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Americans with Disabilities Act

No observers for ADA violations

This is interesting.

Only days before a crucial state primary, the Justice Department has halted its effort to send observers during the election to assess whether Harris County polling sites are accessible to disabled voters.

The observer request was made as part of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit spearheaded by the civil rights and disability rights division in Washington, D.C., alleging Harris County’s voting sites are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among the concerns Justice department identified in its claim are the lack of appropriate parking, proper ramps, navigable sidewalks, passageways and voting space, and other mandatory accommodations.

U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett in Houston told the county at a hearing in April that the scope of accessibility violations at polling places could be so vast that a special master might be needed to sort them out.

As the final days of the early voting were underway, the Justice Department withdrew its earlier request to inspect voting sites during the March primaries, and canceled two related court hearings scheduled for earlier this week.

Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, declined to comment about why the attorneys canceled two scheduled hearings this week in Houston.

But Douglas Ray, managing attorney for the public law practice group at the Harris County Attorney’s Office, which represents the county election office, said it’s possible that the lawyers in Washington determined they couldn’t prevail in their motion requesting to send observers to the polls.

See here, here, and here for the background. Another possible explanation is that the original lawsuit was filed by the Obama administration – there were observers in place for the 2016 general election – and the Trump Justice Department is not terribly interested in pursuing any of the actions they initiated. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’ll say again, I do believe the county could fix an awful lot of these problems if it wanted to without to much fuss. Surely that would be less problematic than fighting the litigation.

ADA voting rights lawsuit update

Interesting.

A federal judge in Houston put Harris County on notice Friday that the scope of accessibility violations at local polling places could be so vast that a special master may be needed to sort them out.

U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett said he is considering an independent review of the county’s 765 polling locations to ensure they are accessible to disabled voters.

The revelation, which could have far-reaching consequences for the county’s voting system, came to light during a routine hearing Friday in a civil rights suit filed several months before the November general election.

“We’re talking about something that really needs an intensive review,” the judge told the teams of lawyers in the courtroom. “There’s no blanket order I can give. We’re going to have to look at almost each of these sites or on a site-by-site basis.”

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit last year, accusing Harris County of violating the constitutional mandate that voting sites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Among the violations cited in the lawsuit – in a county with more than 400,000 people with disabilities – are a lack of appropriate parking, ramps, sidewalks, entry ways, voting space and other mandatory accommodations.

The judge’s remarks drew praise from disability rights advocates.

“Bringing in a special master is monumental because you’re saying there is a problem and it needs to be watched,” said Toby Cole, a Houston attorney who has closely watched the case. “It would be a significant move to make sure that the rights of people with disabilities are protected, and voting is probably the most fundamental of those rights.”

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, who oversees local elections, said the lawsuit is frivolous, politically motivated and centered on insignificant technicalities at sites the county doesn’t own.

“When the DOJ brought this lawsuit they had zero people who were complaining,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know of anyone who had an issue.”

Among the locations the Justice Department cited was the multiservice center at West Gray, which Stanart said was supposedly in violation “because if you were a 6 ½-foot blind person who came in the back door, your head would brush a limb.”

In another case, Stanart said, a handicapped parking spot had stripes painted, but the handicap sign wasn’t in the right place.

“Do they think these voters are idiots?” he said.

Stanart said his office picks the best location to serve voters in each precinct and believes, overall, that the county is largely in compliance.

Lex Frieden, a professor of rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine who helped President George H.W. Bush with early drafts of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said he thinks the county should be proactive about fixing problems or amenable to making the changes the Justice Department has identified.

“I’m mystified about the defensiveness of the county,” said Frieden, who uses a wheelchair.

See here and here for the background. I have some sympathy for the county’s position. The original complaint indicates that most of the voting sites are compliant or can be made compliant with temporary fixes. There are only so many places that can be used for voting sites, and there may not be good alternatives in some places that would also satisfy requirements for minority voter access. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act is over 25 years old, and to say the least the county has a spotty record of civil rights compliance in other areas, like, say, bail practices. There’s only so much benefit of the doubt that they deserve, and given that a number of these problems could be fixed by basic infrastructure upgrades like sidewalks, there’s no reason why the county can’t take a proactive approach to resolving this. And yes, I know, these are city sidewalks and streets, but last I checked they were also in Harris County. Let’s get a comprehensive review of what the problems really are and how much it would cost to fix them, and figure it out from there.

Improving Metro service for disabled riders

It’s a work in progress.

Many elderly and disabled people in the region rely on the bus, and a 6-foot stretch of missing sidewalk can cut off their access completely. Advocates expect better from the city with the world’s largest medical center, home to the former president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act – and who now uses a wheelchair to get around himself.

Largely via prodding from [Metro board member Lex] Frieden, who helped craft the Americans With Disabilities Act, Metro officials are taking another look at increasing access for disabled and elderly riders by improving their paths to mass transit. As Metro revamps its own policies that might drive away disabled riders – such as tense interactions with bus operators – the larger issues remain smoothing over Houston’s bumpy sidewalk system and repairing Metro’s crumbling concrete slabs at many bus stops.

City leaders agree there are major problems, ranging from poorly maintained sidewalks to ill-placed utility poles and electrical boxes.

“I am very sensitive about that, especially with the disabled community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Aside from the city’s own sidewalk plans, Metro officials expect to spend $16.5 million over the next five years, including more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year on “universal accessibility,” a hodgepodge of projects aimed at making it easier for everyone to get to a bus. Projects include improved sidewalks, rebuilt ramps, making bus stop slabs level and even adding trash cans.

Still, problems persist even as Houston enjoys new development that brings new sidewalks and street crossings.

“Overall, it is getting better,” Frieden said on a recent tour of problem spots old and new along Metro’s routes. “Any time there is new development, there is new construction that is up to code and often it is better. The problem is that one exception that keeps me from benefiting from the new development.”

Increasing access to Metro buses also helps curtail the growing demand for costly, door-to-door paratransit provided by MetroLift.

MetroLift cost $54 million in 2014, about the same the agency spent on commuter bus services to park-and-ride lots, which provided four times as many trips. On a per-trip basis, each 2014 MetroLift trip cost $22.51 for a taxi ride or $30.46 for a small bus equipped with a wheelchair lift, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Every conventional bus trip costs Metro $4.78 on average.

I wrote about the need for good sidewalks in my Vision for Metro post about boosting bus ridership. I admit I didn’t think of it in terms of making the system more accessible for disabled riders, which as this story notes would allow Metro to provide fewer of the more expensive MetroLift rides, but the principle was the same. People can’t and won’t ride the buses if they can’t get to and from the bus stops in a safe and convenient manner. It’s good that Metro is putting some money into addressing the issue, but let’s be clear that this is not, and should not be, strictly a problem for Metro to solve. It’s a Houston issue and a Harris County issue, too. We all need to treat it like the pressing concern that it is.

Election Day observers coming from Justice Department over ADA complaints

That’s a complicated headline for this story.

vote-button

Six teams of Justice Department officials will be dispatched to observe Election Day voting at 75 polling locations in Harris County as part of an investigation into allegations that the county failed to provide reasonable access to mobility-impaired voters.

Harris County will field its own teams on Election Day as part of an arrangement approved Thursday by U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett.

Bennett, however, told county officials that he found it “deeply disturbing” that Justice Department observers saw a visibly armed county investigator with a badge filming an elderly African-American woman with a walker entering a polling place this week for early voting.

“That’s voter intimidation,” the judge said, ordering the Harris County Attorney’s Office to provide written notice explaining how it plans to avoid a repeat of the scenario.

