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Can Uber and Lyft Become Wheelchair Accessible?

A cap on ride-sharing companies in New York includes one important caveat: They're welcome to add as many wheelchair-accessible vehicles as they like.

In early August, the New York City council voted to forbid Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing companies from adding any more cars to their fleets for the next 12 months. New York is the first American city to enact such a cap, though other cities are considering similar actions. The action took place amid the specter of six suicides by taxi drivers over the last six months and general concerns about traffic congestion in the city. Lawmakers sought to check the unregulated growth of the services and study just how many vehicles were actually required to provide appropriate transportation options during the pause.

There was, however, one important caveat to the bill that has gone largely unreported thus far: Uber and Lyft are still welcome to add as many wheelchair-accessible vehicles as they like. According to advocates for accessible transit in the future, this exception sets up a future not only for better transportation, but also for innovation around affordable wheelchair-accessible vehicle design.

The disability rights community has had a fraught relationship with ride-sharing companies. Many disabled people rely on public transit, including taxis, for basic freedom to move. Making that transit accessible has rarely come easily. Disabled activists had to perform acts of civil disobedience to get wheelchair lifts on buses. Paratransit is often underfunded and unreliable. It's taken decades of work to build even a modest infrastructure of accessible taxicabs in cities around the country.

The flood of personal vehicles now taking over the streets, thanks to Uber and its ilk, undermines those hard fought victories. Disability rights groups and disabled individuals have sued Uber in various states, demanding that they provide accessible transit as required of all transportation companies under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Uber and other ride-sharing organizations have displayed two counter-strategies in the face of such suits. First, they claim not to be a transportation company at all, but just an employment manager. Second, they launched UberWAV (Uber Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle) as a means for disabled riders to hail cars. UberWAV has, by all accounts, been largely useless. There just aren't enough private citizens with accessible vehicles to fill out Uber's fleets.

This dissatisfying status quo is what makes the accessibility exception in New York's recent ruling so potentially significant. According to James Weisman, chief executive officer of United Spinal Association, he and other disability advocates in New York have been pushing the mayor's office to include the exception in hopes that Uber and its competitors will invest in accessibility as a means of continuing to grow. Weisman says that Uber is now in a position to invest in "low cost accessible vehicles" that are "factory built [with] mechanical ramps." Right now, he says, vehicles are generally turned accessible as an aftermarket adjustment, which makes them much more expensive. It doesn't have to be that way. He points to Karsan, a Turkish manufacturer that in 2011 won the "New York City Taxi of Tomorrow" competition for its affordable vehicle, built to be accessible in the factor, as a potential model.

Weisman, who is also a lawyer, has been fighting for transportation access since the 1970s and doesn't want to lose hard won gains. "I'm the lawyer who sued [New York] transit in the 1970s and we settled in '84 for lifts on buses and a paratransit system. The settlements became the model for the transit provisions in the ADA." More recently, after 20 years of fighting for "Taxis for All," he and his fellow advocates won "a 50 percent accessible Yellow Taxi mandate in New York, but [now] Uber is taking yellow cabs off the road. We don't care who wins this fight, but we have 50 percent access and don't want to give that up."

So far, there's no evidence that the ride-sharing companies will take advantage of the accessibility exception. Uber and Lyft have, to this point, spent most of their time complaining about the cap. In statements, spokespeople for both companies allege that the caps will make it harder for New Yorkers to get a ride. Via email, a Lyft spokesperson tells me that it is already planning on adding 100 more accessible vehicles by the end of the year, and is pleased that the new cap didn't preclude that addition. Uber did not respond to requests for comment.

For Weisman, accessible transit in New York is at a cusp point. Ride-sharing could undo hard-won gains and force disabled riders into heavier reliance on paratransit or being stuck at home. But he's optimistic this won't happen. "The future is access and autonomous vehicles," he says. "Taxis are the missing link."