Wheelchair Users May Soon Have More Chances To Hail Lyft, Uber Rides
SAN FRANCISCO — As Lyft and Uber became part of the nation’s transportation systems, people who use non-folding wheelchairs felt left on the sidelines because the cars couldn’t accommodate them. That’s slowly starting to change.
The two San Francisco companies on July 1 began collecting 10 cents on every ride in California to go to an accessibility fund established by the California Public Utilities Commission.
The agency has not yet said how and where that money will be allocated, but its purpose is to make sure that the apps offer sufficient vehicles with “ramps, lifts and adequate space to accommodate users who cannot leave their wheelchairs during a trip.” The fund grew out of a state bill passed last year, SB1376, requiring the companies to provide accessible services.
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Meanwhile, Lyft, which so far has referred wheelchair users to call paratransit, taxi companies or other third parties, is starting a pilot this week in San Francisco and Los Angeles to offer five wheelchair-accessible vehicles in each market. Although the number seems modest, each will operate for 14 hours straight (with different drivers), a time frame spanning the most popular ride-request periods, according to Lyft.
The cars, modified 2019 Toyota Sienna minivans, will be driven by trained employees of paratransit provider First Transit. Lyft riders will be able to summon them via the app and will pay the same prices as for similar Lyft rides. Lyft offers bonuses to independent-contractor drivers who happen to have wheelchair-accessible vehicles, though the company was unable to say how many people have them.
“At Lyft we think of accessibility broadly and are thrilled to take this next step in expanding mobility options in San Francisco and Los Angeles counties,” said Anthony Foxx, chief policy officer at Lyft.
Lyft said it will monitor the program and seek community input, and hopes to expand it over time. Eventually its costs could be supported by the new accessibility fund overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Uber already has an option in San Francisco to let riders request vehicles with wheelchair ramps or lifts. In addition, Uber is scaling up a partnership with paratransit provider MV Transportation in several cities, including San Francisco.
Uber did not reply to questions about how many wheelchair-accessible vehicles are available.
Wheelchair users last year filed class-action lawsuits against both Uber and Lyft in the Northern District of California over their Bay Area operations.
The Lyft suit focuses on its “failure to provide the same access to on-demand transportation service to people who need wheelchair-accessible vehicles as to the general public,” said Stuart Seaborn, director of litigation at Berkeley’s Disability Rights Advocates, the legal group behind the suits, in a blog post planned for this week.
The Uber case seeks to motivate it to expand its existing wheelchair service to make it more reliable, he said.
“Uber is not currently meeting the needs of people who need wheelchair-accessible vehicles in terms of wait times and making sure there will be one when someone attempts to reserve one,” Seaborn said. “Even if someone can get a wheelchair-accessible vehicle on the outbound trip, they have concerns about getting it in a timely manner on the way back.”
In both cases, the group’s clients are not seeking monetary damages. “What they want is an on-demand service in the same way it’s provided to the general public,” he said.
Disability Rights Advocates would welcome the chance to work with Lyft and Uber to make sure their programs “are actually meeting the needs of the community,” he said.
© 2019 San Francisco Chronicle
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