The filming was meant to record the accessibility of the site, a county attorney said, explaining she was surprised to hear the investigator was in close proximity to voters and that his sidearm was visible.

The judge also asked whether there had been any complaints of ADA violations during early voting, which began Monday in Texas. Harris County officials said it had neither seen nor heard of any, but the Justice Department legal team said it knew of four complaints so far, in addition to the incident of the woman with the walker.

The details were revealed during a hearing Thursday in Houston in a Justice Department lawsuit accusing the county of civil violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act because it doesn’t provide appropriate parking, ramps, sidewalks, entry ways, voting space and other mandatory accommodations at voting sites.

The county says it has fielded no such complaints and denies its polling sites are out of compliance with ADA regulations.

“They have taken the position that there is a systemic problem,” said Laura Beckman Hedge of the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “We believe this is a fishing expedition.”

See here for the background. Basically, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit back in August that charged Harris County with not having sufficient access to polling places for disabled voters. They had previously notified the Harris County Clerk in 2014 of the problems they had identified, and filed the lawsuit after not receiving an answer that satisfied them in time. This was the first activity that I know of related to this lawsuit since then. Obviously, nothing is going to be resolved before this election, but it will be interesting to see what the Justice Department’s findings are afterwards, and how the county responds to them.

Other rideshare companies sued over lack of access for disabled people

Noted for the record.

A state disability rights group has sued the ride-hailing apps Get Me and Fare in federal court, arguing that because the apps only partially offer text-to-speech software, they are unusable for blind people and therefore in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For example, Austin resident and accessibility consultant Jeanine Lineback, who is blind, was able to set up an account but was not able to request a ride, the lawsuit says.

The Fare app was officially made accessible to blind individuals in its iPhone update Sunday, and the Android app will have the same update in two weeks, Fare’s CEO Michael Leto said. As a result, Leto expects the lawsuit to be dropped against Fare.

Officials with Get Me said they disagree they are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because they do not provide public transportation.

The National Federation of the Blind chapter in Texas is suing on behalf of Lineback and four other Austinites, arguing that they are entitled to damages as well as an injunction against the apps, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday. The injunction would require that the apps’ companies make these apps accessible to people who are blind.

When the National Federation of the Blind sued Uber in 2014 over some drivers refusing to transport blind individuals with guide dogs, Uber also argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to them. However, the federation argued that private entities primarily engaged in providing transportation services are covered by the act, and Uber settled the lawsuit this summer.

[…]

“Get Me and other similar taxi services are a critical transportation option for many blind individuals in Austin, Texas,” the suit says. “Due to distances between destinations and the limitations of public transportation and paratransit, many blind persons must use taxi services to travel from one place to another.”

The suit also argues that if these kinds of apps put traditional taxis out of business, people who are blind will have even fewer options to get around. The suit says “other competing taxi services” operating in Austin have incorporated this technology into their apps, but does not specify which ones.

Color me unimpressed with GetMe’s defense. All of these rideshare companies need to have some level of accommodation for disabled riders. Perhaps the formula for it should be different than it is for a traditional cab company or public transit service, but it needs to be greater than zero, and they need to be accountable for it. That has to be a corollary of the way the vehicles for hire industry is changing. I hope GetMe can follow Fare’s lead and find a way to settle this rather than fight it out in court.

Harris County sued over disabled voting access

This ought to be interesting.

vote-button

Harris County, which includes Houston, has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because many of its polling places are inaccessible to voters with disabilities, a new lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice alleges.

Many polling places in Harris County, which were surveyed by the justice department during elections in 2013 and 2016, have architectural barriers — such as steep ramps and narrow doors — that make them inaccessible to voters who use wheelchairs, according to the lawsuit. The county also failed to accommodate the needs of voters who are blind or have vision impairments, the federal government argues.

Voters with disabilities are “being denied the same opportunities as nondisabled voters to vote in person,” according to the lawsuit.

[…]

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in the Southern District of Texas, seeks a judge’s order that would require accessibility improvements to polling places in future elections and training for poll workers about accessibility features. The Department of Justice also seeks changes to the process Harris County uses to select its polling places.

Here’s the DOJ press release and a copy of the complaint. As the story notes, this isn’t about any specific person who was unable to vote, but about structural barriers that are in place at various voting locations, and the lack of action taken to remediate the issue. A look at the letter of finding sent to County Clerk Stan Stanart in September of 2014 illustrates the problems:

In conducting our surveys, we did not review every architectural element at a polling place. We surveyed only those elements necessary to conduct the County’s voting program. We looked at off-street parking, if provided; the route from the parking or the street to the building entrance; the building entrance; the route to the voting area; and the voting area. We did not survey each facility to determine if it as a whole is compliant with either Title II or Title III of the ADA; we only assessed whether each facility is accessible on Election Day or during Early Voting as applicable. Additionally, our survey of the parking area was limited as we did not assess whether the parking area included the required number of accessible parking spaces overall; instead we indicated whether the parking area at a polling place had a minimum of one van accessible parking space. We leave the complete review of parking to the County to determine whether it is in compliance with the 2010 Standards (Sections 208 and 502).

Of the 83 Election Day facilities we surveyed, we found that only 29 were accessible on Election Day. Attachment A lists these accessible facilities. Of the remaining 54 Election Day facilities, we found that 49 were not accessible on Election Day, but have non-compliant elements that could be remedied with temporary measures such that the polling place would be accessible on Election Day. Attachment B lists these non-compliant but temporarily remediable facilities, along with a description of the non-complying elements and the temporary measures that will remedy each non-compliant element.

For the remaining five facilities surveyed, we found that they were not accessible on Election Day, and could not be made accessible on Election Day through the use of temporary measures. Permanent, architectural modifications would need to be made in order for these facilities to be accessible to persons with disabilities. Unless the County intends to make permanent modifications, these five polling places must be relocated to an accessible location. These five facilities, along with a description of the non-complying elements, may be found at Attachment C.

[…]

Given the architectural barriers at the County’s polling places, as summarized above and listed in Attachments B and C, the Department finds that the County has violated Title II by failing to select facilities to be used as polling places that are accessible (including making them accessible through temporary measures) to persons with disabilities on Election Day and during Early Voting. The County has provided no information to indicate that inaccessible sites were selected only after determining that there were no accessible facilities that could serve as polling places in the voting precincts at issue, and therefore Title II’s Program Accessibility provisions are inapplicable. We thus conclude that the County’s use of inaccessible facilities as polling places has the effect of discriminating against voters with disabilities and denying them the opportunity to participate in the County’s voting programs, services, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate, i.e., at their designated polling place and alongside their fellow citizens.

To remedy the deficiencies discussed above and protect the civil rights of individuals with disabilities who seek to participate in the County’s voting programs, services, and activities, the County must, at a minimum, implement the remedial measures identified by the Department as necessary to bring the County’s Election Day and Early Voting into compliance with Title II. As summarized above, Attachment B to this letter specifies the accessibility barriers found at each polling place surveyed as well as the temporary measures the County can take to make the polling place accessible on Election Day and during Early Voting. Attachment C identifies those polling places that cannot be made accessible through temporary measures; the County must relocate those polling places to facilities that are or can be made accessible to individuals with disabilities. In addition, the County must assess the remaining County polling places not surveyed by the Department and determine whether temporary measures or relocation to alternative accessible sites are necessary to bring all of the County’s polling places into compliance with Title II.

