Uber has been criticized by disability advocates for not doing enough to provide wheelchair accessible vehicles. The ride-hailing company said Tuesday it's doing something to change that.
Uber is partnering with major transport company MV Transportation to provide people in wheelchairs with rides in less than 15 minutes. The vehicles are now available in six major cities across the US and Canada, and Uber's goal is to expand from there.
"Paratransit is often unreliable," Malcom Glenn, Uber's head of policy for accessibility and underserved communities, said in an interview. "We have a unique opportunity to significantly improve it."
Uber already provides wheelchair accessible vehicles with ramps and hydraulic lifts under its UberWAV program, but disability advocates say those cars are scarce. For instance, they say UberWAV is available only about 20 percent of the time in San Francisco, and in other Bay Area cities it isn't available at all. When there's a vehicle, disability advocates say customers may have to wait as much as 14 times longer than they would for another type of Uber ride.
Federal laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, require all transportation providers to accommodate wheelchairs. And many state regulations, such as California's anti-discrimination laws, require companies to treat all customers equally. Both Uber and Lyft have been sued by disability rights groups for allegedly violating these laws.
By partnering with MV Transportation, Uber will be able to get more wheelchair accessible vehicles on the road without having to rely on its regular fleet of drivers to provide such cars.
The way it works is simple: MV Transportation's vehicles will now be available on the Uber app. MV Transportation is in charge of maintaining and modifying the vehicles, as well as hiring and training drivers in safe wheelchair securement. So when someone hails one of these rides, a regular Uber driver won't be behind the wheel. Instead, it'll be someone from MV Transportation.
Uber said it's investing heavily in this program to make sure fares for the rides stay on par with its regular UberX trips. Glenn said Uber is spending tens of millions of dollars on the program in this first year and that kind of financing will continue.
Not everyone in a wheelchair will need to use MV Transportation's vehicles. Glenn said people with foldable wheelchairs can still use UberX. MV Transportation's vehicles are more for people with motorized wheelchairs who may need a ramp or lift.
This new service is available immediately in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago and Toronto. Uber is working to add San Francisco and Los Angeles within the next year. The company said these eight cities represent half of its business in North America.
"We are cognizant that this is a huge first step," Glenn said. "But it's not lost on us that we have a long way to go."
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