Uber is accused of failing a huge number of New Yorkers

Imagine this: You’re out in the city, and you’re carrying a lot of bags. Maybe you’ve gone grocery shopping, or maybe you’re picking up clothes or furniture.

It starts to rain, and you don’t want to brave the rush hour train with 20 pounds of belongings.

Most New Yorkers would stick out a hand, or even whip out their phone to hail a cab or an Uber vehicle in minutes.

But what if you’re in a wheelchair?

There’s a good chance you’ll be waiting in the rain.

“As a wheelchair user, you have to go out of your way just to get to different places,” Dustin Jones, a United Spinal Association activist and a wheelchair user himself, told Business Insider. “The subway system is old. You have the constant problem of elevators being broken. You have incidences of key stations that should be wheelchair accessible, and they’re not. The elevators are always breaking down, the buttons are missing, and it looks like they don’t even care.”

And taxis aren’t much help, either.

Only 2% of Yellow taxis and 20% of Boro taxis in New York are fully accessible, according the New York City government. The Taxi & Limousine Commission pledged to up these numbers to 50% by 2020 after a long fight with advocates, said James Weisman, the United Spinal Association’s CEO in an op-ed for the New York Daily News.

The lack of accessible cabs means that nine times out of 10, a person using a wheelchair will fail to get any sort of hired vehicle, whether it’s an Uber or a taxi, according to Weisman.

But people with ambulatory disabilities (those who have “serious difficulty” walking) comprise 7.1% of New York City’s population, according to the Center for Independence of the Disabled. That’s a huge market.

It’s a market that ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft could really help.

“It’s one of Uber’s biggest flaws,” Jones said. “It’s really, really a shame, because for people like me, it could be a fantastic service.”

The United Spinal Association organised a “roll-in” protest this past July at Uber’s headquarters to encourage the company to increase access for the disabled.

They also released a series of television commercials to publicize their campaign.

While wheelchair users can hail wheelchair-accessible Boro Taxis through Uber’s WAV service, the Uber drivers’ vehicles themselves aren’t accessible, and that’s largely the problem, Jones told Business Insider.

Many advocates, who fought to get 50% of taxis accessible, think that Uber’s WAV service simply co-opted their effort without offering them any real benefit.

Dustin Jones Uber Roll InUnited Spinal AssociationDustin Jones seen in United Spinal Association’s ad

“They’re masquerading around and saying that they’re accessible,” Jones told Business Insider. “They’re taking what we did and turning it around and calling it their product. That’s plagiarism.”

Uber entered the New York City market in 2011, and has aggressively expanded since — often at the expense of traditional medallion taxi operators.

Total trips taken by taxis are down 10% from last year, reports the New York Daily News, citing its own analysis of public trip data. With the value of medallions steadily declining, there’s less incentive to put more accessible taxis on the road.

On top of that, 48% of new, wheelchair-accessible taxis are sitting in the lot, not being used, according to the Taxi & Limousine Commission’s publicly accessible data.

Is Uber a taxi company or a tech company?

The key distinction between Uber and regular taxis is that Uber (and Lyft, along with other car-hailing apps) bill themselves as technology companies, not as transportation companies.

An Uber spokesperson clarified over the phone that the company only owns the app, while the drivers own the actual vehicles.

This is crucial from a legal standpoint. Uber argues that, because it is a technology company, it does not have to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, transportation providers are required to accommodate wheelchair users, but Uber contends that this doesn’t apply to it. (Disabled passengers suing Uber claim otherwise.)

Vpg autos mv-1 wheelchair vanVPG AutosA wheelchair accessible MV-1 vehicle

Some disability advocates think the onus should be on Uber itself — not the government — to improve access to its vehicles.

“Would they need a mandate to pick up Jews, Blacks, gays? Of course not, because they’re aware enough to know it’s repulsive to deny them service,” James Weisman, the CEO of United Spinal, told Wired. “It’s only people with disabilities that their business model is set up to discriminate against.”

According to Jones, from United Spinal, Uber should provide incentives for drivers to purchase MV-1 vehicles which are fully accessible.

But these cars are pricey (starting at $39,800) and often burn more fuel than a more traditional Toyota Camry. MV-1 is also a sponsor of United Spinal — which could benefit financially from MV-1 selling cars to Uber.

To be clear, there are other ways that Uber is helping the disabled.

In an op-ed for The Hill, Tony Coelho, a former member of Congress and a key author of the Americans With Disabilities Act, lauded Uber’s efforts in hiring drivers with hearing impairments and other disabilities.

Special features within Uber’s app also make it easier for visually impaired people to request rides, and get to where they’re going, says Coelho.

But it’s still quite difficult to get around New York City (or anywhere for that matter) as a disabled person. Some advocates say Uber could do a much better job of serving the over 500,000 wheelchair users in the city.

“People have this mind-set that people with disabilities have no money, we do nothing, we don’t shop, we don’t go anywhere and we just sit in our own homes all day and wallow,” Jones told Business Insider. “It’s not true. We have jobs, we have lives, and we would like to travel like anybody else. Uber isn’t accessible for everyone so there’s a good percentage of money that they’re missing out on.”

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