Scroll down to see the named locations, two of which are schools, two churches, and one civic association building. These are all precinct polling locations. It may be the case for some that there aren’t viable alternative locations, but that doesn’t address the question of the 49 locations that required temporary fixes to be compliant. I’ll be very interested to see how the county responds to this, and whether a fix is ordered to be in place for November.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

Buck Wood, who has practiced election law for 40 years and served as elections division director for the Texas secretary of state’s office from 1969 to 1972, said the allegations had implications beyond one special election. Moving polling places has been a longtime tactic to disenfranchise voters living in certain areas, specially minorities and the elderly, he said.

“It is something to be taken very seriously,” Wood said, noting that violations of the ADA at polling locations is not uncommon. “Frankly, Texas jurisdictions, cities, counties and the state, have not really taken it very seriously.”

Stanart, a Republican who is tasked with selecting polling places, said the Justice Department had not provided the county with details about the alleged violations. He said his office would attempt to provide the best experience for all voters.

Stanart said he sometimes has to consider picking a location that does not completely meet every federal requirement in order to make polling places reachable for even more voters.

Wood agreed that this is a difficult situation.

Stanart said that almost all of the locations used in the May 7 election had been used before.

He called the lawsuit politically motivated and said his office had not received any complaints from voters with disabilities who could not access the polls.

“What they are actually asking us to do is disenfranchise hundreds or even thousands of voters for no one,” Stanart said.

Stanart disputed the findings of that letter I quoted above. We’ll see how this goes.

Fort Worth adopts minimalist rideshare regulations

This ought to be interesting.

Uber

Months of work redrafting the city’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance wrapped up Tuesday night when the Fort Worth Council approved new rules that require transportation companies only to register with the city.

The approach chosen by Fort Worth avoids more onerous regulations — including requirements for fingerprinting drivers — that proved problematic in other cities. And it gives Uber, Lyft and others the hands-off regulatory environment they had pleaded for in the city.

The City Council long ago began exploring how to cover the fledgling industry with an ordinance, only to realize months into the process that it didn’t want to regulate the transportation companies, saying smartphone app-based ride share companies had changed the business landscape.

Council members opted for free-enterprise and competition despite a last-minute plea from the traditional taxicab companies that wanted the city to continue to regulate their industry. Taxicabs have always been regulated, they said, and that’s what the public expects.

Jack Bewley, president of Yellow Cab, said the proposed ordinance did not ensure safety for the passengers. He warned the council the city could see an influx of one-man cab companies with owners who have criminal backgrounds and can’t get insurance.

“This ordinance is being set up where an individual … can come down here and say I want to start a taxicab company,” Bewley said.

Lyft

The council voted 8-0 to approve the new ordinance. Councilman Jungus Jordan was absent.

Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino said the ordinance meets market innovation.

“Council, in articulating its vision for the regulatory framework, decided the best way is the free-market approach. At this point in time, in the evolution of the ride-sharing services and the transportation services, this is just another option. After much debate, after much discussion, we’re ready to move forward.”

Mayor Betsy Price said, “We just must embrace all forms of transportation to avoid gridlock in our city and allow our citizens to get around. Part of our job is to not cause undue burden on businesses or citizens. Unlike other cities that have gotten so hung up in the hot potato politics of this, Fort Worth is going to do it the right way.”

[…]

Under the new ordinance, which takes effect Oct. 1, companies, whether motorized or non-motorized, will pay a $500 operating license fee that’s good for two years. The companies will be required to annually certify that they have done national background checks on their drivers, that their drivers hold valid driver’s licenses and that drivers and vehicles are properly insured.

The ordinance does come with a strict penalty if the company is found not to be in compliance — it will lose their operating license for two years. Passengers can file complaints with the city.

Well, that’s one way to do it. I sent an inquiry to Uber about how Fort Worth’s ordinance differs from those in San Antonio and Dallas, and I was informed that while Uber’s screening process is the only mandatory background check for those cities, San Antonio offers drivers an opportunity to voluntarily undergo a fingerprint background check, and drivers in Dallas are required to obtain a City permit. The only additional step drivers are required to complete to obtain that permit is undergoing an additional vehicle inspection.

It will be interesting to see what the response is when the inevitable problems arise. Bad apples will always slip through, as they have done in the pre-Uber days, and some of them will turn out to be the kind of person you’d really want to be the kind of person to be identified by a background check as a bad risk. It’s Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Johnson and the members of their City Council who would face any consequences from this. It could easily be overblown by sensationalist news coverage, but if something bad does happen, it could really blow up. Just something to keep an eye on, and to keep in mind as the legislative session approaches.

Not addressed by this story is the question of access to rides for people with disabilities. One of the reasons why cab companies have been regulated the way they are is because they have a mandate to provide service for residents who can’t get themselves around town. How will that work under this structure? In Houston, Uber agreed to provide a certain number of vehicles that can accommodate people with disabilities, and in their more recent threat to leave they stated that accommodations for the disabled could be achieved under a regulatory scheme that was more to their liking (scroll to the bottom). In some cities, this UberACCESS service has partnered with transit agencies as well. What responsibilities do rideshare and traditional cab companies have in this new environment? There’s already litigation over the issue of disabled Texans being denied service by rideshare companies. I’m sure they’ll be watching what happens in Fort Worth with great interest.

All that said, this could work out fine. It may be that the issue of access for disabled folks will continue to be addressed in a way that is acceptable to all, and it may be that the number of problems with drivers of questionable backgrounds is vanishingly small. This will certainly provide fodder for that debate. It’s not the approach I would take, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We’ll just have to see how it goes. The Chron has more.

UberACCESS debuts in Houston

Good to see.

Uber

A partnership that has helped disabled people connect with a popular ride service launched in Houston at midnight.

Uber officials confirmed UberACCESS, which offers wheelchair-accessible rides for the same price as UberX, began service Wednesday. Like all Uber service, it is available via smartphone app, 24 hours a day.

“I’m thrilled to see Uber applying the same creative ingenuity to provide more consumer choices and opportunities for Houstonians with accessibility needs,” former California Congressman Tony Coelho, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said in a statement. “UberACCESS will empower people requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles to get a ride when they need one by simply pressing a button.”

The service fulfills a goal of the city’s transportation accessibility task force that helped write regulations related to allowing Uber to operate legally in Houston. As part of its suggestions, the task force allowed taxi companies and app-based companies a choice of having a set number of vehicles that were wheelchair accessible or provide service to disabled residents based on how quickly they could provide a ride.

Toby Cole, who led the accessibility committee, said the goal of both options is improved quality of service for those who are blind, wheelchair-dependent or otherwise in need of assistance.

“I am hopeful,” Cole said of the rules leading to better service. “We tried to close down as many loopholes as possible.”

[…]

In other markets where UberACCESS has debuted, the company has partnered with other firms capable of providing rides to wheelchair-bound riders. Company officials would not disclose the name of the Houston area partner.

See here for the background. The story emphasizes that the regulations for UberACCESS were agreed to by Uber and the cab companies, in addition to the disability activists. One hopes that means this will work well for everyone, and will provide a decent, cost-effective option for a greater population. If it does work as hoped, then it ought to attract the attention of Metro, since like many other transit agencies around the country it has had to deal with an increasing budget for its MetroLift service, and needs to seek less expensive alternatives to provide that.

Several U.S. transit systems looking to defray costs of providing services for the disabled are weighing partnerships with Uber and Lyft, unsettling some advocates who note that ride-hailing services have themselves faced criticism over accessibility.

