Last month, New York City and the department in charge of its taxi fleet finally settled a two-year lawsuit brought on behalf of disabled New Yorkers. As part of the settlement, the city has pledged that at least 50 percent of its yellow cabs will be accessible by 2020.

It is great news for people with mobility impairments, who have generally been relegated to the bus system. Currently, less than two percent of cabs and only about 20 percent of New York subway stations are currently accessible - though with frequent elevator outages, that number is usually lower. 

But for disabled New Yorkers, as well as disabled people who live in any major metropolitan area, there is a problem ahead: In many US cities with cab fleets, cab revenues have decreased by a massive one-third just in the past year, due to transportation network companies, or TNCs for short. In the long run, that may translate into fewer accessible vehicles on the road overall.

Commonly known as "rideshares", smartphone-based services such as Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber are so new, California became the first state to attempt to regulate them late last year. TNCs make it easy for almost anyone to use their own car to make money shuttling people around town, no cab license necessary. They are already big business: Uber, the largest service in terms of fleet size and revenues, was recently valued at $3.5 billion.

As these and other companies under the umbrella of the so-called "sharing economy", like the home rental site Airbnb, become increasingly popular, there is a question as to whether these services, unregulated, may end up expanding inequality between disabled and non-disabled people.

For one, while many cab fleets require a certain number of accessible vehicles to be on the road at any given time, and can be dispatched by phone, the platforms that TNCs operate offer no way to specifically request accessible vehicles. 

Margaret Ryan, a spokesperson for Sidecar, said that the company is “working with accessibility groups to incentivise those with wheelchair accessible vehicles to participate on the Sidecar platform,” but didn't have any details on the program. Lyft's Jeff Fong wrote in an email, "Accessibility is something we are trying to figure out right now. It will most likely be something that gets built in the medium-term"; he also declined to give specifics.

Likewise, while traditional hotels typically offer at least some accessible rooms, with the widely used "homesharing" websites Airbnb and VRBO, individuals with disabilities have to fend for themselves. "We believe everyone deserves a clean, comfortable place to stay. Hosts can label their listings as being 'handicap accessible' and guests can use this filter when searching for an accommodation," described Airbnb's Jakob Kerr.

"Guests can also use our messaging platform to get to know their hosts and discuss any specific needs before booking."

But disability advocates note that none of this gels with the concept of equal access. “It's like the Wild West, rather than a regulated situation where everyone is getting served in a consistent way,” says Marilyn Golden, Senior Policy Analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. She explains that where getting better cab accessibility in Manhattan was an "uphill battle", with these newer services, there is "no accountability".

'Rideshares'

Christiane Hayashi is Director of Taxis & Accessible Services for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Hayashi takes issue with calling the companies "rideshares".

"The first you've got to do is stop calling them 'rideshares,' because they're not rideshares,” says Hayashi. “They are for-hire transportation services.” Her organisation wholeheartedly supports the more traditional definition of ridesharing: carpooling. “But that's not at all what we're talking about.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the government must provide people with disabilities with equal, if separate, alternatives for public transportation. Defining taxis as "public" is murky, but nevertheless many cities now require cab companies to provide some accessible vehicles.

San Francisco's paratransit contract with local cab operators means that the city should have, in theory, about 100 accessible taxis on the road at any given time, says Hayashi. But it is cheaper for cabdrivers to drive their own TNC cars, meaning instead of paying $75 to $125 to lease out a taxi for a shift, cabdrivers are fleeing the industry "to, say, drive their own vehicles with a pink mustache".

Pink, faux fur mustaches are a symbol of the TNC Lyft, which requires its drivers to display the mustaches on their cars while they're working for the company.

With more cabdrivers opting to drive TNCs, San Francisco has had trouble recruiting and retaining drivers for their wheelchair-accessible taxi vans. “Point of fact, many of them aren't on the road right now.”

When asked whether the companies have seemed open to working with local governments, Hayashi responds, "That question makes me chuckle, because they have most pointedly not been communicating with local regulators."

Instead, "They just generally come into a jurisdiction, and they get cease-and-desist orders from regulators that they ignore, and then they beat a trail to city hall to get the rules changed," she says. Given their billion-dollar valuations, she wonders why the companies have not moved to provide their own accessible vehicles.

Meanwhile, those with interests in the tech industry, notably the billionaire investor Ron Conway, have pushed against regulation. Conway has donated to local politicians in municipalities that are at the heart of the struggle, like Mayors Ed Lee in San Francisco and Bill DeBlasio in New York City.

'Accessibility plan'

California's Public Utilities Commission is requiring TNCs to draw up an “Accessibility Plan,” including modifying apps so they "allow passengers to indicate their access needs," among other things. But according to disability advocates, the CPUC's regulatory system is problematic, because it asks TNCs to self-report things such as the "percentage of customer requests for accessible vehicles." Given that most companies ignored the issue until they were forced to do so by regulators, advocates also say people with disabilities may be discouraged from requesting TNCs from the get-go.

