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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

TNCs are Great, Unless You’re in a Wheelchair

Scott M. Crawford, Ph.D., Accessible Transportation Advocate

While watching the evening news, I couldn’t help but notice a highly polished advertisement from UBER’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi called “Moving Forward”. In the sixty-second piece, Mr. Khosrowshahi says that his “…priority has been to listen to you, to cities and communities, and to my own employees.” He goes on to say that he’s focusing on changing the “culture” of the corporation and that “One of our core values as a company is to always do the right thing, and if there are times when we fall short, we commit to being open, taking responsibility for the problem, and fixing it.

NCIL logo - National Council on Independent LivingReally?

As a person living with multiple sclerosis in Jackson, Mississippi, and needing a power wheelchair for mobility, I can attest that UBER is not listening to me or my colleagues needing accessible vehicles. Historically, Transportation Network Companies (TNCs, or Ride-Hailing Services) pay lip-service to the notion by having an option like UBER WAV, but it is available in only a small number of cities and does not provide anything like the reliable service our able-bodied peers enjoy. It isn’t available at all here in Jackson.

Worse, in many states, TNCs have preempted local authority to enforce equal service. In 2016, the Mississippi Legislature passed just such a law with only the vague assurance that they must “…comply with all the applicable laws regarding nondiscrimination…”. There is nothing explicitly calling for wheelchair-accessible service that is at all equivalent to that provided to everyone else (§37.105). 

By and large, my friends in the Blind/Low-Vision community are pleased with TNCs because of the added spontaneity and lower cost they provide. There have been some problems, however, in UBER drivers not welcoming service animals. A lawsuit by the National Federation of the Blind was settled in 2016 with provisions for crowd-sourced monitoring of driver behavior. Still, TNCs have enhanced the quality of life of many disabled persons who can still walk or transfer to a standard vehicle.

So, what about persons who – because of their disability – must have an accessible vehicle? Even here in Jackson, Mississippi’s capital and largest city, one cannot just call a conventional Taxicab. It is 2018, and we are still fighting that battle also, urging the City to adopt a vehicles-for-hire ordinance that requires fully accessible service, one with “teeth”. My friends and I still struggle to get to/from the Jackson Medgar-Wiley Evers International Airport, or go anywhere for that matter, because of the limited hours and service area of our community paratransit provider (JATRAN).

All of this has left wheelchair users around the country filing lawsuits against TNCs like UBER. One of the defenses offered is a denial that they are even a transportation company at all, but merely a software application. Preposterous! People don’t order a driver to show up only to waive “Hello” and drive off without them…it’s about giving people a ride. Such arguments are frankly insulting to our intelligence.

It is understandable that the typical TNC driver shouldn’t be expected to purchase a wheelchair accessible van on their own. New ones run about $50K, used $30K. That’s clearly not the answer. The obvious solutions involve Ride-Hailing services buying vehicles and ensuring that they are available the same hours, for the same price, with the same response times offered to the general public. That’s the essence of the “Equivalent Service” standard. It’s just common decency and fairness. Can they afford to buy their own accessible vehicles? Well, UBER is valued at roughly $72 Billion and already has a contract to purchase up to 24,000 autonomous vehicles from Volvo.

I find myself wondering if Mr. Khosrowshahi has any idea how hollow his words sound to persons like me, those left at home. I also wonder if my able-bodied friends realize that UBER WAV is little more than a sham, a “feel-good” token program to deflect criticism. The burden should be on TNCs to prove they are providing equivalent service to wheelchair-users. In 2018, a generation after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people shouldn’t have to sue in federal court for the right to get a ride like everyone else. If Mr. Khosrowshahi is sincere about doing the “right thing” and “fixing” inequities, he’ll stop this obvious pattern/practice of discrimination against wheelchair users. Now would be good.

Scott M. Crawford, Ph.D.

Jackson, Mississippi