A partnership that has helped disabled people connect with a popular ride service launched in Houston at midnight.
Uber officials confirmed UberACCESS, which offers wheelchair-accessible rides for the same price as UberX, began service Wednesday. Like all Uber service, it is available via smartphone app, 24 hours a day.
“I’m thrilled to see Uber applying the same creative ingenuity to provide more consumer choices and opportunities for Houstonians with accessibility needs,” former California Congressman Tony Coelho, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said in a statement. “UberACCESS will empower people requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles to get a ride when they need one by simply pressing a button.”
The service fulfills a goal of the city’s transportation accessibility task force that helped write regulations related to allowing Uber to operate legally in Houston. As part of its suggestions, the task force allowed taxi companies and app-based companies a choice of having a set number of vehicles that were wheelchair accessible or provide service to disabled residents based on how quickly they could provide a ride.
Toby Cole, who led the accessibility committee, said the goal of both options is improved quality of service for those who are blind, wheelchair-dependent or otherwise in need of assistance.
“I am hopeful,” Cole said of the rules leading to better service. “We tried to close down as many loopholes as possible.”
In other markets where UberACCESS has debuted, the company has partnered with other firms capable of providing rides to wheelchair-bound riders. Company officials would not disclose the name of the Houston area partner.
See here for the background. The story emphasizes that the regulations for UberACCESS were agreed to by Uber and the cab companies, in addition to the disability activists. One hopes that means this will work well for everyone, and will provide a decent, cost-effective option for a greater population. If it does work as hoped, then it ought to attract the attention of Metro, since like many other transit agencies around the country it has had to deal with an increasing budget for its MetroLift service, and needs to seek less expensive alternatives to provide that.
Several U.S. transit systems looking to defray costs of providing services for the disabled are weighing partnerships with Uber and Lyft, unsettling some advocates who note that ride-hailing services have themselves faced criticism over accessibility.
Paratransit, better known under names like “The Ride,” ”Access-a-Ride,” or “Dial-a-Ride,” is required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. But the costs, which include door-to-door pickup and drop-off, can be steep.
The average cost of operating a single paratransit trip is about $23 in the U.S., compared with less than $4 for the average trip on bus or light rail. In Boston, the average cost per ride is about $45, in Washington, about $50, and in New York, nearly $57, officials said.
Transit agencies nationwide logged about 223 million paratransit trips at a cost exceeding $5.1 billion — about 12 percent of total transit operating costs — in 2013, according to the most recent data from the American Public Transportation Association. The price tag is particularly high in major cities, where agencies struggle with regular service and maintenance.
A potential incentive for riders: Uber or Lyft can be summoned immediately with an app; trips on MBTA vehicles must be scheduled a day ahead.
“My guess is it will be very appealing to people who need to go shorter distances where the fares are under $15 and they can get an on-demand ride as opposed to booking 24 hours in advance,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the agency’s chief administrator.
But convenience comes with a catch.
With a limited number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, the ride-hailing services would be available largely to people who can walk. And while a majority of individuals certified to use paratransit fit that bill, advocates worry about creating an unfair and possibly even illegal two-tiered system for the disabled — one serving people who can walk, the other those whose needs the private vehicles can’t accommodate.
“We don’t want racial segregation, and we also don’t want disability segregation,” said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for the California-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.
Uber and Lyft have both cited efforts to improve offerings for disabled riders. But the services have argued they are technology, not transportation, companies, meaning they are not required to provide accessible vehicles. Advocates for the disabled have filed a handful of lawsuits.
Again, if the service works as designed in Houston, then perhaps that can serve as a model elsewhere. The first indicator will be if Metro gets in on it. I’ll keep an eye on that.