Paratransit, better known under names like “The Ride,” ”Access-a-Ride,” or “Dial-a-Ride,” is required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. But the costs, which include door-to-door pickup and drop-off, can be steep.

The average cost of operating a single paratransit trip is about $23 in the U.S., compared with less than $4 for the average trip on bus or light rail. In Boston, the average cost per ride is about $45, in Washington, about $50, and in New York, nearly $57, officials said.

Transit agencies nationwide logged about 223 million paratransit trips at a cost exceeding $5.1 billion — about 12 percent of total transit operating costs — in 2013, according to the most recent data from the American Public Transportation Association. The price tag is particularly high in major cities, where agencies struggle with regular service and maintenance.

[…]

A potential incentive for riders: Uber or Lyft can be summoned immediately with an app; trips on MBTA vehicles must be scheduled a day ahead.

“My guess is it will be very appealing to people who need to go shorter distances where the fares are under $15 and they can get an on-demand ride as opposed to booking 24 hours in advance,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the agency’s chief administrator.

But convenience comes with a catch.

With a limited number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, the ride-hailing services would be available largely to people who can walk. And while a majority of individuals certified to use paratransit fit that bill, advocates worry about creating an unfair and possibly even illegal two-tiered system for the disabled — one serving people who can walk, the other those whose needs the private vehicles can’t accommodate.

“We don’t want racial segregation, and we also don’t want disability segregation,” said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for the California-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

Uber and Lyft have both cited efforts to improve offerings for disabled riders. But the services have argued they are technology, not transportation, companies, meaning they are not required to provide accessible vehicles. Advocates for the disabled have filed a handful of lawsuits.

Again, if the service works as designed in Houston, then perhaps that can serve as a model elsewhere. The first indicator will be if Metro gets in on it. I’ll keep an eye on that.

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.

Tweaking the Houston rideshare ordinance

From KUHF:

Uber

A task force looking into improvements to the city of Houston’s ordinance regulating vehicles for hire, including Uber and other ride-share companies, made recommendations to a city council committee Tuesday.

A key proposal is to adjust the requirement that 3 percent of a transportation company’s fleet provide wheelchair access.

Toby Cole, who chaired the Transportation Accessibility Task Force, said that number should apply to companies with 20 or more vehicles.

“For fleet with two to 19 vehicles, during the 2017 year, they would be required to have one WAV vehicle – which would be a wheelchair accessible vehicle,” Cole said. “And single operators after 2018, when they brought their next car on service, would be required to have one WAV vehicle.”

Alternatively, companies could opt to contract with drivers of wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Council will debate these potential changes in September. Access for disabled riders was a major point of contention during the Uber/Lyft debate, and Uber initiated a new service a year ago to address that. There have been two lawsuits filed locally against Uber over compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; I don’t at this time know where either of them stand. Whether this change would address or resolve any of the issues in those complaints is unclear to me. I hope there will be some more coverage of this when Council debates the proposal.

Ready to engage in the next fight

No rest for the righteous.

RedEquality

On Monday, national and state gay rights leaders and the plaintiffs who sued for marriage equality convened in front of the Texas Capitol to make a different kind of vow: The fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is not over. The next frontier, they said, is pushing for more protections against discrimination in areas including employment and housing.

“In many states, including my home state of Ohio and right here in Texas, you can get married but then suffer consequences,” said Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage. “You can get married and then lose your job, lose your home and so much more because we are not guaranteed nondiscrimination protections. … Friday’s historic ruling is a victory, but it’s just the beginning.”

Obergefell was joined Monday by a coalition of from the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBT civil rights organization; Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin; Equality Texas; two same-sex couples who filed suit over Texas’ same-sex marriage ban; and others who announced that they would be part of a statewide campaign for nondiscrimination protections.

[…]

Texas is a huge part of a national strategy to pursue nondiscrimination ordinances because it’s the largest state in the country that offers no statewide protections for LGBT residents, Equality Texas executive director Chuck Smith said Monday.

Democratic proposals for statewide nondiscrimination laws have been non-starters in the Republican-controlled Legislature, where conservatives have tried to override local ordinances. Among opponents of the nondiscrimination ordinances are Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, who as the former state attorney general said such ordinances violate freedom of speech and religion.

This has left Texas with a patchwork of local protections against discrimination in employment, housing and other public areas like buses and restaurants.

At least nine Texas cities with a population of more than 100,000 have passed some nondiscrimination rules or legislation.

[…]

In defending the need for more protections for LGBT residents, Mark Phariss, one of the plaintiffs in the Texas gay marriage case, likened those protections to the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities like Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1984 accident.

At the time of his accident, Abbott was not protected against discrimination “as a result of that disability,” said Phariss, who attended law school with Abbott and said he visited him in the hospital after his accident.

“That has been fixed. The ADA now provides protections for Americans who are disabled, just like Greg, from being discriminated against in their workplace and in public accommodations,” Phariss said. “And that is the exact same protection that we seek for ourselves — nothing more, nothing less.“

Of course, Abbott opposes the ADA, too. All of his accommodation needs have been met, so what does he care about anyone else? Enacting NDOs in more cities and eventually at the state and national level are important and need to be done, but as noted before there are other fights as well, including the birth certificate issue for adoptees and transgender folks, transgender issues in general, and just making sure the laws that are on the books now, including marriage quality, get enforced. Towards that end, Sen. Rodney Ellis sent a letter to the DOJ.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on Monday sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking the department to “monitor the implementation of Obergefell and intervene, if necessary, to ensure that Texas officials do not flout the Supreme Court’s ruling and blatantly discriminate against same sex couples.”

[…]

In his letter, Ellis blasted Paxton for the guidance and said “religion must not be relied upon as an excuse to discriminate and refuse to fulfill the duties of government taxpayer-funded jobs.”

“Where does this end?” he asks. “Will judges be able to argue that they should not have to recognize or authorize divorces if it offends their religious sensibilities? Could a judge refuse to sentence a defendant to the death penalty under his or her belief that ‘thou shalt not kill’ means just that?”

A copy of Sen. Ellis’ letter is here. Slippery slope can be tendentious and sometimes ridiculous, but when the state’s top lawyer encourages local officials to ignore a Supreme Court ruling, it’s hardly unfair to ask these questions. And nothing would make me laugh harder than having DOJ observers camp outside Ken Paxton’s office. All Paxton needs to do to make this go away is promise to obey the law. That may be tricky for a guy with Paxton’s past history to promise, but it is what he needs to do.

Greg Abbott is not an advocate for people with disabilities

Didn’t think this was in question, but let’s review the facts again.

Still not Greg Abbott

“I really strongly believe, and I think most people who are advocates for people with disabilities believe, that a disability is neither a barrier nor an advantage in potentially serving as governor of Texas,” [Dennis Borel of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities] said. “It’s kind of not that relevant.”

What’s relevant is an Abbott proposal to increase the pay for personal attendants who help people with disabilities live in the community, an idea Borel likes.

What’s relevant is a legal issue that Borel has pressed Abbott on since his announcement last year: If elected governor, would he support a proposal to waive Texas’ claims of sovereign immunity in lawsuits brought against the state alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so people can get their day in court?

Abbott – who as attorney general has asserted the state’s immunity – said no last year through a campaign spokesman. His answer hasn’t changed.

“Granted to the states by the 11th Amendment, General Abbott believes sovereign immunity is not a concept that should be treated casually. It must be vigorously defended, which is consistent with his absolute duty to defend the state of Texas whether he is attorney general or governor,” said spokesman Matt Hirsch last year.

