Advocates criticize Uber, Lyft plans for serving disabled riders

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A plan approved by City Hall would require ride-hailing companies to add 50 wheelchair-accessible vehicles — like this one demonstrated in New York — over the next six months. | File photo

Uber, Lyft and Via will add a total of 50 wheelchair accessible vehicles over the next six months, under a plan approved by City Hall — but denounced by riders with disabilities as woefully inadequate.

“You try to hail a vehicle like other people who use the app, but there’s nothing available. You wait and wait and wait,” said Gary Arnold, a spokesman for Access Living.

“Adding 50 vehicles to the combined fleet is not going to change that situation.”

Rahnee Patrick said she hasn’t even bothered to put the Uber or Lyft apps on her phone.

“I can’t use it. I have to use a taxi service that has wheelchair access. And even then, I am left at different places in town during rainstorms or when I expected a ride and they just don’t come because they don’t have enough vehicles available,” Patrick said.

“Say it’s a girls’ night and we want to go out and get a little tipsy, but none of us want to drive. It’s really cool to use Uber now. But I can’t be like my friends. I can’t enjoy the chit-chat that girls do when we’re in the car together like any other 42-year-old woman.”

Last summer, a divided City Council agreed to license, but not fingerprint, ride-hailing drivers.

The language also included a compromise on the demand by Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) that five percent of all ride-hailing vehicles be accessible to customers with disabilities.

Instead, Uber and Lyft got six months to devise a plan to serve riders who use wheelchairs and six months to implement it.

Now, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has approved those plans.

They call for Uber, Lyft and Via to add 50 wheelchair accessible vehicles over the next six months. According to City Hall, that “mirrors the rate” at which wheelchair-accessible taxicabs have been added to the city’s fleet.

Access Living has a lawsuit pending in federal court that seeks to force Uber to provide enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles to give riders with disabilities “substantially the same experience” as able-bodied riders.

Charles Petrof, a senior attorney at Access Living, said the litigation has been hampered by Uber’s refusal to share information about the volume of activity on Chicago streets. That makes it virtually impossible to say how many wheelchair-accessible vehicles are needed to meet demand.

“The taxicab fleet is providing fewer rides [than ride-hailing] and has 400 vehicles almost that are wheelchair accesssible. Yet, there still can be significant waits to get a wheelchair-accessible vehicle from a taxi company,” Petrof said.

“There’s clearly got to be more than 400 [wheelchair accessible ride-hailing vehicles]. They’re a bigger business so they should take a bigger chunk of the pie.”

As for the mayor’s plan, Petrof said it’s not enough to “change the dynamic.”

“This is still a practically unusable system for wheelchair users,” he said.

In an op-ed submitted to the Chicago Sun-Times, Uber Chicago general manager Marco McCottry argued that the plan approved by the city would “increase the total number of wheelchair accessible vehicles on the road by nearly 20 percent in the first three months.”

McCottry noted that Uber riders have contributed “millions” to an accessibility fund primarily used to support the purchase and maintenance of wheelchair accessible vehicles (he refers to them as WAVs) that typically cost $10,000-to-$15,000 more than taxi companies.

“Allowing rideshare to access the Accessibility Fund can substantially expand the number of Uber WAVs in Chicago and accelerate how quickly new cars and drivers can get on the road,” McCottry wrote.

“Whether it’s getting to an urgent doctor’s appointment or a trip to the grocery store, everyone should have access to safe, affordable, reliable transportation. Developing and implementing new solutions to this ongoing mobility challenge is an issue we take very seriously. We are eager to continue working with … advocates across the disability community to support everyone’s ability to push a button and get a ride.”

In a press release, Emanuel touted the changes as a “major increase in the availability of wheelchair-accessible transit operations for Chicago residents and visitors.”

He claimed that the number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles has more than tripled — from 91 to 298 — in the six years since he took office, with help from the incentives bankrolled by fees paid by the taxi and ride hailing industries.

“Every Chicagoan deserves access to safe, reliable transit,” Emanuel was quoted as saying.

Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, argued that Chicago is “leading the way to create more accessible transportation options for people with disabilities. The disability community will soon be able to rely on both taxis and rideshare companies for wheelchair-accessible transportation service.”

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