By Aman Batheja

Fighting back against persistent criticism for excluding disabled riders, Uber is adding Austin to a small list of cities in which it will add wheelchair-accessible vehicles to its transportation offerings, the company confirmed Tuesday.

After two weeks of testing, Uber plans to launch UberACCESS, a pilot program, on Wednesday in Austin, according to company General Manager Marco McCottry. Similar programs are already in place in New York, Chicago, San Diego, Philadelphia and Portland, according to company officials.

“Transportation to the disability community remains a challenge, and we really think this is a step in the right direction,” McCottry said. “The thing to remember is this is by no means a silver-bullet solution. Ridesharing is still very new. We’re exploring.”

In cities across the country, advocates for the disabled have been among the most pointed critics of vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft, which have often defied local laws in launching their services. While local regulated taxi services are often required to include some wheelchair-accessible vehicles in their fleets, Uber has had no such requirement and has actively fought efforts to force it to abide by such rules. In some cities, such as Houston, the company has previously advertised its services as accommodating folding wheelchairs, walkers and scooters but stopped short of offering full wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

After months of debate, Austin officials approved a temporary ordinance last year to allow companies like Uber and Lyft to legally co-exist with traditional cab companies. The ordinance required the vehicle-for-hire companies to make it easier for users to request a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, but did not put a minimum requirement on the number of vehicles.

“One of the great things about the Austin ordinance is it allowed us a lot of flexibility to innovate here,” McCottry said. “We’re trying a couple of different approaches as part of this launch.”

Uber declined to provide detail Tuesday on how the new system will work, citing proprietary information. McCottry confirmed that disabled riders will pay the same prices using UberACCESS as riders using the company’s popular UberX service and that a third-party vehicle operator is part of the new program. But he stressed that there are other aspects to the new service that he could not publicly discuss, including how many wheelchair-accessible vehicles he expects to be available to Uber users in Austin.

Uber’s secrecy makes the new program difficult to assess, according to David Wittie, an organizer with ADAPT of Texas, which advocates for disabled people. He and other groups have been working to get companies like Uber to improve their local options for disabled riders for more than a year.

“Obviously it’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure if it’s enough for the capacity,” Wittie said. “It’s wait-and-see.”

Uber has faced challenges in its efforts to expand services for disabled users in other cities. In Portland, its wheelchair accessible vehicles are not available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. In Manhattan, its wheelchair-accessible vehicle service is not available below east 96th Street.

In Austin, McCottry said UberACCESS will be available to riders 24 hours a day, and throughout the company’s service area.

The debate over vehicle-for-hire apps has divided disability advocates; some find the new services valuable, while others view them as discriminatory and fear they will put traditional cab companies with wheelchair-accessible vehicles out of business.

“I’m really conflicted that they’re segmenting the disabled population so that they can make a buck for profit,” Wittie said.

Last year, two local ADAPT of Texas organizers sued Uber and Lyft for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for not providing wheelchair-accessible services. Both cases are ongoing, Wittie said.

Earlier this year, Uber ramped up its lobbying efforts at the Texas Capitol behind a measure that would have given companies like it statewide operating permits. Among the issues that concerned lawmakers was a proposal to allow the companies to pay an annual fine of $10,000 in lieu of providing wheelchair-accessible services. Taxi service representatives said that was less than the typical cost of adapting a single vehicle for wheelchair access. The measure failed to draw enough support to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.