Asked the same sovereign-immunity question, Davis campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas gave only a general answer. “Wendy Davis believes all Texans should be protected from discrimination. She has worked to improve educational and economic opportunities for people with disabilities and will continue to prioritize those issues as governor.”

Borel and other activists expect another chance to press the issue with Davis. She has met with them personally, he said, and has agreed to take part in the Texas Disability Issues Forum co-hosted in Austin by advocacy groups on Sept. 24.

Abbott has declined to attend the forum, “and he has known about it for a very long time,” said Borel. He said he has met with Abbott’s policy director on issues.

Not sure why Davis gave such a non-committal answer to the question, but she has since clarified her position on the matter.

State Sen. Wendy Davis says if she’s elected governor, she’ll support legislation to make it easier for people with disabilities to get their day in court when they’re alleging state violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Responding to a survey by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Davis said she would support legislation to waive the state’s sovereign immunity in such cases.

“The ADA is a milestone civil rights law. The majority of states do not seek sovereign immunity from the ADA. Texans with disabilities should feel as secure in their right to be free from discrimination based on disability as people in any other state,” said Davis.

So there you have it. Abbott’s record and position are clear. So are Davis’. This is a no-brainer. Do you still want more evidence of this? Here you go.

More than 50 disability rights advocacy groups and Texas nonprofits have banded together to try to mobilize the state’s more than 3 million disabled residents to vote on Nov. 4.

The groups have created a website promoting a Texas Disability Issues Forum, which will be held in Austin next week.

So far, only Democratic hopefuls seeking the top three statewide offices on the fall ballot have agreed to appear at the Sept. 24 event.

GOP nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sens. Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, respectively — have declining the invitation, citing scheduling conflicts, said event organizer Bob Kafka of ADAPT of Texas.

“We can’t force them to come,” he said at a Capitol news conference.

Organizers, though, have offered to let the let candidates citing schedule conflicts to participate using videoconferencing technology, Kafka said. Organizers also told the GOP candidates’ campaigns that they would let the absentee candidates tape an appearance at an earlier date, he said. Forum moderator Ben Philpott, a political reporter with Austin’s public radio station KUT-FM, would interview them “under the same type of setting,” Kafka said.

“We’re disappointed,” he said, noting the forum is a nonpartisan effort.

Here’s their website; the link is FUBAR’ed in the Trail Blazers post. I freely admit my partisan biases here, but it seems to me that the more these folks vote for Republicans in November, the more they will continue to be disappointed. The Statesman has more.

UberASSIST and UberACCESS

As I’m sure you recall, access for the disabled was a major point of debate in the vehicles for hire saga. There was a lawsuit filed by a coalition of Texas disability advocates against Uber and Lyft over their lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I have wondered more than once how these companies, which rely on drivers using their personal vehicles, will meet the requirements set out by Council. Well, that’s still a question to ponder, but here’s Uber’s plan for that.

Uber

Uber is evolving the way people move throughout Houston and over 200 other cities around the world. But, until now, transportation options have been limited for those who may require additional assistance.

Today, Uber Houston is announcing a new platform that will allow those needing an extra hand to request safe and reliable rides at the tap of a button.

We’ve partnered with Open Doors Organization, a non-profit organization that works to create a society in which persons of disability have the same consumer opportunities as everyone else. With Open Doors Organization, we are launching UberASSIST. We’ve trained uberX partners on the necessary knowledge and safety requirements for those with accessibility needs.

In just a few weeks we’ll be rolling out UberACCESS. With UberACCESS, we are growing our wheelchair accessible vehicle supply, transforming disabled transit and allowing on demand pickups within minutes instead of days.

They have instructions for how to request UberASSIST at the link above. It sounds promising, but we’ll see how it works in practice. Lyft still has to come up with something as well. Link via The Highwayman.

Elswhere in Uber and Lyft news, the debate is on in Dallas, and will be on again shortly in San Antonio. Have I mentioned lately that I’m glad we finally put this behind us here in Houston? The Leader News had an overview of using Uber, with some price points and quotes from Uber drivers. Finally, if you haven’t read this Offcite piece on how Uber/Lyft and eventually driverless cars will affect walkability in Houston and elsewhere, you should.

Council approves vehicles for hire overhaul

At long last.

Lyft

Technology companies that have unapologetically disrupted vehicle-for-hire markets in cities across the country will be able to operate legally in Houston after City Council on Wednesday ended 16 months of wrangling by approving new rules.

Council voted 10 to 5, with two absent, to open the heavily regulated paid ride market in Houston to new entrants, such as Uber and Lyft, that use smartphone applications to connect willing drivers with interested riders, using the driver’s personal car.

Mayor Annise Parker, who supported the rule changes but has made no secret of her desire to move on to other topics, said the months of delay were driven by the difficult issues at play, as well as the measure acting as a “full employment opportunity for lobbyists” as an entrenched, regulated industry fought well-funded, innovative startups.

“This is something that’s been a contentious issue in cities all across the United States,” Parker said. “I think we did the right thing and I think we did something positive for the citizens of Houston who rely on vehicles for hire to navigate the city without doing something I think would have a negative impact on existing providers.”

Uber

Yellow Cab President Roman Martinez said he also is happy the discussion is over so his contracting drivers can return to the streets. He said he does not see the vote as a loss, though he acknowledged the failure of an amendment to cap the number of Uber and Lyft drivers allowed to enter the market – by a 9-8 vote – was significant.

“We’ve always said we are not afraid of competition,” Martinez said, surrounded by colleagues in bright T-shirts. “Everybody here that’s in this room today, who are cab drivers, limousine drivers, jitney operators, we’re going to compete. We just wanted to make sure the playing field was level and that everybody was going to play by the same rules. Council had a little bit different opinion about what those rules are, but now we get back to work.”

Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said the vote shows the power of citizen support for her company’s services, and said it shows Houston’s commitment to innovation.

[…]

In opposing the ordinance itself, Council members Laster, Jerry Davis, C.O. Bradford, Michael Kubosh and Jack Christie pointed to the absence of caps and round-the-clock insurance as key reasons. Kubosh echoed Martinez’s comment about a level playing field.

“We’re not even close to the same rules,” he said. “It’s really lopsided, it really favors the transportation network companies; it doesn’t favor the cab companies at all.”

The mayor said drivers for Uber’s luxury sedan service, UberBLACK, can begin registering with the city immediately, while drivers for the taxi-style services Lyft and uberXmust wait 90 days to sign up.

That likely will not stop Uber or Lyft from continuing to operate, given that the firms launched illegally in February and have racked up more than 800 citations between them and their drivers since then.

There were a bunch of amendments offered, with perhaps the most interesting being proposed by CM Laster that would have limited the number of Uber/Lyft-type drivers to 250, Seattle-style. That was defeated 9-8, which may be just as well. There was a requirement added for a minimum of 3% of all vehicles for hire to be wheelchair accessible (see this press release from CM Brenda Stardig) with a proviso that it can’t be met by one company alone. Whether that will have an effect on the recent litigation filed by disability rights activists or not, I don’t know. I do know I’m glad that this is over, and I suspect you are, too. Your turn now, Dallas and San Antonio. The Houston Business Journal and The Highwayman have more.

Checking in on Uber and Lyft in San Antonio

San Antonio City Council will soon be taking up with vehicles for hire issue, and so far things have gone about as smoothly as you’d expect.

Lyft

A proposal from City staff to integrate rideshare companies into the existing Vehicle for Hire Ordinance, and therefore legalizing rideshare operations in San Antonio, was met with unanimous opposition from the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) Monday evening. It seems arguments from all sides of the issue remain unresolved – and just as heated.

