Oh, Uber. What are you thinking?
The wildly popular service (in fact, an article in Business Travel News noted that according to Certify, corporate travelers in North America in March expensed almost as many rides from the mobile-based, on-demand ground transportation platform as all other taxi, limousine and airport shuttle rides) has given itself a black eye by refusing rides to some physically handicapped customers and imposing hardships upon others.
In some cases, drivers have told individuals their collapsible wheelchairs would not fit into the trunks of the cars; in others, UberX drivers refused to pick up people with service animals. (In addition, there have been instances of animal abuse, including one case where a woman’s guide dog was locked in the trunk of a car).
Under the tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which went into law in 1990), transportation providers are legally required to accommodate wheelchair users if the equipment can fit in their car. Uber, however, is seeking a way to make itself exempt from the anti-discrimination law.
According to The Daily Beast, in three ADA-related cases over the past eight months, in California, Texas, and Arizona, Uber has been slammed with lawsuits that allege the company discriminates against blind and wheelchair-using passengers. The suits demand Uber abide by the ADA, but Uber claims that because it’s a technology company, not a transportation service, it doesn’t fall under the ADA’s jurisdiction.
Uber’s claim that it’s not a taxi company ties into an adjacent legal battle with its drivers that would force it to consider them as employees, rather than independent contractors, as Uber claims. (In fact, Uber says that because drivers are independent contractors, it is unable to control their actions). In California, a class-action suit about this issue playing out. Uber says there is a voluntary training where drivers are told they must serve customers with wheelchairs or guide dogs. Uber’s Code of Conduct notes that violating laws pertaining to transporting disabled riders “constitutes a breach of the parties’ licensing agreement.” And an Uber spokesperson says that reported discrimination typically ends with a driver’s suspension or deactivation. However, mandatory driver training or other measures to prevent disability discrimination could imply its drivers are employees and undermine Uber’s ability to argue otherwise.
In its response to the complaint, lawyers for Uber wrote: “Defendants deny that Uber offers a taxi service or that Uber has a fleet of drivers.” It added that Uber does not have the legal or contractual duty to control compliance with the law.
Uber tried to get that case dismissed. It was unsuccessful, with a fairly strong voice in its opponents’ corner. In December, the U.S. Justice Department weighed in, urging the court in a brief not to throw the case out because the allegation “goes to the very heart of the ADA’s goals.” The judge obliged, denying Uber’s motion to dismiss the case in mid-April, and noting that the plaintiffs had a “plausible claim under the ADA and state law.”
As the DOJ notes, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations for transportation outlines that the ADA doesn’t just apply to taxi services. The code’s wording says it “ensures that, while a public entity may contract out its service, it may not contract away its ADA responsibilities.”
The Beast also notes that companies such as Uber and Lyft exist outside the realm of regulation, creating problems for states who are trying to manage issues such as ADA compliance. Over the past few months, an act regulating transportation services has been introduced in at least a dozen state legislatures. But disability activists are concerned about a line it includes that they believe could exempt Uber from the need to comply with the ADA or confuse drivers about their responsibility to take wheelchairs that fit. It says: “If a transportation network company cannot arrange wheelchair-accessible transportation network company service in any instance, it shall direct the passenger to an alternate provider of wheelchair-accessible service, if available.” Activists worry that this will only make Uber kick the proverbial can down the road by telling a prospective client that he or she will have to take a service that can provide accommodations.
Lawmakers are also urging for disability-focused regulations to be in place. In Massachusetts, the governor has introduced legislation to regulate Uber and Lyft as transportation services, and state Senator Thomas Kennedy, who is quadriplegic, has promised to submit a measure that would require a certain percent of cars be accessible to mechanized wheelchairs in each fleet.
Lawmakers in Connecticut are also working on regulations. “These companies need to be doing a much better job accommodating the needs of all people,” state Senator Ted Kennedy Jr. told The Boston Globe. “This issue is not going away. It’s a question of fairness and equality.”
Last year, Uber launched UberWAV, which is partnering with drivers in nine cities who own their own wheelchair-ramp vans to serve those in mechanical chairs. Uber also launched a service called UberASSIST at the beginning of the year. It uses drivers who are specially trained to assist seniors and people with disabilities (though not including ramp cars) and is in the midst of setting up across the country. But activists are worried that the separate program for people who should be legally accommodated into the main car fleet under the ADA will segregate disabled users.
Uber, with its reasonable fares, however, may be in for a new breed of competition soon. Successful Meetings reported that New York City’s LaGuardia Airport has become the latest transportation hub to launch the taxi-sharing service, Bandwagon. Already a popular option in a number of places serving the meetings, group and sports event planning trade, such as the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, Newark International Airport United Terminal C, and New York City Cruise Terminals, Brooklyn-based Bandwagon allows passengers waiting in standard taxi queues to find a travel companion using an onsite iPad kiosk. For a small fee, the service pairs travelers who are going in the same direction; upon being matched, those passengers can jump to a taxi-share priority line and save 40 percent on their fare.
The service is envisioned as way to help taxis compete with ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. Although cab drivers are paid the metered rate, passengers pay a reduced fee by consolidating their ride and fare with a companion.
“Partnering in this program will help increase taxi availability for our customers," said LaGuardia Airport General Manager Lysa Scully. "Additionally, the Port Authority is committed to reducing its carbon footprint and this is an eco-friendly transportation option in line with our sustainability goals."
Bandwagon, if it is savvy, will take the additional opportunity to market itself as an ADA-friendly option.