On Sunday, September 16, Nicole Bishop planned that Monday’s commute to her internship at the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. Unable to use the bus or light-rail train because of her disability, Bishop often relies on Access-a-Ride, a Regional Transportation District service that provides rides for people who cannot use the fixed-route system. Bishop called the Access-a-Ride operator and said she needed a ride the next day between 6:15 and 6:45 a.m., and the operator confirmed the pickup.
But then Bishop’s caregiver, who was with her at the time, said that she couldn’t be there to help Bishop until 7:15 a.m. So Bishop asked the operator to change the time slot from the earlier one to between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m., and the operator agreed, she says.
The next morning, the Access-a-Ride driver showed up at 6:15 a.m., and Bishop missed her ride. Once she realized that, she called Access-a-Ride, and the operator told her to call a cab. “Yellow Cabs take two to three hours to get to you,” Bishop says, “and I didn’t have the money. There was no other option for me. I missed work that day.”
New ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft often save the day when cabs are unavailable. A quick request on one of those mobile apps usually nets a car in no time...unless you’re looking for a wheelchair-accessible ride.
“Uber and Lyft is a problem for our community. As soon as you bring up the accessibility issue with them, they shut down,” says Jaime Lewis, transit advisor for the CCDC. “Nobody is going to do something out of the goodness of their heart. It’s all about the money.”
The challenge is that Uber and Lyft, which have revolutionized the transportation industry, are software companies, not taxi services. Drivers who operate using the apps are not obligated to purchase wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and they’re unlikely to do so, since those vehicles are more expensive.
Uber does “not have wheelchair-accessible vehicles available in Denver at this time,” says Stephanie Sedlak, a spokeswoman for the company. Uber does have a pilot program called UberWAV operating in four other cities, though; the program offers app-users the option of requesting a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. But it’s still in the experimental stages.
Lyft does not have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in Denver, either. “We are in ongoing discussions with transit agencies around the country about how we can work collaboratively to expand mobility options for the entire disability community, including passengers who rely on WAVs,” says a company spokesperson.
Despite roadblocks with these new app services, public transport in Denver has come a long way. In 1978, nineteen protesters in wheelchairs blocked an RTD bus from moving from a station on Colfax and Broadway. They were demanding wheelchair accessibility for district buses. Forty years after the Gang of 19 protest, as it became known, all RTD buses and trains are wheelchair-accessible.
Now disability-rights activists are willing to fight to increase not just the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis, but the accessibility of ride-hailing-app vehicles. And while they’re willing to negotiate, they’re also prepared to sue if necessary.
For people who cannot use the RTD fixed-route system of buses and trains, Access-a-Ride typically fills the gap. But when Access-a-Ride doesn’t work, as in Bishop’s case, or when individuals aren’t eligible for the service because they can get on and off fixed-route vehicles even though they use wheelchairs, taxi companies can sometimes provide a solution. RTD works with cab companies to provide same-day cab service through Access-a-Cab. But wheelchair-accessible cabs, from companies such as Yellow Cab, Metro Taxi and All Cities, aren’t always readily available. And taxi companies in Denver aren’t required to offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles, either, according to the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates transportation companies.
Under a section in the 2016 Colorado Revised Statutes, “the transportation of passengers requiring the use of wheelchairs is exempt from PUC regulation,” according to the PUC. “Some taxi companies and Medicaid transportation providers offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles, but the PUC has no authority to mandate them.”
The Americans With Disabilities Act does not require private taxi companies to have accessible vehicles in their fleets, either. While a taxi can never legally refuse to give a ride to an individual with a service animal (see sidebar) or a wheelchair that can be folded into the trunk, having a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is not obligatory, according to Dana Barton, director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center.
For taxi companies that do offer wheelchair-accessible transport, demand during peak periods often makes reserving such a taxi difficult. “Even though they have a bunch of these vehicles, there is so much demand when you need them,” says Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition. “Almost all of them are taken with contract work. Those of us who are just people who live and work in the community might want to pay cash for a cab someday. But there’s no way to get one.”
Jeff Becker, senior manager of service development at RTD, is currently writing a proposal that will be pitched later this fall to taxi services and ride-hailing apps operating in Denver; his plan is designed to fill a gap that occurs during peak travel periods. RTD has a program called Flex Ride, and one of the main purposes of the program is to offer first- and last-mile services. For disabled individuals who are getting on or off a bus that is a bit far away from their final destination, Flex Ride will provide a vehicle to pick them up and drop them off for the first or last mile. The service is free and considered a transfer.
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Becker is hoping that taxis or ride-hailing apps can help meet demand during peak hours. This would save money, he notes; instead of paying $40 or $50 to operate a Flex Ride van, RTD would only have to pay for a few Uber or Lyft trips. Becker says he’ll discuss with the companies how they can meet ADA and wheelchair-accessible-vehicle requirements. “That’s where we should investigate,” he explains. “How can we do a better job?”
Cities throughout the country are dealing with similar questions. Portland is trying to solve the problem of a lack of wheelchair-accessible rides by charging a surcharge for each Uber and Lyft trip. The fifty-cent fee for each ride goes into a pool, which the city can use to subsidize wheelchair-accessible transport options for Portland residents.
Reiskin and Lewis hope that Denver will consider a similar plan, creating a surcharge and collecting funds that can be used to improve transportation options.
“I don’t want to fight Uber or Lyft. But if they don’t take responsibility, we’re going to have to do it for them,” says Lewis.