The TAB is made up of citizens, representatives from transportation, tourism, and hospitality industries. The board’s vote to reject the proposal that would legalize rideshare was not surprising.

The traditional vehicle for hire (taxi, limo, shuttle, carriage) industry claims that the transportation network companies are unfairly and unsafely circumventing regulation under the guise of mobile technology. The TNC’s, and San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum, claim that regulations need to be changed to accommodate for an evolving industry – including its technology.

Uber

“The (proposed) system’s a little different, the system for the transportation network companies puts responsibility on the companies to vet the drivers (and vehicles) according to city standards,” Baum said. Traditional companies go through a testing and verification process through the City.

“The way we validate (those standards) is we do random, unannounced inspections,” he said, compared to the regularly scheduled inspections granted to traditional vehicles for hire and their drivers. Baum assured TAB members that neither public safety nor the city’s economy would be put at risk.

“I can’t believe you’re shoving this ordinance down our throat,” said TAB member George Alva during one of the most heated exchanges between a board member and Baum. “From the very beginning your mind was made up.”

Three months ago Baum was tasked by the City Council Public Safety Committee to see if there was a way to integrate rideshare into the current ordinance (Chapter 33 of City Code) and present his findings at the committee’s Aug. 6 meeting. From there, the committee can decide if further research is required or if the proposal should proceed to a City Council vote.

See here and here for the background. The Council committee will have both the committee report and the TAB’s rejection of it to take into consideration. Good luck with that, y’all.

On a tangential note, Joshua Sanders, one of the people that has been representing Lyft in Houston, sent me this update to Lyft’s insurance policy. The point of this is that once a ride has been accepted, Lyft’s commercial policy is the primary policy in all instances now. As we know, there have been questions about how insurance works with TNCs like Uber and Lyft, and recent stories have indicated that representatives of Texas’ insurance industry see gaps in the coverage. I would be interested to know what they think about this.

Finally, there’s a provocative op-ed in the Chron from Michael Zoorob, who is an intern working as a research assistant at the Southwest ADA Center, a nonprofit disability organization in Houston. He takes Uber and Lyft to task for their lack of accessibility for disabled folks.

So why can’t the disabled community just use other modes of transportation? For one thing, the rapid entrance of Uber and Lyft – following a pattern of “break the rules and ask questions later” – has eroded the supply of accessible taxis, as seen in some cities. In San Francisco, a quarter of the wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet is unused as taxi drivers have flocked to ride-sharing companies.

For all the complaints about ride-share companies, you’d have a tough time finding a best-practices model among traditional taxi services. In Houston, there are only 50 accessible taxis on the market covering more than 600 square miles. They make up about one-fiftieth of all taxis. So if you use a wheelchair, good luck hailing a cab.

As a society, we have decided that people with disabilities deserve equal opportunity to participate in public life. This logic compelled Congress in 1990 to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. In his signing remarks, analogizing the ADA with the fall of the Berlin Wall, President George H. W. Bush declared: “We will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America. … I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

It is precisely this “shameful wall of exclusion” that Uber, Lyft and other transportation providers seek, however unwittingly, to maintain with their standards of service to the disabled community. And it is wrong.

It is wrong to relegate citizens with disabilities to a separate, segregated system of transportation, just as it is wrong to deny them access to City Hall or to a grocery store because accommodating them is costly. It is a fact of American history that when marginalized groups are allowed access only to segregated services, these services tend to be inferior. This is the reality for many people with disabilities who must rely on state-provided paratransit services.

Uber and Lyft must play by the same rules as everyone else in the taxi marketplace, including providing service to everyone – a standard that also bears improving among taxi companies. Being innovative does not excuse trampling on the rights of people with disabilities.

As Zoorob notes, there was a lawsuit filed recently against Uber and Lyft by disability rights activists. I’ve said before that I’m not sure how their business model, which relies on the personal vehicles of their drivers, can handle making these accommodations. Zoorob makes a compelling case that they need to figure it out, or else.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, the Chron opines again in favor of Uber and Lyft, while CM Stephen Costello and Texpatriate’s Noah Horwitz, who is working for Cindy Clifford’s firm, have dueling op-eds in TribTalk about it.

Another lawsuit against Uber and Lyft

That’s three lawsuits that I know of.

Lyft

A coalition of Texas disability advocates sued ride-share companies Uber and Lyft on Thursday as part of dozens of lawsuits filed around the state ahead of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Uber and Lyft are up and coming in terms of transportation companies, and they don’t really have any means to provide wheelchair accessibility,” said plaintiff David Wittie, of the advocacy group ADAPT of Texas. “They are socially irresponsible and not accessible and equivalent for people with disabilities.”

Wittie said denials of services to disabled Texans led ADAPT and the Texas Civil Rights Project to target the companies, which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone applications.

[…]

Uber

The suits were filed in Travis County, but theoretically could affect the rest of the state, Wittie said. Uber and Lyft operate – albeit illegally – in several Texas cities, including Houston.

Houston City Council is scheduled to vote next week on regulations proposed by Mayor Annise Parker that would allow them to operate legally if they acquire permits and carry commercial liability insurance, among other requirements. Taxi and limousine companies oppose the rules because they oppose the ride-sharing companies, and have filed federal lawsuits of their own to stop the companies.

Last month, three wheelchair-using Texans in Houston and San Antonio sued Uber and Lyft in federal court for alleged discrimination under the ADA, according to the Courthouse News Service.

Also sued Thursday as part of the coordinated effort was Austin-based Yellow Cab, which Wittie said routinely makes people with disabilities wait hours before sending an accessible taxi. Wittie said he has experienced that. The company did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Here’s what I had on the earlier federal lawsuit. It was reported in Courthouse News and pretty much noplace else, so if it’s news to you, I understand. I suppose it’s possible that lawsuit could get combined with this one, but I’m just guessing. There’s also the lawsuit filed by cab companies in an effort to enjoin Uber and Lyft from operating in Houston. Am I missing anything? All this is happening as Council gets set to (maybe) take up the vehicles for hire matter again next week. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Here comes the Uber and Lyft vote

Barring anything unexpected, today is the day that Houston City Council settles – for now, anyway – the Uber/Lyft issue. Houston is not the only place where transportation network companies are seeking to do business in Texas, of course. The Trib takes a look at the state of play around Texas.

“As the current city of Austin code is written, you still have to be a permitted ground transportation service to operate in the city of Austin,” said Samantha Alexander, a spokeswoman with the city of Austin’s Transportation Department. “As of right now, they are not permitted.”

Lyft and Uber drivers in Austin are at risk for a Class C misdemeanor ticket and possibly having their car impounded, Alexander said. She noted that in some cases, Austin police have ticketed Uber or Lyft drivers who were unaware that they were in violation of any city rules.

“Our big message right now is to make sure people aren’t breaking the law accidentally,” Alexander said.

Drivers have also been ticketed in Houston and San Antonio. In Corpus Christi, a 30-day grace period for Lyft and Uber drivers ends Tuesday, according to a recent statement from Corpus Christi Police Chief Floyd Simpson.

“There will be a dedicated enforcement effort following with intent to persuade compliance and ensure public safety,” Simpson said last month in an editorial for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Police officials did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

[…]

Texas cities are at varying stages of re-evaluating city regulations overseeing vehicle-for-hire services to see if there’s a way to allow the popular services to co-exist with traditional taxi services. In some cases, the debates have been hotly contested.

