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Lyft's wheelchair controversy: When ride-hailing falls short

The rise of ride-hailing and the decline of the taxi business has led to fewer wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

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Harriet Lowell (center) is suing Lyft in a pending class action suit for allegedly discriminating against people in wheelchairs.

Courtesy of Harriet Lowell.

If Harriet Lowell wants to travel more than just a few blocks, she usually has to plan far in advance. That's because she's disabled and uses a motorized wheelchair, and it takes at least 24 hours to schedule a ride with a paratransit van.

Where Lowell lives, just north of New York City in White Plains, paratransit vans are the only for-hire vehicles equipped with wheelchair lifts and ramps. That means no quick runs to the grocery store or just dropping by a friend's house -- unless her husband drives her. And when there's an emergency, like the time her husband was rushed to the ER with a pulmonary embolism, things get complicated.

"I couldn't get there," said Lowell, who's 62 years old. "There was nobody to take me."

After that shock, Lowell decided that she -- and all people in wheelchairs -- should be able to get an on-demand ride like everyone else. 

She sued Lyft in 2017 in a pending class action suit on the grounds that the company allegedly discriminates against people who use wheelchairs by failing to provide accessible vehicles. At that time, advocacy group Westchester Disabled on the Move also joined the lawsuit. Lowell's lawyer, Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, said Lyft's response to the case contradicts the image the company projects of itself.

"Lyft tries to present itself as the progressive alternative to Uber," Frei-Pearson said. But, he added, "Lyft has shown no interest in a resolution. They've fought us tooth and nail."

Uber, on the other hand, appears to be working on a resolution in response to a companion lawsuit, Frei-Pearson said.

Lowell's dispute has yet to be decided. Her lawyers aim to prove Lyft is a transportation company and should adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lyft told CNET it doesn't believe it's subject to the federal law.

Under the ADA, all private entities that provide transportation to the public are required to have vehicles that accommodate wheelchairs. The outcome of this case -- and others like it -- could ultimately dictate how ride-hailing companies will serve people with disabilities across the US.

"They want to be the 21st century's transportation, yet they think laws from the 20th century don't apply to them," Frei-Pearson said. "We want to fix it, not just for Harriet in White Plains but for people in Georgia, Kentucky, California and the whole country."

Lyft told CNET that the difficulty of getting around in a wheelchair isn't a problem it created or perpetuated. The company also said its business model is centered on drivers using their own cars and those drivers can't install wheelchair ramps or lifts in their vehicles for the sole purpose of driving for Lyft.

The ride-hailing company does offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles in eight cities in the US and in Toronto. And in several other large cities, Lyft has formed partnerships with wheelchair-accessible transportation providers. In places without such partnerships, Lyft said it texts passengers information on local alternative services.

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Lyft also said it's worked to broaden transportation options for other types of disabled people. It has partnerships with the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf, which have led to improvements in the Lyft app for hearing and visually impaired people.

"We're always looking for ways to expand our offerings and partnerships to ensure increased access to transportation," a Lyft spokeswoman said in an email.

Fallout from killing the taxi business

Lowell has been using her motorized wheelchair for 10 years, but her disability started about 20 years ago. She has a degenerative spinal disc disorder and fibromyalgia that gives her extreme pain and weakness in her neck, back and legs. First, she was in a manual wheelchair, but as her condition worsened she had to get an electric wheelchair. That brought its own challenges.

"It will short out if there's a lot of rain or snow, and it can skid," Lowell said. "It's just so limiting."

Lowell's isn't the first lawsuit against a ride-hailing company for allegedly discriminating against people in wheelchairs. Two separate lawsuits were filed against Uber and Lyft in the Bay Area last year for reportedly failing to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and similar suits have been filed in Texas, Illinois, Mississippi and Washington, DC.

Wheelchair in a corridor of a hospital

The Census Bureau says 3.6 million people in the US use a wheelchair.

P. Broze

Currently, 3.6 million people in the US use a wheelchair, according to the US Census Bureau. Along with the ADA, many states' anti-discrimination laws require taxis, bus companies and other transportation services to accommodate people with disabilities. The majority of taxi companies across the US have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in their fleets.

But as taxi companies have gone out of business or downsized their fleets -- with the rise of Uber and Lyft -- the availability of wheelchair-accessible vehicles has sharply declined.

In San Francisco, for example, taxi trips using a wheelchair ramp plummeted by roughly 70% over the last six years, according to an April report by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The number of rides dropped from about 1,300 per month in 2013 to roughly 400 per month this year. While people in wheelchairs may still be requesting the same amount of rides, there aren't enough available vehicles to provide them.

"Many of the benefits that have attracted riders to [ride-hailing companies], such as ease of payment, cheaper fares, and shorter wait times, are not afforded equally to persons with disabilities," the report reads. "The rapid expansion of [ride-hailing] services has also degraded the quality and availability of on-demand transportation access for riders who require a wheelchair-accessible vehicle by upending the existing taxi industry."

In the few cities where Uber and Lyft have wheelchair-accessible vehicles, passengers say cars are often not available or take much longer to book than a typical ride, according to the report.

Both Uber and Lyft offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles in New York City. Still, city regulators sued the two companies in 2017, saying they needed to provide more accessible rides quicker. The suit was settled last June with both companies agreeing to fulfill at least 80 percent of ride requests for wheelchair-accessible vehicles in less than 10 minutes by 2021, according to Politico.

While disability advocates see that as a win, it still doesn't help Lowell in White Plains.

Her lawsuit isn't seeking monetary damages. Instead, she just wants Lyft to provide equal access to people with disabilities.

"I'm lucky because I have a husband who will drive me. But that's not true of most people," Lowell said. "They might be alone. It's really hard and this is happening all over the country to millions of people."