by Mahtot Gebresselassie
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against transportation network companies (TNCs) Uber and Lyft for lack of disabled accessibility of the transportation service they facilitate, with some of the lawsuits focusing on wheelchair accessibility.
The research question that drives this study is: What are the perceptions, experiences, and preferences of wheelchair users regarding transportation service hailed through Uber and Lyft? Perceptions of persons with disabilities about new mobility options such as Uber and Lyft are hardly researched. Neither are their preferences. This study undertakes exploration of perceptions and preferences to expand current understanding of the transportation needs of wheelchair users beyond capturing their experiences. One of the unique contributions of the study is that it provides empirical data about the experience and perspectives of wheelchair users that have previously been reported as anecdotal accounts in media reports and lawsuit documents.
In this study, a survey of 341 wheelchair users in the U.S. (including cities like Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, DC) was conducted to understand general trends and patterns. Data collected from 224 complete and 117 partial responses were analyzed using descriptive statistics and linear and logistic regressions.
The findings indicate that more than 50% of respondents were satisfied with the service, but nearly 40% experienced service denial. Almost half of those without Uber or Lyft experience perceive Uber and Lyft as a viable means of transportation. The study also showed that the propensity to be an Uber or Lyft user is associated with type of wheelchair, having access to a vehicle, and level of education.
Survey respondents identified long wait times as one of the most common challenges they experience. Long wait times for riders in a motorized wheelchair who need wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) is a challenge, as indicated in previous studies. My survey found, on average, those who use motorized wheelchairs experienced twice longer wait time than those in manual wheelchairs who can ride in sedans.
Service denial by drivers is another challenge wheelchair users encounter. The study found that 37% of respondents experienced service decline or denial at least sometimes while 63% never experienced any service decline, as the figure demonstrates. Service denial is reported by users of all wheelchair types in this survey.
The purpose of the study is to contribute to making accessible transportation available to wheelchair users in two ways. Firstly, it helps develop evidence-based new knowledge about the experiences of wheelchair users and existing patterns in new mobility options through social-science research in contrast to what can be learned about the topic from media reports and court cases. The study contributes to filling the literature gap as one of the first focusing on wheelchair accessibility and TNCs. Secondly, it outlines policy recommendations for how the companies, regulators, and policymakers can address problems and supports informed policy decision-making on both public-sector policymakers’ and the companies’ sides.
The study is timely. In the U.S., there are 25.5 million individuals, including those with travel-limiting disabilities, potentially facing social isolation because of lack of mobility. As the population ages, the prevalence of disabilities (including those requiring wheelchair use) is expected to increase because of the association between age and disability. This necessitates understanding current accessibility practices in contemporary transportation modes and developing policies that take into consideration the transportation needs of this under-served and growing group. Understanding is key in solving accessibility problems where they exist.
Conclusions and Recommendations
With more than half of the respondents satisfied with the services, Uber and Lyft seem to be filling a transportation gap for some wheelchair users. Long wait times, service denial by drivers, and lack of WAVs are some of the realities wheelchair users encounter in utilizing these services. Although promising, in their current state, TNCs provide a tiered system even among wheelchair users; motorized-wheelchair users are at a disadvantage with how TNCs are currently configured and understood.
The study identified several issues surrounding wheelchair accessibility in transportation service hailed through TNCs. It highlighted elements of the service that are working for some. It identified that, for others, TNCs offer limited and unequal transportation opportunity while, for some others, their service is unavailable. It is important to note that the inequity wheelchair users experience in new mobility options is not new in the transportation landscape. It simply is an extension of the challenges wheelchair users had been experiencing before the arrival of Uber and Lyft. The paper documents their experiences, perceptions, and preferences concerning TNCs to contribute to how challenges identified can be addressed through the policy recommendations outlined in the study.
Full copy of the open access research article is published in the Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board.
EUC Assistant Professor Mahtot Gebresselassie is an architect, urban planner, educator, and social-science researcher. Most of her research focuses on Uber and Lyft and transportation equity in relation to people with disabilities and low-income earners. She also does research on extreme weather and other unusual events, and has research and/or industry experience on other areas such as disabled accessibility in information and communication technologies (human-computer interaction); smart mobility (smart cities) policy and governance; accessibility in urban design and architecture; and, platform/sharing economy in the transportation sector involving design and/or emerging technologies and equity.