Data shows about half of calls for wheelchair rideshares go unanswered, stranding disabled users

ByRenee Koury KGO logo
Friday, July 14, 2023
About half of calls for wheelchair rideshares go unanswered: Data
Ridesharing has become a convenient way of life, but that's not so for everyone. Passengers who use a wheelchair often cannot get picked up at all.

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. (KGO) -- Ridesharing has become a convenient way of life, but that's not so for everyone. Passengers who use a wheelchair often cannot get picked up at all. In California, the numbers show Uber and Lyft provide service for only about half the calls they get for wheelchair accessible vehicles.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says companies that serve the general public must provide equal service to the disabled. But that isn't always happening in real life -- those who need the most help to get around are getting the least help when it comes to rideshares. An East Bay viewer lost use of her legs three years ago. And while others can hop in an Uber in minutes, she's often left stranded.

LuTillion Maxon recalls the day she dared to go out to a movie. "Waited three hours..." she said. "People at the movie theater kept coming like, 'Are you OK?'"

Maxon needs a wheelchair to get around, so she got to the movies that afternoon in an Uber WAV, a wheelchair accessible vehicle.

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The drop off was fine -- the problem was getting home.

"It kept saying, 'No vehicles available, no vehicles available,'" she said.

While regular Ubers picked up passengers in minutes, Maxon waited with her mom in the lobby -- for hours. Daylight faded. The staff offered help.

"'Is there anything we could do? Are you OK, everybody was wondering... what's going to happen?' Never got a vehicle," Maxon said.

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It wasn't the only time she'd been stranded.

"Trying to go to work, didn't get an Uber, missed work because I couldn't get to work," she said.

Maxon works in an Oakland salon. Hair styling from a wheelchair is no problem -- getting there is.

"If I was not in this wheelchair, and I needed a regular Uber, I'm sure it'll be no way I will have this issue. I'd probably would get a driver a million times," she said.

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"All people with disabilities are looking for is the same access anybody else has, to be able to pick up the app, call for a ride, have it arrive in a reasonable amount of time... unfortunately, that's not the experience most people have," said Autumn Elliott of Disability Rights California.

San Francisco's Transportation Authority has studied rideshare impacts -- it found Uber and Lyft provided wheelchair accessible vehicles for less than half the requests they received in 2019, while they fulfilled nearly all requests for regular rides.

"As a public accommodation, you can't be discriminating against this population. You should be aspiring to setting targets that are equivalent so somebody who's calling up and requesting a wheelchair access vehicle does not have to wait three hours," said Joe Castiglione of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

The data also indicates disabled folks have given up. Requests for wheelchair rides have plunged, from 44,000 in 2019 to just 8,500 this year.

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"One might conclude that people have stopped requesting trips because the service is so terrible," Castiglione said.

Instead, many disabled passengers rely on Paratransit services, which require reservations at least 24 hours ahead and have many stops.

So, to improve rideshare service for those in wheelchairs, state lawmakers passed the "Access For All" Act five years ago. It allows rideshare companies to add a surcharge of 10 cents to the fare for every ride. Companies can keep some of money if it is used to improve disabled access.

Those dimes really add up.

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The city's Municipal Transportation Agency says Uber pocketed $14 million and Lyft $7 million.

But Uber and Lyft haven't given many rides for that money, both saying the money has mainly been used for outreach to disabled people and to pay contractors to supply wheelchair accessible vehicles for their platform.

It hasn't helped folks like Maxon.

"I kept calling for like four hours, never got an Uber over to me," she said.

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And when she tried using Lyft instead, the company sent her an email: she could get wheelchair rides but only in San Francisco. She lives in San Leandro.

Lyft did not respond to 7 On Your Side's multiple requests for comment.

An Uber spokesperson said: "Uber is committed to developing solutions that support the ability to easily move around our communities. As with all rides, Uber WAV rides are completed by independent providers and Uber cannot guarantee their availability."

Maxon isn't waiting. She isn't going to movies, isn't hailing rides.

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"I'm crying out for help because this is a problem. I need help," she said.

She schedules each outing, but she makes it to work.

The state Public Utilities Commission regulates rideshare companies and it won't let the public or city officials see all of the company data, citing privacy rules. But there's a push for more transparency -- and more services to make on-demand rides a reality for those in a wheelchair. We'll keep on the story.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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