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Can Uber offer improved service to riders in wheelchairs?

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New initiative aims to improve service for users with wheelchairs, a historic challenge for the company

Uber

Uber has unveiled a new initiative that aims to provide improved service for riders with disabilities, aiming to improve on a poor record of serving users in wheelchairs.

Uber says it now offers wheelchair-accessible vehicles in 15 minutes or less, on average, in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Toronto. The company aims to offer similar wait times in San Francisco and Los Angeles over the next year.

Because Uber relies on vehicles owned by its drivers, the company has traditionally struggled to expand its fleet of wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) and its own UberWAV service. To solve that problem, the company has contracted with MV Transportation, a national third-party transportation provider, to expand its available fleet of accessible vehicles and offer expanded services to riders with motorized wheelchairs or scooters.

The cost for trips via this new partnership will be the same as the cost of UberX.

According to a post from company CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber is “committed to making accessibility a meaningful part of what we do, and we’re proud to be doing our part to enable improved access to transportation for people with disabilities. We know there is still a long way to go—and that we’re at the beginning, not the end, of this journey.”

Uber

Ride-hailing services have long held out the promise of providing traditionally underserved communities better access to transportation and improving on often unreliable or intermittent paratransit services But they haven’t always delivered. And, as they continue to grow, expectations have only risen that, like public transit, ride-hailing services conform to demands for equality and the promise of equal service enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Uber’s new initiative comes after a fraught history serving riders with disabilities, including being sued by disability activists in various states, and finding itself the subject of a scathing report earlier this year that found big gaps in both Uber’s and Lyft’s services to riders with wheelchairs in New York City. Researchers found WAVs in one in four attempts, on average, and none at the city’s two airports, LaGuardia and JFK.

“The statistics were astounding,” Ruth Lowenkron, director of the disability justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, told The Verge. “That’s different from saying we were surprised, though, because sadly we anticipated this.”

In addition, Uber, along with Via and Lyft, sued New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission in April to prevent a WAV mandate that would have required 5 percent of trips offered by the services in spring 2019 be in WAVs.

“Our position all along is that under federal law, Uber legally needs to provide service to everyone,” said Melissa Riess, staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, a group that has previously sued Uber, alleging they didn’t provide adequate service for those in wheelchairs. “The steps that they are taking seem to be steps in the right direction. But we’ll need to wait and see if they can get service up to the level where people who use wheel chairs find it as good as it is for everybody else.”