Of course, the taxis, Ubers, and Airbnbs of the world are just one small piece of the accessible transportation issue. Nearly 25 years after the ADA, New York's paratransit (Access-A-Ride) bus services, where disabled riders call 24 hours in advance to schedule a pickup, have earned a reputation for being excruciatingly late and slow.

San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system is noted for its reliability, but it is also locally notorious for its elevator closures, and for people who can not use the escalators, that can make something as basic as getting to work difficult. And the airline EasyJet is the latest airline to face discrimination charges for refusing to carry disabled passengers who wanted to fly unaccompanied.

Scott Rains, an international tourism industry consultant whose Rolling Rains Report website has long covered accessible transportation issues, says companies need to start operating by the concept of Universal Design, which promotes products created to suit all kinds of bodies.

Rains says there could be a positive “ripple effect” if, for example, new buildings and vehicles were created to accommodate everyone.

“Until we really look at accessibility of the cars that come out of Detroit, or Japan, we're always looking at a patchwork kind of answer. Adapting things after the fact,” he says of the accessibility issues with TNCs. “Everything that flows from a vehicle where we're not designed into it, is problematic.”

'Curb cut effect'

A successful example of universal design he uses is one that most people will be familiar with: curb cuts. The now-ubiquitous slopes in sidewalks that allow people using wheelchairs to move onto or off of sidewalks became common in the 1990s, mostly because of accessibility lawsuits. But as it turned out, the simple idea has fans beyond the disabled community. “You find people with bikes, and moms with strollers, and kids on skateboards, and workers carrying a hand-truck full of beer using the curb cut because it works for everybody.” Rains calls it the “curb cut effect.”

Similarly, the organisation Concrete Change has successfully pushed for legislation enacted in dozens of U.S. municipalities calling for “Visitability”: a concept that all new construction include features such as a bathroom on the first floor, and accessible entryways, among other things.

As for Airbnb and Uber, "Each of these companies should have someone articulate in universal design," believes Rains. "They should have focus groups that look at the real issues that people with disabilities face, and then they should have design groups that break out the kinds of problems and opportunities that come up. Because the flipside of a problem is an opportunity."

Companies don't understand that there's money to be made, Rains says, from a disabled community that makes up about 20 percent of the US population. Why more companies haven't jumped on the potentially lucrative bandwagon “has more to do with stigma and prejudice than it has to do with profitability".

Sites like Airbnb “ought to have easily accessible guidelines for all their people who register with them, saying, these are the kinds of things that constitute the norms in a regular hotel, or these are general considerations. 'We encourage you to measure your doorways and describe how many stairs you have, and whether you have handrails on your stairs, in order to encourage people to make informed decisions.'” At least they'd show “good intent toward accessibility,” while not being legally bound to yet-to-materialize regulations.

Several of the companies cited cases where people with disabilities were using their services for travel, or making money off of them. But Rains is skeptical.

"In any situation, if you pose the question broadly enough, somebody is going to be able to find an example of how disabled people are benefiting,” he said.

Likewise, says Golden with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, while it is great that people with disabilities might be driving Ubers in order to make ends meet, "it is never going to be in the numbers to have a discernible impact on disability unemployment. Meanwhile, the same companies are evidencing all kinds of problems".

'More lawsuits on the horizon'

And so more lawsuits and disability community organising to get these businesses to be more equitable may be on the horizon. Ronnie Raymond is a board member at the United Spinal Association, one of the organisations that worked on the New York City taxi case.

According to Raymond, "it seems like every single thing that has been done in this city concerning accessibility has been done because of lawsuits,” rather than the willingness of business and government to push for equal access. Buses, curb cuts, subways, and taxis are more accessible in large part because people with disabilities were able to sue in order to make them compliant with the ADA.

As Golden says, "We all have to pressure the states, the municipalities to regulate them". Airbnb and Uber have been successful at mobilizing their users to appear at public hearings to speak on behalf of the companies. Industry groups like Peers have people "in large numbers testifying on their behalf, and it's important for us to organize in the other direction".

The disability direct action group ADAPT, in particular, has been successful at getting attention onto various disability issues, with actions like blockading Greyhound buses. In part because of decades of such activism, the government required the company to switch to a more accessible fleet in 2012.

The fight over accessibility has been and will be an ongoing one, says Raymond. She tells the story of New York City's recent remodeling of the Dyckman Street Station in the Upper West Side. In response to a lawsuit, the city eventually installed an elevator on the downtown side, but not the uptown side.

If you live nearby, "You can go to work, but how do you get back?" And even with accessible features added, "Is it maintained enough so that I can depend on it to go to work on time?"

“When do you roll over and say, 'We won'?” asks Raymond hypothetically. “Never.”

Source: Al Jazeera