Uber and Its Accessibility Issues

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In 2013, in Michael Bloomberg’s last days as mayor of New York City, he promised by the year 2020, half of New York City’s yellow taxis would be accessible to people in wheelchairs and motorized scooters.

This seemed to be a definite moment of triumph in the civil rights struggle that has stretched across four long decades to get access to public transportation services by people who use wheelchairs. New York had been the first city in the country to make all its buses wheelchair-accessible, a change that was spearheaded with a lawsuit in 1979 and was settled in 1984 by then governor Mario M. Cuomo. The subway system began, albeit slowly, to put elevators into its stations.

Jim Weisman, president of the United Spinal Association, brought the lawsuit against the state in 1979, and more than 30 years later, sued the city during Bloomberg’s administration to require that future cabs could be used by disabled people. The last­minute decision to settle was a change of heart.

Then comes along Uber, and a civil rights revolution collided with a high point in the “sharing economy.”

At the time when Bloomberg settled the suit, there were 13,587 yellow cabs in the city; about twice as many cars as were available through Uber at the time. Today, there are more than 34,000 uber cars in the five boroughs and still only a measly 13,587 yellow cabs.

Uber is not covered by the city’s accessibility requirements for taxicabs. “Uber says they’re not a provider of transportation, they’re an app,” said Mr. Weisman. That view effectively puts Uber beyond labor laws and many transportation regulations as well. Most Uber drivers work for themselves and create their own hours. They can also refuse service to any customer if they choose to do so for any reason they deem necessary.

These independent contractors pay a percentage of their fares to the company and are free to work as much or as little as they please. Riders use the app to request a ride, and a driver responds. The billing is all done through the smartphone app. And to be clear, no matter how much it may seem like it, Uber is not a taxicab business, or a livery service; “it’s a company that uses software to redirect fistfuls of electrons flung by people looking for rides to other people willing to provide them,” says the New York Times.

An Uber driver is not required to have an accessible vehicle, and Uber does not provide incentives to those drivers who choose to have an accessible vehicle.

Moreover, Uber and other businesses of the like are not required to make sure their fleet of vehicles are accessible to anyone who wants or needs a ride. The yellow cabs seem to be on the downward slope of their business and since the rise of Uber, that downward slope is getting a lot more steep.

Something needs to happen to either require Uber to provide accessible vehicles or another company with a specialization in accessible vehicles should emerge and fill the void that Uber has created. Mr. Weisman suggest a government intervention is necessary to make this change occur. “This would be good government,” he said. “And a civil rights coup.”