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Uber update, part 4

Here’s the last installment of the Chron/Al Jazeera analysis of how Uber is operating in Houston. Most of the story is about what parts of town have better service from Uber – short answer, inside the Loop – and how Uber is attempting to improve service in parts of town that have not been well served by cab companies in the past, a subject we have discussed before. It’s the section at the end about service for disabled riders that I want to focus on.

Uber

Uber gives drivers information about how best to serve blind and hearing-impaired riders, and it caters to people with service animals and elderly patrons with special needs. In many cases, a collapsible wheelchair can be accommodated.

Hancock, however, did not provide a single example of an Uber vehicle in Houston that can accommodate a non-collapsible wheelchair.

Technically, as independent operators using Uber to solicit rides, the drivers are individual providers, and Uber isn’t required by federal law to have wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Cab companies, however, are.

That disparity frustrates some disabled riders, who want the same cheaper and convenient options for rides.

“Let’s say McDonald’s, they don’t own any of the restaurants themselves, but they have franchises. Those franchise owners have to comply with law,” said Michelle Colvard, a Houston resident who uses a wheelchair.

City officials asked Uber to participate in discussions about how to serve disabled riders. Cab companies also had a slot on the task force, along with Lyft, an Uber competitor that remained on the task force even though it is not operating in Houston.

“We started from a difficult place,” Toby Cole, a disability rights advocate who led the task force, told City Council members in August. “There was a huge amount of mistrust between the community, the representatives of the transportation companies and a mistrust of the process.”

After months, the task force settled on proposed regulations that let cabs set a minimum number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles in their fleet, which grows over time, depending on the size of the company. Uber and similar companies, meanwhile, can elect to meet disabled access standards based not on how many vehicles are available but how quickly they can respond to a ride.

Uber most likely would provide service by contracting with another vendor to handle its calls related to disabled clients. The company has a similar arrangement in Austin.

Cole, who called the task force recommendations a “workable solution,” said having rules is just one part of a better system for disabled riders. The rules will not take effect until the City Council approves them.

“Enforcement is one of the strongest areas we need from the city,” he said, responding to a question about Uber’s checkered history following Houston’s rules. “Without enforcement, these regulations mean nothing.”

See here and here for the other installments. I did not know that there was a task force working on this issue – Uber rolled out a solution for riders with disabilities a year ago, so it will be interesting to see what these new regulations are. There’s still a federal lawsuit pending against Uber (and Lyft) over access for disabled riders. I have to think this task force had an eye on that as they crafted the new regulations. We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I completely agree that enforcement is the key. That’s an issue that the city struggles with sometimes, so let’s keep watch on that.

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