Two weeks ago I spent an afternoon at an East London community centre with some of the best Uber drivers in the city.
I was there to attend a training session for “driver-partners” ahead of the launch of Uber’s latest initiative — uberASSIST, a scheme to improve people with disabilities’ access to the ride-hailing service.
Launching on Tuesday in London, it provides riders with access needs a way to hail specially trained drivers — the best in Uber’s fleet — best-equipped to help, them, and a way to communicate with the driver ahead of arrival.
Further ahead, Uber is planning to introduce new wheelchair-accessible vehicles to its London fleet.
Uber’s explosive UK growth — and the backlash
Uber now operates in more than half a dozen UK cities, including London, where it launched in 2012. It has grown explosively since then: Its recorded turnover of £11.3 million in 2014, City AM reported on Monday — up tenfold on a year prior.
Here’s another stat, courtesy of London Mayor Boris Johnson: “1 in 10 [vehicles in the congestion zone in central London] are minicabs because of Uber. Two years ago it was about 1 in 100.”
This expansion hasn’t been painless, however. The Californian startup has encountered significant resistance along the way from the established taxi industry, who fear that Uber will undercut them, and (arguably) delivers an inferior service because its drivers do not learn “The Knowledge,” an exhaustive catalogue of London’s streets that all licensed black cab drivers memorise.
Uber scored a significant victory last week, when London’s High Court ruled that the app does not constitute a taximeter — a kind of tool for measuring fares — despite the protestations of taxi union the LTDA. (The LTDA is appealing the ruling.) Cabbies have protested Uber before, bringing central London to a standstill on one occasion.
TfL, London’s transport regulator, also recently laid out a set of new proposals that would adversely affect Uber, including introducing a five-minute wait time before drivers can arrive. Uber has launched a petition against the proposals, which has garnered more than 130,000 signatures.
One criticism levelled against Uber by the taxi industry’s supporters is its lack of accessibility for disabled people. Every black cab in London is able to take passengers in wheelchairs. But the vast majority of Uber’s fleet — often sedans like the Toyota Prius — has no such accessibility.
uberASSIST is Uber’s attempt to help remedy this. First launched in the US in July 2015, it is rolling out in London, its first European city, on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a way to try to ensure disabled riders and those with access needs are able to get rides safely — and that drivers will be prepared for any additional needs.
Here’s how it works:
- If a user has an access need, they can get a code — “ASSISTUK” — from Uber to enter into their app. This could include physical disability, a mental health condition, frailty, or anything else. It’s self-identifying — Uber doesn’t vet riders to ensure they “qualify.”
- This code unlocks an extra option in the app — an uberASSIST ride. This is priced at the same level as UberX, Uber’s base-level ride in London.
- Pressing uberASSIST will call a specially-trained driver. These drivers are drawn from the top 5-10% of Uber’s London fleet, and have chosen to receive additional training.
- The rider will have the option to communicate with the driver ahead of arrival if required. They might be blind and need help finding the vehicle, for example, or on crutches and unable to move far.
- uberASSIST-trained drivers will continue to drive as regular Uber drivers when there is no demand for uberASSIST rides.
I went along to one of these training sessions earlier in October, which are delivered by disability charities Transport For All and Inclusion London. It had a distinct classroom vibe: Drivers watching presentations, discussing worksheets, and answering questions, all led by no-nonsense trainer Kirsten Hearn.
Drivers are being instructed in the social model of disability, Hearn explained to me. It’s a way of thinking that means disabilities are caused by society’s failure to account for an individual’s particular access needs. In customer service roles — like driving for Uber — when it comes to access needs, you need to “treat people differently to treat them the same.”
“Park the car up, walk them to my car, standard,” one Uber driver says while discussing a worksheet question on how to handle a blind passenger. In another hypothetical situation, a passenger has undergone surgery: “The last thing you want to do is cause any discomfort or pain.”
How about the delicate etiquette involved in assisting a passenger who can’t fasten their seatbelt? Correct answer: Don’t presume, and don’t attempt to do anything without checking. Ask them — “what do I need to do to help you?”
Uber denies that the timing of uberASSIST’s London launch is related to the opposition it has faced recently. Planning has been underway for months, a spokesperson told me. “As we grow, we want to make sure we’ve got options that everyone can use, wherever they are in London,” they said. “We know anecdotally that a lot disabled people people use the app — and find us a convenient way to get around. Despite this, we want to get better and make sure every disabled person, and person with any access need, can use Uber.”
Uber’s fleet may be about to expand
There’s an obvious drawback to uberASSIST: The vehicles. The scheme may make someone on crutches feel more comfortable calling a cab, but it won’t make Uber more accessible to people with more significant access needs. A non-collapsible wheelchair and its owner simply won’t fit in a Toyota Prius.
Uber regional manager Jo Bertram says this may soon change. “In the New Year, we hope to expand accessibility further by introducing additional wheelchair accessible vehicles to the Uber platform — on top of the hundreds of black cabs already using the Uber app.”