State may require rideshare companies to own fleet of wheelchair accessible cars

Jonathan Lyens, who is blind, said a rideshare driver drove away when he saw Lyens' guide dog at a hearing on the rideshare industry last week.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

As cabbies flee the taxi industry to drive for so-called rideshare companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, specially made taxis for the disabled are left sitting idle in their garages. 

At a hearing last week, SFMTA Taxi Director Christiane Hayashi said the city is in a disability community transit crisis. But the Guardian has learned that the California Public Utilities Commission is considering requiring rideshare companies to provide their own vehicle fleet for the disabled community. 

“We could require these companies to own their own fleet,…a fleet that’s accessible to the disabled community,” Marzia Zafar, the director of policy and planning division at the CPUC, told the Guardian. “We can certainly do that when we have the information, if we see that divide.” 

The plan could be implemented as early as September, she said. 

If so, it would be a first for the nascent rideshare industry, legally known in California as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) because they link drivers to customers via an app. The companies contend they are not taxi services and only are technology providers. 

It’s a legal defense they’ve used to avoid paying insurance in accidents. The change would move the companies closer to mirroring taxi companies, Hayashi said.

“At that point, why aren’t they taxis?  Other than the paint job, they are pretty much the same,” she told the Guardian. 

CPUC director of policy and planning division at the CPUC tells the Guardian that TNCs like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar may be required to provide wheelchair accessible vehicles. 

Notably, the TNCs are regulated by the CPUC, whereas taxis are regulated by municipalities. In San Francisco, that would be the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. It’s that divide that was debated last week at the Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee meeting.

At the committee, Sup. Eric Mar held a hearing on the regulatory status of rideshare companies.  Standing at a podium in front of the supervisors, Hayashi provided data on the declining use of paratransit vehicles, which are taxi vehicles modified to allow disability access like wheelchair use and railings. 

In January of 2013, there were about 1,400 wheelchair rides within the paratransit system, and by December 2013, the monthly usage was at about 600 rides. 

The reason? There were fewer cabbies left to drive them, she said. The drivers are leaving for the TNC companies, which have higher profit margins due to their lesser regulatory burdens. 

Jonathan Lyens, a man who is legally blind and uses a guide dog, said at the hearing that a rideshare vehicle refused him service because he didn't want the dog in the car, and another driver said he didn't mind the dog because he was "being nice," but wasn't required to carry the dog in his vehicle. 

One of the burdens the taxis have but the TNCs do not, yet, is a responsibility to provide wheelchair accessible cars and to guarantee access for the disabled. 

The TNCs, Lyft, Sidecar, Uber, and others were however required to file their disability access plans with the CPUC. Few touch on providing wheelchair access. They mostly mention non-discriminatory statements and giving access to the blind -- all fixes that don’t require changes to existing vehicles, only the companies’ apps.

Uber’s plan, laid about by parent company Rasier, mentions a checkbox for disability needs: “A user’s profile will have a field in which the user may indicate that she or he has a need for accessible vehicles and a field that allows a user to specify his or her access needs.”

But it also mentioned providing its own vehicles as well: “Rasier will reach out to transportation companies with accessible vehicles about the possibility of partnering with Rasier to provide accessible transportation to users of the App.”

We reached out to Uber spokesperson Andrew Noyes and asked what the company can do, if anything, to bridge the access gap for the disabled in the short term. Noyes said Uber has made its app more accessible to the disability community.

“Technology is rapidly transforming the transportation industry, and Uber is proud of the positive effect our technology has had on increasing the mobility and freedom of our users and partner-drivers with disabilities,” he said. 

He sent us an email laying out key points on Uber’s disability access: 

  • Uber has been lauded by many visually impaired riders for increasing their mobility with a reliable transportation request option that is adaptable to their needs.
  • Uber has taken significant steps to ensure accessibility of its app, including implementing full VoiceOver support for its iOS application.
  • Uber and Rasier have partnered with hearing-impaired drivers who use technology to communicate with their passengers.
  • Uber has made it easier and cheaper for patients to request transportation to and from medical appointments.
  • Uber maintains a policy that service animals should be accommodated as required by applicable laws.


None of those points touch on wheelchair accessible cars. Kate Toran, paratransit manager for the SFMTA, analyzed the disability-access proposals of the rideshare companies, reaching much the same conclusion.

“Simply adding a feature to an app that allows a rider to request a wheelchair accessible vehicle will be meaningless unless there are vehicles in the fleet and properly trained drivers,” she said.

Marzia Zafar said that as far as the CPUC is concerned, there isn’t enough data at this point to say why the disabled community isn’t riding taxis as often as they did before, despite the SFMTA’s presentation. 

“The commission will step in once we have information, verifiable information, that there’s a divide between the disabled and abled community,” she said. “If there is such discrimination (on part of the TNCs), we will step in and bridge that divide.”