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UberAccess

Fort Worth adopts minimalist rideshare regulations

This ought to be interesting.

Uber

Months of work redrafting the city’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance wrapped up Tuesday night when the Fort Worth Council approved new rules that require transportation companies only to register with the city.

The approach chosen by Fort Worth avoids more onerous regulations — including requirements for fingerprinting drivers — that proved problematic in other cities. And it gives Uber, Lyft and others the hands-off regulatory environment they had pleaded for in the city.

The City Council long ago began exploring how to cover the fledgling industry with an ordinance, only to realize months into the process that it didn’t want to regulate the transportation companies, saying smartphone app-based ride share companies had changed the business landscape.

Council members opted for free-enterprise and competition despite a last-minute plea from the traditional taxicab companies that wanted the city to continue to regulate their industry. Taxicabs have always been regulated, they said, and that’s what the public expects.

Jack Bewley, president of Yellow Cab, said the proposed ordinance did not ensure safety for the passengers. He warned the council the city could see an influx of one-man cab companies with owners who have criminal backgrounds and can’t get insurance.

“This ordinance is being set up where an individual … can come down here and say I want to start a taxicab company,” Bewley said.

Lyft

The council voted 8-0 to approve the new ordinance. Councilman Jungus Jordan was absent.

Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino said the ordinance meets market innovation.

“Council, in articulating its vision for the regulatory framework, decided the best way is the free-market approach. At this point in time, in the evolution of the ride-sharing services and the transportation services, this is just another option. After much debate, after much discussion, we’re ready to move forward.”

Mayor Betsy Price said, “We just must embrace all forms of transportation to avoid gridlock in our city and allow our citizens to get around. Part of our job is to not cause undue burden on businesses or citizens. Unlike other cities that have gotten so hung up in the hot potato politics of this, Fort Worth is going to do it the right way.”

[…]

Under the new ordinance, which takes effect Oct. 1, companies, whether motorized or non-motorized, will pay a $500 operating license fee that’s good for two years. The companies will be required to annually certify that they have done national background checks on their drivers, that their drivers hold valid driver’s licenses and that drivers and vehicles are properly insured.

The ordinance does come with a strict penalty if the company is found not to be in compliance — it will lose their operating license for two years. Passengers can file complaints with the city.

Well, that’s one way to do it. I sent an inquiry to Uber about how Fort Worth’s ordinance differs from those in San Antonio and Dallas, and I was informed that while Uber’s screening process is the only mandatory background check for those cities, San Antonio offers drivers an opportunity to voluntarily undergo a fingerprint background check, and drivers in Dallas are required to obtain a City permit. The only additional step drivers are required to complete to obtain that permit is undergoing an additional vehicle inspection.

It will be interesting to see what the response is when the inevitable problems arise. Bad apples will always slip through, as they have done in the pre-Uber days, and some of them will turn out to be the kind of person you’d really want to be the kind of person to be identified by a background check as a bad risk. It’s Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Johnson and the members of their City Council who would face any consequences from this. It could easily be overblown by sensationalist news coverage, but if something bad does happen, it could really blow up. Just something to keep an eye on, and to keep in mind as the legislative session approaches.

Not addressed by this story is the question of access to rides for people with disabilities. One of the reasons why cab companies have been regulated the way they are is because they have a mandate to provide service for residents who can’t get themselves around town. How will that work under this structure? In Houston, Uber agreed to provide a certain number of vehicles that can accommodate people with disabilities, and in their more recent threat to leave they stated that accommodations for the disabled could be achieved under a regulatory scheme that was more to their liking (scroll to the bottom). In some cities, this UberACCESS service has partnered with transit agencies as well. What responsibilities do rideshare and traditional cab companies have in this new environment? There’s already litigation over the issue of disabled Texans being denied service by rideshare companies. I’m sure they’ll be watching what happens in Fort Worth with great interest.

All that said, this could work out fine. It may be that the issue of access for disabled folks will continue to be addressed in a way that is acceptable to all, and it may be that the number of problems with drivers of questionable backgrounds is vanishingly small. This will certainly provide fodder for that debate. It’s not the approach I would take, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We’ll just have to see how it goes. The Chron has more.

UberACCESS debuts in Houston

Good to see.

Uber

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.