Uber-ization of Specialized Transportation???

  • Author: NCMM Staff
  • Date: September 23, 2015

by Sheryl Gross-Glaser, National Center for Mobility Management

Are Ridehailing Providers the Next Wave in Paratransit and Human Services Transportation? Is UberAssist Your Future?

The answers are yes and maybe, respectively. UberAssist is already in several cities; RideConnection in Portland is training Uber and Lyft drivers to serve people with disabilities; and a non-profit in Florida could not be happier with its Uber service, which it set up with both app-based and telephone connections to arrange rides. And that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there is more going on that I am unaware of. Why? Because this trend is incredibly fast paced. In the areas across the country that I have visited recently and in discussions with others, it seems that everyone is quickly re-imagining what good transportation service should be now that we all consider ourselves a click away and maybe a 10-minute wait for the nice vehicle to arrive and transport us. And we are envisioning the same convenience for seniors and people with disabilities. Oh, and we want the service to be equitable for people with low incomes.

UberAssist is operating pilot projects in Tucson, Portland, Columbus, Gainesville, and Phoenix, not to mention Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the project began. Here is a video from Uber’s perspective about how well this service works. The video is only two minutes long. Warning: The video is sickeningly sweet. It does get Uber’s point across that Uber is good, really good, for the transportation-challenged among us.

Not Everyone Sees Uber-ization with Rose-Colored Glasses

The intent of the ADA was to give equal access to transportation (among other things) to people with disabilities. But does UberAssist and any similar non-Uber programs provide equitable transportation? People with disabilities and those who work on their behalf are not immediately sanguine. I found a wonderful blog piece on this very issue written by Liz Henry, a woman who uses a wheelchair (in addition to transportation, Henry blogs about poetry and literature). Henry writes with some disdain that people with disabilities should somehow be grateful for specially-trained drivers – a training that should be universal – and inferior service in terms of longer wait times than for a regular Uber ride. She worries that those regular Uber drivers will now refuse her requests for rides now that UberAssist exists.

In fact, a lawsuit about inferior regular Uber service to people with disabilities is pending in the California courts. Uber continues to maintain that it is an information technology company and not a transportation provider. (On another topic, Uber is also defending itself in litigation about whether its drivers are employees or independent contractors, a charge that could be leveled at most taxi companies as well.)

Better one or two? Regulated Taxis Versus the Wild West of Ridehailing

A member of the Partnership for Mobility Management LinkedIn group, who is the general manager of a transit agency, commented that ridehailing services can cherry pick for customers because they generally do not consider themselves obligated to provide all rides. In fact, with UberAssist, I have not seen anything about Uber taking on an obligation to provide all requested rides. I have not seen the relevant contracts either. We will have to wait for the evidence of what happens in the cities where this service is operating. But this general manager also made the point that it took fights over many years to ensure that taxi companies in many places would serve people with disabilities. Now Uber and its ilk come along with a built-in advantage if they are not required to provide equal service.

I admit that I went on a rant after that comment about how the world has changed and how taxi companies left themselves open for competition, but did not expect it. But even in 2015 in the middle of Manhattan, where many hours of the day one can get a taxi within 60 seconds, there is nothing near equal service for people with disabilities or for people who live in most low-income communities. One has to call for an accessible taxi, which will take 15 minutes, not a bad wait, but much longer than for a taxi. In DC or New York, try asking the driver to go outside a central area and see what the response is. There may be regulations, but there is not equity.

And those are big cities with plentiful taxi and ridehailing services. In most places, ridehailing services do not have to make too much of an effort to compete well against taxi companies.

Whither the Future?

The game has changed. Ridehailing and pop-up transit services available by app, even driverless pilot programs, are quickly revolutionizing the transportation landscape and expectations. People with disabilities, seniors, and people with low incomes deserve equal service, whether that service is provided by transit, a taxi company, or an app-based ridehailing service. As this transportation revolution takes place – and think how rapidly we all adopted smart phones – we should not replicate the current inequities in transportation, but we should strive for a variety of options that are equal.


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Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Sage Kashner (kashner@ctaa.org).

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