NOEL KING, HOST:
Uber and Lyft transformed how people get around cities, but the ride-sharing revolution hasn't included everyone. Many people with a disability who use wheelchairs say Lyft and Uber have substandard or non-existent service for them. Disability rights advocates say they see a pattern of exclusion that violates federal law. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, they've taken legal action.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Forty-three-year-old Portia Lemmons, who has cerebral palsy, spends a lot of time waiting for buses. Or if she has a doctor's or other appointment, she has to book an electric wheelchair accessible paratransit van 24 hours in advance, vans, she says, that can be unreliable and sometimes cancel on you abruptly.
PORTIA LEMMONS: It's frustrating, but it's par for the course.
WESTERVELT: And don't even get Lemmons started about trying to get around on nights or weekends or if she ever wants to be spontaneous.
Portia, you're tech savvy. You've got a smartphone around your neck.
WESTERVELT: If you could call an Uber or Lyft on demand like ambulatory folks, would you do that?
LEMMONS: Yes, I would. That would be my first choice because in on demand, I could do more in the spur of the moment. I think it would open up a lot more doors for people with disabilities.
WESTERVELT: But those doors today remain closed across almost all of America. Here's the thing - accessibility advocates say the ride-hailing companies have actually made it harder for people in wheelchairs to get around. When Uber and Lyft eviscerated the moribund taxi industry, they put many wheelchair accessible taxis out of business, too.
On a recent New Orleans vacation for Mardi Gras, Dorene Giacopini pinged a ride-share app to head out for dinner with her husband. For the last decade, her spina bifida has forced her to use a wheelchair. The 59-year-old saw the car approach as she waited with her husband standing next to her. Then, as too often happens, she says, the driver saw her wheelchair and just kept on driving.
DORENE GIACOPINI: It was incredibly frustrating to just be, you know, dissed like that. You know, it just makes you really feel like you're being treated as a second-class citizen, that you don't count. Pretty much that - that you just don't matter.
WESTERVELT: Giacopini wants to change that. She's one of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Lyft across three Bay Area counties, alleging the company is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Both Lyft and Uber face multiple similar lawsuits in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere. Both have tried to argue in court they're technology, not transportation, companies and so are exempt from the ADA. So far, judges have rejected that argument and allowed the lawsuits to move forward.
Attorney Melissa Riess is with Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit that's spearheading the Lyft case here in the Bay Area, where Lyft is headquartered. Riess says with its army of data scientists and a $15 billion market capitalization, Lyft could start an innovative accessibility revolution. So far, she says, it has chosen not to.
MELISSA RIESS: It's discrimination. There is not a place in this country where they are providing wheelchair accessible service at a level which is equivalent to what they provide to people who don't need wheelchair accessible service.
WESTERVELT: Lyft declined to make anyone available for an interview or answer detailed questions. In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman wrote, quote, "drivers can't buy wheelchair accessible vehicles for the sole purpose of driving with Lyft when more than 90% of them drive fewer than 20 hours per week" - end quote.
Both Uber and Lyft have launched pilot projects in a handful of cities, including one in Boston, that allows elderly and disabled customers to use the MBTA's paratransit service at a discounted rate. So far, the Boston service has gotten very mixed reviews. In New York City, the company's track records are no better. A study last year by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest found that Uber and Lyft failed to provide wheelchair cars on average of 70% of the time in the Big Apple, where there are pilot programs. Lyft fared the worst.
Accessibility advocates say Uber has been more proactive than its competitors about collaborating with paratransit companies and city transit agencies. Malcolm Glenn is Uber's head of policy for accessibility.
MALCOLM GLENN: The model where we feel like we've made the most progress is the commercial partnership model. But we absolutely have a long way to go. I'd say that we are at the beginning and not the end of this journey to make our platform as accessible as possible.
WESTERVELT: A bill signed into law in California last year levies a five cent per ride fee on ride-hailing companies. The money, when the law takes effect, will go toward expanding wheelchair accessible vehicles. But it's one state, and it's not clear it will raise adequate funds or if the ride-hailing companies will even comply. They've repeatedly clashed with lawmakers and ignored or circumvented regulations in cities around the world. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.
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