Image of scratched surface reflecting blurred, multicolored lights.

The Other Uber Problem – Wheelchair Access

Many are familiar with Uber’s high-profile scofflaw policy toward paying its drivers.  For years, disability advocates have been challenging a lesser-known violation—its fleet is not accessible for people who use non-folding wheelchairs. Uber’s motto is “We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion.”  Opportunity for some, barriers for others.

It’s not fair that we are being left behind while other folks are enjoying the benefits of Uber’s new technology.

Irma Allen, who brought a case against Uber in Pittsburgh.

Not only residents, but travelers who use non-folding wheelchairs to get around use wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs), which have a wheelchair ramp and straps . Advocates challenge Uber and similar companies because they have built their brand new service around inaccessible vehicles.

Uber Facing ADA Charges in Washington, DC

A federal judge in DC just ruled that Uber must answer charges that its unequal service violates the ADA.[1]  According the plaintiff in that case, Equal Rights Center (ERC), Uber writes the rules about what kinds of cars can be driven for its service and even helps drivers finance them, yet ignores the need for WAVs. The result, ERC said, is vastly unequal accessible service.

After ERC initially filed its case in 2017, DC became one of a handful of places where Uber, Lyft, and others have started to offer accessible service.  In New York City, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates for-hire vehicles including app-based services like Uber, struck a deal with Uber and others in 2018 that requires 60% of WAV customers to get rides within 15 minutes—a target that seems far from equivalent.  According to a 2109 report, customers who ordered WAVs waited at least double, and sometimes five times as long as other customers—if they got a car at all.  Lyft didn’t even meet the 15 minute goal. Few regulators have even gone that far, so most of the action has been in court cases like ERC’s.

The Legal Rulings

The DC court case gives a good roundup of Uber’s arguments and the responses:

  • Technology Must be Accessible:  Uber argued unsuccessfully that it is a technology company, not a “place” of public accommodation nor a transportation service.  As such, it was not covered by the law, it said.  Though there is some controversy about whether websites are covered, no court has ever accepted this argument from Uber or a similar service, to my knowledge.
  • Uber Influence on Vehicles in Its Fleet:  In a different twist on this argument, Uber said that, as a technology company and not a vehicle owner, it cannot be ordered to buy WAVs—so a court order against it would not redress the problem. The court disagreed, holding ERC can proceed on its claim that Uber has influence on the vehicles in its fleet.  It distinguished, for example, hotel reservation websites, where some cases have found you have to sue the hotel not the service, because the website merely connects customers to a pre-existing inventory.
  • No Need for a “Futile Gesture”:  Uber argued that someone who had never downloaded the Uber app did not have standing to sue because they had not tried the service, or did not explain exactly how they would use it.  (In other cases, where plaintiffs did download the app, Uber and others have argued the customer waived the right to sue in court because of fine print in the user agreement.)  The judge in DC agreed the ADA does not require a “futile gesture” like trying or planning for a service you know does not work.
  • Groups Can Sue on Behalf of Members:  Uber also argued that Equal Rights Center could not sue on behalf of its members; members had to participate individually in the case. Again Judge Jackson disagreed—the case does not seek money damages for the members, which is the main reason courts require such individual participation.
Multiple exposure image showign a row of bottles, a car, and blurred steaks of light above a patch of pavement and sidewalk grille.
Bottles Car Light by Theo Goodell,

Inclusive Transit Design  

Whatever one’s views about Uber, there is no question that it and companies like it are changing how people move in the world.  These new systems and technologies should be designed to include everyone.  Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is an economically smart move not to leave people stranded when they could be working and participating in the world.  And I agree with Judge Jackson – it’s also the law.

[1] Equal Rights Center v. Uber Technologies, Inc., No. 17-cv-1272, 2021 WL 981011 (D.D.C. Mar. 15, 2021).