combined minimum of 70 wheelchair-accessible vehicles on Philadelphia’s roads by the end of June. Users are cheered by the move but are reporting some problems in service.

Uber and Lyft, the dominant ride-hailing apps in the city, had until June 30 to meet the requirement set by state legislation. Uber requested an extension until July 10 to report its vehicle count to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, PPA officials said, but will meet that deadline singlehandedly by putting more than 70 WAVs on the road. The company would not say exactly how many vehicles are wheelchair accessible. Lyft has had 18 WAVs operating in Philadelphia as of June 30, a spokeswoman for the company said.

People who use the cars are both heartened by the increase of accessible vehicles, and concerned that although the ride-hailing companies may comply with the letter of the law, they’re sometimes still lacking in spirit.

People in wheelchairs reported that some vehicles from Uber or Lyft having broken ramps, ramps too steep for an electric wheelchair to scale, or drivers who aren’t experienced with securing a wheelchair.

Liam Dougherty, 27, uses a wheelchair and recently managed to get into a vehicle despite its ramp being broken. Although Uber and Lyft vehicles have a long way to go, Dougherty, a special projects coordinator for Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia-based disabled advocacy group, has seen an improvement.

“If a WAV did come for me, it was often a huge ambulance-type vehicle which was older, dirtier, and smellier than any regular Uber vehicle I had ever seen,” he said by email. “Now most of the UberWAV rides I take are from brand new WAV retrofitted minivans, and my wait time is usually under half an hour.”

Uber expects that its pool of wheelchair-accessible vehicles will continue growing, said Brian Hughes, general manager for the company’s Pennsylvania operations. Wheelchair-adapted vehicles can cost in the range of $30,000 to buy, and an Uber leasing program makes them available for about the cost of leasing a sedan, Uber has said. Among other incentives, Uber in the past has offered a $10 bonus each time a driver picks up a person in a wheelchair. The company wouldn’t say whether that incentive was the same amount, but said a per-ride bonus was still in place.

Uber subsidies allow the WAV rides to cost the same as a ride with UberX.

“We’re seeing some tremendous growth,” Hughes said, “seven times the wheelchair accessible vehicle trips that we were doing last year.”

Disabled access to ride sharing has been an issue nationwide, with Uber and Lyft offering more service in some cities than others. At the end of June, the Equal Rights Center filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Uber, claiming the company offered no vehicles in Washington, D.C., capable of carrying a person in a wheelchair.

Hughes wouldn’t say whether Uber has received complaints from passengers about accessible vehicles not operating properly, but said the company would respond to those complaints if they’re filed through the Uber app and would contact a driver if it learned that a vehicle wasn’t operating properly. It’s also giving all accessible vehicle drivers training in how to properly serve disabled passengers through the Community Transportation Association of America and the Open Doors Organization, two national groups focused on disabled access.

Last year, before the state passed legislation in October 2016 legalizing ride-hailing apps in Philadelphia, advocates for people with disabilities had fought unsuccessfully for a requirement that 10 percent of Uber and Lyft vehicles be accessible to wheelchairs. Neither company will offer a precise number of vehicles operating through their service in Philadelphia, but Uber has said it has about 20,000 drivers in the region.

Along with the wheelchair-accessible Uber or Lyft vehicles in the city, the PPA reported 30 wheelchair-accessible cabs. And 21 more are expected to be available this summer, and 40 more WAV medallions are to be approved by the end of the year.

The PPA, which has some regulatory oversight over Uber and Lyft, has the authority to audit vehicles dispatched through Uber and Lyft, and can investigate if they receive complaints about vehicles that are supposed to be wheelchair accessible, said Martin O’Rourke, a PPA spokesman.

Liberty Resources estimates 150,000 to 200,000 people with mobility limitations are in Philadelphia.

The region’s disabled community has drawn attention to the reality that freedom of mobility most people enjoy is severely curtailed for those with physical limitations. SEPTA provides paratransit services that require booking well in advance, but they are notoriously unreliable. The flexibility offered by cabs, Uber, or Lyft is unavailable to some with disabilities without vehicles equipped to handle wheelchairs.

“It is clear that access is being made a priority for Uber, and it has really opened doors for the disability community,” Dougherty said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next.”