When Harriet Lowell’s husband was rushed to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism, she couldn’t be there with him.
She rides an electric power scooter. And very few Lyft cars can accommodate it — which is why Lowell sued the company back in 2017.
“It’s a basic human right to be able to get around,” said Lowell. She claims White Plains, where she lives, and other areas outside of big cities are an “afterthought” when it comes to accessible rides.
She argues that car services like taxis, which are more likely to be equipped to take wheelchair riders, have been pushed out of her community in upstate New York by companies like Lyft and Uber. And most Lyft and Uber drivers don’t have a WAV, or wheelchair-accessible vehicle.
To get a sense of what it’s like as a WAV customer, I opened Uber in a busy San Francisco neighborhood in the middle of the day. I was quoted a 2-minute wait for a car to take me from my office to my house. For a WAV it was a 12-minute wait. When I opened the Lyft app, it was only a 1-minute wait for a regular Lyft, but there wasn’t even a wheelchair-friendly option available — only extra seats in a Lyft XL.
Places like White Plains only have a fraction of the Uber and Lyft drivers that San Francisco does. Lyft argues that it’s a technology company, not transportation company, so it shouldn’t be forced under the American with Disabilities Act to provide services for people who use wheelchairs or motorized scooters.
The class-action lawsuit only names Lyft, since Uber has been more amendable to working with Lowell and the Westchester Disabled on the Move organization, Lowell claimed. Lyft declined to comment on the suit.
Lyft started offering WAVs in 2015, but it’s still limited to nine cities, including Boston, New York, and Phoenix.
Uber has offered a WAV option in the U.S. since 2015. Late last year it added six cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, and Toronto, for a total of 12 in North America. It’s also now available in Europe, India, and Australia. It’s also committed itself to offering an average wait time of 15 minutes for WAVs in six cities.
Uber’s website explains how drivers can modify a number of cars — including a Dodge Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna, or Honda Odyssey — to become a WAV. But again, Uber hires drivers, not vehicles, so it has little control over what kind of vehicles are available to its riders.
To make up for the large service gaps, both ride-sharing companies have set up partnerships over the years. More recently, in several of its WAV cities, Uber has been working with MV Transportation, a third-party service that provides drivers with wheelchair accessible vehicles.
Both Lyft and Uber partner with paratransit services through public transit systems like Boston’s MBTA The Ride program. Most paratransit rides need to be requested 24 hours ahead. But this partnership allows for on-demand requests with similar pricing to a ride-share fare. Both companies say they are working on expanding reach and improving arrival times.
“We have developed partnerships with several third-party Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle providers to increase the availability of their vehicles in many of our largest markets,” said Lyft spokesperson Campbell Matthews in a statement via email. “We’re always looking for ways to expand our offerings and partnerships to ensure increased access to transportation.”
But even with these promises, some excluded riders are fed up.
Lowell said she ultimately doesn’t care how Lyft (and Uber) start offering WAV rides, but that they make a good-faith effort to do so and provide options for different types of riders.
“I want to know that I can get a Lyft, go shopping, go to my medical appointments, go anywhere like anyone else,” Lowell said.
Since more ride-share drivers aren’t going to suddenly start driving wheelchair accessible vans on their own accord, Uber and Lyft have to figure out how to expand their partnerships with third-party WAV service providers and paratransit services that are already equipped for wheelchairs — but it might take a lawsuit (or two, like this Bay Area class-action suit against Lyft) to get there more quickly.