“Cities are recognizing they have to change, and that it’s a great thing if people have more options,” said Joseph Kopser, CEO of Austin-based RideScout, an app that provides real-time information about transportation services in different cities.

In Dallas, city officials drew howls of outrage last year after an interim city manager defied the usual protocol and placed an item on the City Council agenda without prior council discussion that would have effectively shut down Uber’s efforts in the city. The item was never approved and drew a city investigation.

In recent months, Dallas officials have been working with various stakeholders, including Uber and Lyft, to update their regulations. Next week, Councilwoman Sandy Greyson is planning to propose a new vehicle-for-hire regulation system that removes the current cap on taxi and limo licenses and allows companies to charge whatever fares they want. TNCs would have to abide by some new regulations, including paying for permits.

“What we’ve done is pretty much scrap all our current regulations and come up with an entirely new model where we will regulate all vehicle-for-hire providers the same way,” Greyson said. “This is a free-market proposal.”

[…]

Along with questions about safety and fees, equity issues are also drawing debate, such as whether companies like Uber and Lyft should be required to provide reliable taxi service to a city’s disabled residents. In many Texas cities, the city code requires traditional taxi fleets to include some wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Last week, a group of disabled people, including two in Houston and one in San Antonio, sued Uber and Lyft for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Greyson, the Dallas councilwoman, said her proposal will require that a certain portion of a provider’s fleet be handicap accessible.

Chris Nakutis, an Uber general manager who oversees its Texas market, said the company partners with a wheelchair-accessible taxi service in Chicago. He did not rule out the company partnering with such services in Texas, but he took issue with the idea that the company should be required to in every market.

“We don’t own any vehicles. We don’t hire any drivers,” Nakutis said. “To the extent that there are wheelchair-accessible vehicles, we partner with them. Even if we don’t have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in a community, those people have the exact same opportunities they had before we entered the market.”

In addition to all that, Sidecar is coming to Texas later this year as well, and Uber is looking for drivers in Amarillo, El Paso, Lubbock and Waco. So expect the stories we’ve heard before to repeat themselves elsewhere. Meanwhile, in Austin, there’s a stakeholder meeting to kick the discussion off there. One way or another, things are happening and I have to figure a year from now the landscape will look very different.

I had not heard about that ADA-related lawsuit before reading this story. A Google News search shows that it’s gotten exactly zero mainstream media coverage. Taxi companies filed a lawsuit in April over the newcomers’ business practices, but this is an entirely different issue. The negotiations in Houston have included a possible requirement for Uber and Lyft to have some percentage of their drivers be able to accommodate disabled riders. I’m very interested to see how this shakes out.

But today is for Houston. As I’ve said before, I don’t have a good feel for who stands where on this, and at this point we don’t know what exactly the final ordinance will look like. Yesterday was the usual Tuesday pop-off session at Council, so it was the last chance before today’s vote for people to give their feedback on the proposals. Lauren Barrash, the founder and CEO of The Wave and a vocal critic of Uber and Lyft, sent me a copy of what she said to Council:

Good afternoon. In preparation for today’s public comment I wanted to shed light on a few new concerns I have regarding the vote tomorrow to pass the new Chapter 46.

First- Last week the limousine stakeholders were not notified that the ordinance was on the agenda which is why they did not have a presence at City Hall for public comment. They were also not aware of the amendments we all found out about from the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday morning.

Second- We were all emailed a new draft ordinance on Friday, June 6th. In speaking with some of the Council staff, that was not sent to you all.

Third- I have been trying, with no avail, to add some jitney revisions, but have been told, “we will have to get to after this one passes”. As a law abiding tax paying stakeholder, my concerns and recommendations should be weighted as heavily as these illegal operators forcing us to rush through this process

Last & most important- I want you to ask the question to them today if they are willing to stand before you & say with all honesty, they will comply 100% with all requirements in the new Chapter 46 Ordinance no later than the date required. And if not, you need to consider harsh consequences- impoundment, criminal charges, tickets, insurance notification because they have already displayed their lack of concern if tickets are issued. And if they say they will comply, you need to make certain you have the ability to enforce those laws. You also need to ensure there are harsh consequences for violation of the ordinance & be able to enforce those.

I have several questions regarding certain line items both in the section pertaining to jitneys as well as some of the Ordinance applicable to all of us, but am not being heard and am not able to ask those questions to ARA because they are busy accommodating the likes of Uber & Lyft.

Nothing in life is free. Free enterprise is not about not having to pay to be in business. It is about an open market for business to come in & operate legally. The media is hearing one side of this, but I sincerely hope you all have heard all three sides. It is hard to hear the real message hear when you have a shiny marketing, PR, and outreach plan from an $18 Billion company.

I ask that you think if it were your business at stake, would you want them to be a stakeholder. Equate it to someone like Chili’s, who has TONS of money, coming into a market & opening hundreds of restaurants on every prime piece of real estate, but not getting permits, inspections, plans. You wouldn’t let that happen.

I’m not sure how well that analogy holds up once an ordinance is passed, but I can certainly appreciate the frustration in the interim, once the newcomers went rogue. The Chron notes this while urging passage of an overhaul to the vehicle for hire code.

Mandatory prices, minimum fleet sizes and required advanced reservations serve little public good, and have no place in laws regulating Town Cars and other vehicles-for-hire.

But then the lobbyists got involved. Over the past several months, policy has turned to personal politics, and what should have been an easy vote has become a municipal mud fight. Instead of discussing regulations, council members are talking about individual companies.

Do you support Yellow Cab? Do you support Uber, a car service software company that connects riders with drivers? What about other newcomers like Lyft or Sidecar?

Council members should leave that choice to consumers. City Hall’s job is to write policy that achieves goals of safety, predictability and healthy economics. Right now, Chapter 46, which covers vehicles-for-hire, fails to meet those ends.

Frankly, Uber’s antics have worn thin. The $18.2 billion company’s gleeful noncompliance with laws across the nation has begun to smack less of civil disobedience and more of corporate privilege run amok. We’re witnessing the values of a Silicon Valley where men think they’re kings because they learned how to code.

It is hubris matched only by Houston’s current taxi monopoly, which acts as if it is entitled to exist without competition and thinks itself a saint because it accepts Metro vouchers to pick up the handicapped – a rather profitable form of charity.

Instead of duking it out in City Hall, these companies should take their fight to the people.

I suspect they will get that chance. And I will say again, it would be a good idea to review what gets done today in another six or twelve months, since no one really knows what the effect of the changes will be.

Finally, the Times notes that cab drivers are beginning to think more broadly about how to respond.

As services like UberX, whose drivers often use their own vehicles to transport passengers, make inroads in city after city, traditional taxi drivers are facing a loss of clout and livelihood. Years of rising gas prices and, in many places, stagnant fares have contributed to lower incomes for many drivers.

Eager to reverse the trend, taxi drivers in Chicago and other cities are for the first time seeking to form a national taxi drivers’ union — not just to gain leverage against UberX but also to pressure city officials and taxi companies to heed their concerns. The powerful taxi drivers’ union in New York City, with 17,000 members, is spearheading this effort, bringing its organizing expertise to Chicago, where it is pushing to unionize thousands of drivers and to link up with drivers’ unions in Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, northern Maryland and Austin, Tex.

Here and elsewhere, drivers express similar grievances: low pay, high leasing fees, police who issue too many tickets and taxi companies that cheat them. Despite those common problems, forming a national union will be difficult, in part, because taxi drivers are an independent, disputatious group with roots in dozens of countries.

