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Cab Companies Get More Mandates, While Little Pressure On Uber, Lyft To Expand Wheelchair-Friendly Service

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Wheelchair-accessible cabs can be hard to come by in the District.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Wheelchair-accessible cabs can be hard to come by in the District.

Washington cab companies would be required to expand their fleets of wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs), and ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft would have to offer the option of booking a D.C. taxicab with a motorized wheelchair ramp, under legislation introduced by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the chair of the Council’s transportation committee.

The cab companies would have to make at least 33 percent of their fleets wheelchair-accessible by 2020. They were required to meet a 6 percent minimum by the middle of last year. As a result, the number of WAVs jumped from 20 to about 150 — a significant increase, but still only a fraction of the roughly 5,700 cabs in the city, not including at least 10,000 private vehicles-for-hire under the Uber and Lyft brands.

Uber's Wheelchair Accessibility Report

Read Uber's report for the D.C. Council.

The bill would not force the tech companies to meet any quotas, but would require they report data on the number of WAV requests they receive and how much time it takes to respond. If a ride request cannot be satisfied in under 30 minutes, Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing apps would have to forward it to a central dispatching system in the successful TransportDC program for paratransit passengers.

“We’re allowing them to tap into this customer base, and they are going to be part of the solution to provide for these services,” said Cheh, whose proposal also would direct 75 percent of the revenues generated by a 1 percent tax on the ride-hailing companies’ gross receipts to expanding accessible transportation options.

Cheh’s legislation would not force Uber or Lyft to provide their own WAVs. Instead, D.C. taxicab companies would continue with the help of public subsidies to buy more WAVs, and the ride-booking apps will attempt to tap into the growing pool of vehicles by linking up with individual drivers who either rent them off cab companies’ lots (or own them as independent drivers).

“We’re a technology company, not a transportation company,” said Zuhairah Washington, Uber’s D.C. general manager, explaining why Uber does not own and maintain vehicle fleets.

Attempts by Uber to partner with big companies to share their WAVs have been unsuccessful, but Uber is not giving up.

“We did in our report ask for the Council to continue to forge conversations in helping us to come to the table and get access to the supply that is already out there on the road,” said Washington.

In December, Uber launched its first wheelchair service in D.C. under its UberTaxi platform, signing up an unknown number of city cabbies who rent or own WAVs. The company has declined to reveal how many trips have been taken since the product launch.

This arrangement has left disability rights advocates unhappy.

“There are no requirements for Uber, Lyft, or their competitors to provide wheelchair-accessible service,” said Carol Tyson of the United Spinal Association. “We believe that any company providing transportation in the District needs to ensure they are making accessibility a priority and the District should be holding them to a high standard.”

Lyft's Wheelchair Accessibility Report

Read the full Lyft report for the D.C. Council.

In reports submitted to the D.C. Council on Jan. 1, Uber and Lyft described their plans to provide services for people with disabilities, a group that includes many more people than only wheelchair users.

Lyft’s report numbered all of three pages. While the company’s website and app are accessible to the deaf, hard of hearing, and visually impaired, the app still does not offer a platform to order a van with a motorized wheelchair ramp.

Lyft is “engaging with the D.C. Taxicab Commission on two initiatives to increase access to wheelchair accessible vehicles,” the report says. The first initiative calls for Lyft integrating its dispatch application with the city’s system. The second would simply refer ride requests from the Lyft app to D.C.’s application.

Uber has no interest in integrating its app with D.C.’s system. In its report to the D.C. Council, Uber touted the December launch of its wheelchair option and restated its intention to work with cab companies to share their vehicles.

“We are confident that, as for-hire WAVs become more prevalent in the District, the number of individuals with WAVs who wish to partner with Uber will increase, especially considering that the Uber platform significantly expands drivers’ earnings potential,” according to Uber’s 18-page report.

Cheh is not only trying to force ride-hailing apps report data on their WAV requests. She is also directing $100,000 to the D.C. Taxicab Commission to fund a study to measure overall WAV demand in the District. Recent efforts to expand transportation options for people with disabilities have been undertaken without comprehensive data about how many, where, and when vehicles are needed.

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