Disabled in DC: How Taxis and Uber Might Be Worsening the Paratransit Problem

Washington, D.C., is turning to taxi cabs to help improve disabled people's access to transportation. But advocates worry the move may prove pointless because it exempts the ride-hailing industry.
by | September 2, 2015
(Flickr/Derek Mindler)

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area has a robust transportation network for people without cars. It has one of the nation’s busiest transit systems that reaches deep into the suburbs, one of the biggest taxi cab fleets in the country, and has welcomed ride-hailing companies like Uber. But it still struggles to provide accessible transportation to people with disabilities, 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made transportation for them a civil right.

In D.C., and many other cities, rising costs and technological change are playing havoc with efforts to increase accessibility at the same time that demand is growing because of the aging Baby Boomers.

This three-part series explores D.C.'s challenges in keeping paratransit costs under control; providing good working conditions for paratransit employees; and expanding transportation options beyond the public transit system. They are issues that the country faces as it tries to live up to the ADA's promise.

Ernest Chrappah worked for several agencies in his career with the District of Columbia government before he landed as the interim head of the city’s Taxicab Commission this June. Along the way, he faced problems as varied as prioritizing IT projects and preventing child abuse. Now that he oversees some 60 people in his new post at the taxi commission, one of his challenges is to help people with disabilities -- particularly those who use wheelchairs -- can get around Washington. It’s an enormous task, given that for-hire transportation providers in the area offer only paltry service now.

“My vision is to make sure that every mode of transportation supports wheelchair-accessible needs so that our customers have choice,” he said.

Ernest Chrappah (David Kidd)

The taxi commission is in a unique position to promote that goal because it oversees not only the taxi cab industry but also hired cars like limousines and, to some extent, ride-hailing services like Uber.

One of the most promising developments so far, according to Chrappah, is a year-old program called Transport D.C., which allows passengers who normally rely on expensive van service from the local transit agency to take taxi cabs instead. It's a popular concept around the country, and it now accounts for 4,000 trips a month in Washington.

Metro, the transit agency formally known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), is required by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to offer alternative transportation to passengers with disabilities who can't ride a bus or subway. Its Metro Access paratransit service offers those riders door-to-door service in specially equipped vans. But that service is expensive for the city to run. Each trip now costs nearly $50 per passenger, or, after factoring for inflation, about $8 more than a decade ago. Metro anticipates that the number of riders will increase, too, as the Baby Boomer generation gets older and more of its members experience disabilities.

So Metro is encouraging its passengers with disabilities to use taxis instead of paratransit vans. Riders benefit because they pay cheaper fares of $5 (rather than the $7 maximum they pay for paratransit), ride by themselves and can order a trip an hour in advance, rather than the day before. Metro benefits because the cost to them is $24 less per ride than on a paratransit van. (Metro also partners with non-profit groups in Maryland to provide transportation for customers with intellectual disabilities, which costs $20 a trip less than Metro Access.)

A wheelchair-accessible taxi cab in New York City. (AP/Richard Drew)

Sherri Ly, a Metro spokeswoman, said taxis can offer cheaper rides because they aren't subject to all the federal rules that govern Metro Access. The taxi operators also don’t have to screen passengers to see whether they're eligible for paratransit, because Metro does that for them. And, unlike Metro Access, taxi owners don't have to operate 24 hours a day in the entire Washington region.

The problem with Transport D.C., however, is that there are now almost no cabs in the District that can handle wheelchairs.

The District of Columbia has one of the largest taxi cab fleets, relative to its population, in the country. But with 6,500 cabs on the streets of the nation’s capital, only about 100 are equipped to handle wheelchairs. A year ago, there were only 20.

A 2014 study showed that Washington lagged behind New York, San Francisco and Chicago in the percentage of its taxi fleet that was accessible. What’s more, three suburban counties in the Washington area each had close to double the accessible cabs as the city itself did, despite having far smaller fleets. Washington residents can use those suburban cabs for trips between the suburbs and the city, but not for trips within the District itself.

[click_to_tweet]Washington, D.C., lags behind New York, San Francisco and Chicago in wheelchair-accessible taxi cabs.[/click_to_tweet]

Under Chrappah, the taxi commission offered financial incentives to help drivers and cab companies buy wheelchair-accessible taxis, which can cost up to $40,000. The incentives brought the costs of the vehicles down to $12,500 for the first 20 new owners and substantially reduced the costs for others.

