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Could Uber Be MetroAccess Alternative? Montgomery Co. Coalition Opposes Idea

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It currently costs about $50 per MetroAccess ride — a cost some think external providers could lower.
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It currently costs about $50 per MetroAccess ride — a cost some think external providers could lower.

A coalition of disability rights activists, labor unions, and taxi drivers is urging Metro to avoid any deals with the ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft to provide alternative paratransit service in Montgomery County.

The transit authority is looking for cheaper alternatives to its existing, expensive MetroAccess service to provide transportation for people with disabilities who remain ambulatory, citing MetroAccess’ “unsustainable cost forecast associated with an aging population,” according to a Metro spokesman.

But the coalition has written a letter to WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld, asking him to avoid dealing with Uber and Lyft because of the companies’ poor track record, at least in the view of its critics, serving people with disabilities. Uber faces several lawsuits for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Alternative paratransit service contracts should be awarded to companies that prioritize access for all and ensure adequate numbers of wheelchair accessible vehicles are available,” said the letter signed by thirteen organizations and individuals. 

“It is our understanding that Lyft has no available accessible vehicles and Uber may not have any in Maryland, or an adequate supply. Provision of service only to ambulatory passengers (those that do not require a wheelchair-accessible vehicle) will create a two-tiered, segregated alternative paratransit system.”

The advocates and Metro agree that current MetroAccess service is inadequate and often cumbersome, and that an alternative is necessary to provide more nimble, cost-effective rides.

“The requirement of having a 24-hour notification for trips is just not reasonable,” said Seth Morgan, a disability rights activist in Montgomery County. “How can you predict when you will need to go to an emergency room or how can you predict a sudden need to go to the doctor?”

While Uber or Lyft could provide rides for the ambulatory, they have shown little willingness to train their drivers to properly handle the blind or acquire vehicles with wheelchair ramps, Morgan said.

“This is something that they are not set up or trained to do. Their drivers are not trained to take care of people with service animals,” he said.

The alternate to MetroAccess in the District of Columbia is the growing TransportDC program, given a recent boost by public subsidies for cab companies and drivers to purchase wheelchair-accessible vans. Customers can order a trip an hour in advance, a big improvement over MetroAccess’ 24-hour lead time.

In December, Uber announced it would begin offering rides for wheelchair users in Washington via its UberTaxi platform. It taps into the exiting pool of licensed D.C. taxi drivers with wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

As for Montgomery County, disability rights advocates say Metro staffers have floated possible proposals to partner with Uber and Lyft and/or a co-op forming among county taxi drivers who are interested in purchasing vans with wheelchair ramps. The co-op is seeking county assistance to get established.

"Uber has been, and continues to be, a supporter of expanding accessible options throughout the D.C. metro area. We believe we can leverage our technology to be part of the solution, and welcome the opportunity to explore partnerships with stakeholders, including WMATA,” said Uber spokesman Kaitlin Durkosh in a statement.

A Metro spokesman said the above ideas are being evaluated, but no decisions have been made.

“Metro is actively looking for ways to be more efficient, and the concept of giving MetroAccess customers greater convenience and flexibility, while simultaneously reducing costs to Metro and the region's taxpayers, sounds like a potential win-win to us,” said spokesman Dan Stessel.

It costs about $50 to provide a single MetroAccess ride. A subcontractor could cut the cost by about half, according to officials with knowledge of the paratransit cost structure.

At Metro board of directors meeting on Jan. 28, local labor leaders and disability rights advocates publicly spoke against Metro working with the ride-hailing apps.

“We had heard the push to allow Uber and Lyft to provide the paratransit service was coming from the board,” said Carol Tyson of the United Spinal Association and one of the letter’s thirteen signatories.

Organized labor’s interest in this issue lies in protecting cab drivers’ wages. The Amalgamated Transit Union believes a shift to Uber and Lyft could harm drivers’ earning or put them out of work.

Metro should award contracts to companies that “prioritize working conditions of their drivers and other workers, and prioritize hiring of any MetroAccess workers displaced by the transfer of work to taxi or TNC-based paratransit programs,” the letter to WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld said. 

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