[…]

The A.F.L.-C.I.O. supports the idea of a national taxi drivers’ union as part of its broader strategy to reverse decades of decline in union membership and power. Labor groups are realizing that they can no longer afford to ignore sectors like the taxi industry that employ many immigrant workers, whom unions view as a vital source of potential membership growth. And taxi drivers, whether Ethiopian, Haitian or Pakistani, are often leaders in immigrant communities around the country.

One snag these unionization plans face is that taxi drivers are usually independent contractors who are barred by antitrust law from colluding to set prices (although they can lobby city officials to grant fare increases).

Drivers say that some organizing efforts have been paying off. For instance the 1,200-member drivers’ union in Philadelphia helped secure three fare increases, lower fines for violations like having bald tires and a reduction in the fee for accepting credit card payments to 5 percent of the fare, from 10 percent.

Ronald Blount, president of the Philadelphia union, sees benefits in going national. “We can learn from each other. We can see what forms of pressure worked in other cities,” he said.

Probably too late to have any effect in Houston, but we’ll see how it goes elsewhere.

On Abbott and empathy

On Sunday, the DMN had this long piece about Greg Abbott’s longstanding hostility to claims made under the Americans with Disabilities Act, even though he himself had benefited from it.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has said he supports the Americans with Disabilities Act, has tenaciously battled to block the courthouse door to disabled Texans who sue the state.

In a series of legal cases in his three terms, Abbott’s office has fought a blind pharmacy professor in Amarillo who wanted reflective tape on the stairs to her office; two deaf defendants in Laredo who asked for a qualified sign language interpreter in their courtroom; and a woman with an amputated leg. In that case, the state argued she was not disabled because she had a prosthetic limb.

Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since a tree fell on him while he was jogging and crushed his spine almost 30 years ago, applauds the 1990 federal law. It has helped provide the ramps, wide doors and access that allow him to give speeches and meet with constituents.

While Abbott, the leading Republican contender for governor, benefits from the ADA mandates that guide businesses, builders and cities, he believes it is unconstitutional to force the state to comply. He has argued that his duty is to protect the state’s autonomy and its taxpayers by using all legal tools available to him — including the argument that the state is immune from disability lawsuits brought under the ADA.

“It’s the attorney general’s duty to zealously represent the interests of the state of Texas, and in these cases that meant raising all applicable legal arguments in litigation where Texas was sued in court,” said Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland.

Abbott’s office has been aggressive on the issue. The state has frequently lost, even before conservative courts such as the Texas Supreme Court. And yet when there has been a trial, it has won several of the cases, with arguments that beat back the charges of discrimination.

Advocates for the disabled say Abbott’s office has worked to deny ADA protections by repeatedly and falsely claiming that impaired Texans don’t have the right to sue the state for discrimination. Abbott declined several requests from The Dallas Morning News to discuss the matter.

[…]

Deputy Solicitor General Andy Oldham said there are good reasons why the state tries to block lawsuits from going to court, even when it has a strong case. Good lawyers use all the tools at their disposal, he said.

“If a litigant had two valid reasons — sovereign immunity and the meritlessness of the suit — she would always assert both,” Oldham said. “Suggesting that the lawyer should waive the first argument and use only the second is akin to asking a boxer to fight with one hand tied behind his back.”

While those bringing the lawsuits might believe they are only asking for “a reasonable accommodation,” there is usually disagreement on what that entails, he said.

“It’s wrong to suggest that the state is unwilling to make any accommodation just because it refused to do everything that the plaintiff wanted,” Oldham said.

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said that advocates’ frustration stems from Abbott’s office consistently seeking immunity for Texas agencies, regardless of the claim.

“When you invoke the sovereign immunity defense, you’re not responding to the merits of the case,” he said. “You’re simply saying the state is immune for its violations of the ADA and therefore there’s not even a point of having a day in court.”

Brian East, senior attorney for Texas Disability Rights, said the repeated efforts to raise sovereign immunity against the disabled cuts off the chance to fix problems.

“I wouldn’t say they were hostile,” East said of the attorney general’s legal team. “They are hostile to the notion that individual citizens might have redress against the state, in general. They are not targeting people with disabilities specifically, but doing what they can to limit the rights of individuals to use the courts in civil rights cases against the state.”

Noah and Perry have offered their takes on this. To me, it’s a combination of a serious lack of empathy – he got what he needed, what does he care about anyone else? – and an elevation of the abstract rights of states over the rights of individuals. Via BOR, I think State Rep. Eliott Naishtat nailed it:

What is perplexing is that the attorney general is not challenging the part of the ADA that bars discrimination by private interests. In other words, Abbott agrees that private entities should continue to be required by law to provide access to individuals with disabilities, but public entities, including state and local governments, should not. Since when are civil rights protections important in relation to the private sector, but not the public sector? Abbott’s response: The office of the attorney general is trying to protect the state’s interests, namely, its limited financial resources. Once again, the issue is state money, or the lack thereof.

And yet, Abbott benefited from the accommodations made by the Supreme Court, which needless to say were paid for with state money. By his own logic and history, if the Supreme Court had not so willingly met his needs, he would have argued that the court was immune from being sued to force them to do the right thing. What’s good for him is not good for anyone else.

That same lack of empathy for anyone who isn’t Greg Abbott has been on the national stage this week with L’Affaire Nugent. Tod Robberson of the DMN captures this with an epic rant.

And when Greg Abbott claims to defend the Constitution, which part does he defend? Is it the part of the Constitution that requires all men and women to be treated equally and without discrimination under the law? Or maybe it’s the part that says a state has sovereign immunity, and if the state behaves in a discriminatory manner toward certain individuals, such as disabled people, that’s OK. Because what’s most important to Greg Abbott isn’t equal treatment and equal access for disabled people. What’s important is Texas’s sovereign immunity. And the gun rights that Ted Nugent stands for.

Wow. This guy’s a real piece of work. Abbott wants to restrict women’s access to abortion. He invites into his campaign a personality who refers to women as fat bitches and dirty whores. He invites into his campaign a man who thinks of sex with underage girls as “beautiful.”

And when challenged on the extremely bad judgment Greg Abbott is exercising, Abbott doesn’t apologize and rethink things. He defends the decision.

Texans who don’t happen to be white have every reason to question a gubernatorial candidate who invites into his campaign someone who makes racist remarks about an African American politician.

Texans with disabilities must not confuse wheelchair-bound Greg Abbott as someone who will defend their rights. He will not.

Texas women must not confuse Greg Abbott as someone who will defend their rights. He will not. Instead, he will campaign with someone who sees no problem denigrating women whenever he feels like it.

I’m not even sure that Greg Abbott will defend family values, if Ted Nugent is the type of person he will defend.

Robberson expanded on his writing on Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN – see the video here. Wayne Slater was there as well and noted that the Abbott campaign was shocked, shocked to hear about some of these things their buddy The Nuge had been saying. Abbott had claimed ignorance of of Nugent’s dark side, which is too ludicrous to be believed. Seriously, if there was no one on his staff who knew and who had the ability to tell him, he’s surrounded himself with amateurs and suckups.

From the beginning, I’ve suggested that Abbott’s greatest weakness in a competitive general election is the fact that he’s never had to engage with non-Republican primary voters. He only knows how to talk to a small, non-representative slice of the electorate. Admittedly, he’s not the only Republican candidate with this problem, but he is the only one among them not in a competitive primary. It seems clear that the two are closely connected. I feel confident we will see more of this after the primaries are over. Burka and the Observer have more.