Ride-Sharing Services and Accessibility

Published October 13, 2021

While popular ride-hailing services continue to promote a pack of accessibility supports and programs, their implementation seems to have much more to do with the American legal system than it does any kind of Silicon Valley-style best practice. We review the state of ride-sharing and accessibility and their impact on the disability community.

The state of accessibility and ride-sharing

There are several issues that must be considered. On one hand, ride-sharing services have made very public efforts to promote accessibility, adopting and promoting best practices in regards to service animals and disability sensitivity training, all of which have fostered some goodwill within the community. On the other hand, there continue to be instances in which individual drivers reject or deny service to persons with disabilities due to their accessibility needs. Finally, in what may be the most contentious issue of all, is whether ride-sharing services need to be ADA compliant at all − many communities have struggled to legislate this issue − are ride-sharing companies transportation agencies or technology companies?

Most ride-sharing companies have thus far positioned themselves as technology companies that connect drivers and riders rather than a public utility. As our own Rick Hoel wrote about in June, Uber is currently in the midst of a lawsuit in D.C. that asks, not for the first time, whether Uber falls underneath the ADA as a public transportation company. An earlier case about whether Uber drivers are independent contractors or employees, a case which was later settled, led Bryan Casey to ask in the UMass Law Review, whether the ADA could be the “end of the on-demand economy.”

Services like Uber and Lyft exist on a transport landscape for disabled people that can be exceedingly frustrating to navigate. Most major centers have five transportation options for those with disabilities: personal vehicles, cab companies (with limited accessible units and trained drivers), standard public transit, paratransit, and ride-sharing apps. It’s a landscape that proponents of more transit options say is being negatively impacted by the policies of ride-sharing organizations.

James Wilt is a Canadian academic, journalist, and author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars, a book about the history of the transportation landscape and the impact venture capital is having on the industry. He says that the proliferation of ride-sharing companies can be directly tied to a lack of government funding for transportation combined with pricing decisions that allow these companies to undercut their competitors, largely cab companies.

The reasons that ride-hailing options like Uber and Lyft, or, you know, various local iterations of those have become popular is, of course, in part because these massive venture capitalist firms have been subsidizing rates and all these sorts of things.

Aside from legal challenges from cab companies existing since at least 2016 – when a San Francisco taxi company attempted to take Uber to court for predatory pricing – the ride-sharing model has not been without its very public critics. Uber and Lyft operate at massive losses, a combined $8.5 billion in 2020. Similar losses in 2019 led Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle to write a scathing analysis just as the companies were going public.

Both companies have a wildly successful product and a loyal customer base. The companies are also locked in a price war. And thus, they have together blown through tens of billions of dollars of venture capital. Having presumably exhausted that source of funds, they are offering retirement funds and institutional investors the opportunity to pour their money down the same hole.

That ability to price out competitors also has a chilling effect on government-funded transit, says Wilt.

It's also because they often provide a service which people perceive to be lacking, especially in large major cities. And a lot of this stems from the fact that cities and all levels of government really have systematically failed to [fund] and withdrawn funding and support for modes of transportation that are not automobile-centric.

But what impact do these services have on the disability community?

As researchers at the University of Texas have noted, while paratransit funding isn’t mandated under the ADA − the accessibility of any service provided is − costs continue to rise as users of these services find other options unusable. This comes as COVID 19 has had an outsized impact on public transit. A series of case studies produced by the American Public Transit Association found that the funding landscape for accessible programs was a patchwork of local, state, and federal funds even prior to 2020, when the then president of New York City Transit pointed to the “apocalyptic” impact of the pandemic.

This conflict between systems has played out across North America. In Vancouver, local taxi companies stopped providing subsidies to drivers of accessible vehicles, making it less likely for accessible cabs to be available. This put disabled people in the middle of the conflict, being used as a bargaining chip for taxi companies to try to prevent ride-sharing companies' entrance into the market.

They have very much used the idea that they are better than cabs as sort of like this wedge, but so far, what we've seen in terms of how they respond to lawsuits and responded with people with disabilities having to wait extremely long periods of time or not get rides at all . . . I think, many people should rightfully be very cynical about, you know, the claims that they're making.

There have been admirable efforts to improve access to transportation, but in 2021 one thing remains clear, transportation continues to be a barrier to independent living that is far from being solved. Stay tuned. 

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