“That deal doesn’t exist anywhere in the country,” Chrappah said. The arrangement is good for vehicle manufacturers, too, he added. “Now you get awareness of your vehicle, there’s adoption in the marketplace, you build critical mass, and you expand from there.”

Chrappah prefers to encourage taxi drivers and companies to accommodate passengers with disabilities on their own. But his agency also can use regulatory powers to force the issue. A 2012 District law requires cab companies with 20 or more vehicles to add wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Twenty of the 91 companies subject to the law missed a December deadline to convert 6 percent of their fleet to accessible vehicles, and the commission announced it will try to shut them down until they meet the requirement. The law requires cab companies to make 20 percent of their fleets wheelchair accessible by 2018.

That's not going to offer any immediate help the the disabled, however. Seventy percent of cab drivers in the District own their own vehicles, and therefore aren’t subject to the new law. Chrappah hopes the taxi commission can entice them to rent newer, wheelchair-accessible vehicles through financial incentives and rules allowing only newer cabs to remain on the street.

[click_to_tweet]70% of D.C.'s cab drivers are exempt from the requirement to have wheelchair-accessible cars.[/click_to_tweet]

Carol Tyson, the director of disability policy at the United Spinal Association, worries that the move to guarantee cabs business with paratransit rides could undermine the goal of making regular taxi service available to people with disabilities.

“I will feel like we won in D.C. if I can walk out of my office in downtown D.C. with somebody with a chair and we can both [hail] a cab in the same amount of time,” said Tyson, who also chairs the taxi commission’s accessibility committee. “But if all of our accessible taxis are being used to drive around and pick up people who called for paratransit rides, they’re not going to be providing any hail service in downtown D.C.”

“Instead of getting traditional accessible taxis, what we’ll have gotten is alternative paratransit service,” she said. That leaves a big gap in coverage, she added, because many people with wheelchairs aren’t even signed up for Metro Access.

Chrappah, though, said he hoped the new cabs would serve all customers, not just those who use a wheelchair.

“The idea is that if you make an investment in a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, the vehicle should be available for wheelchair trips and regular trips, so we don’t end up creating a biased or a caste system,” he said.

What About Uber?

All the efforts to upgrade taxis could be futile if ride-hailing companies like Uber don’t have to meet the same standards, Tyson and other advocates warned. The District law passed last year to regulate ride-hailing companies didn't impose the same requirements for wheelchair-accessible vehicles on ride-hailing companies as it already imposed for taxis.

Uber describes itself as a technology company -- not as a transportation company -- so it doesn’t own the vehicles its drivers use. That means Uber is only available for the disabled to the extent that its drivers provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“The more [wheelchair-accessible vehicles] on the road, the more opportunity Uber has to partner with drivers who operate wheelchair-accessible vehicles, providing more options for riders,” Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett wrote in an email.

In other cities, Uber partners with taxi companies and paratransit providers to let riders request and use accessible vehicles. In New York City, the company connects riders with “green taxis” that are assigned to outer boroughs. But in the Washington area, where wheelchair-accessible vehicles are scarce, it hasn't found a similar partner.

A person "hailing" an Uber ride on his or her smartphone in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Mark Warner)

The company touts a partnership it launched last year with Hasco Medical that would let its drivers buy wheelchair-accessible vehicles at a discount. Bennett declined to provide details about how many drivers had purchased such vehicles.In general, though, Bennett said Uber has given riders more transportation choices.

Tyson from United Spinal, though, fears that ultimately ride hailing services will reduce transportion options.

“They have managed to change in just a few short years the way our whole country thinks about transportation and how people get around,” she said. “It doesn’t include making sure that everybody has a service. It doesn’t include accessibility. It doesn’t include requiring it.”

As more people take cars hailed through Uber and similar services, fewer passengers will rely on taxis and public transit, Tyson said.

“If we have fewer and fewer people riding accessible public transit, lines get cut. Service gets cut. There’s no requirement for these [companies] to provide accessible service, and they’re not willing to do it on their own without being pushed,” she said. “That really scares us.”