Transportation Network Companies Accused of Discrimination

By Stephanie Chuang
|  Friday, Mar 7, 2014  |  Updated 11:23 PM PDT
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A group of people with disabilities say companies like Uber and Lyft are bordering on discrimination. Stephanie Chuang reports.

A group of people with disabilities say companies like Uber and Lyft are bordering on discrimination. Stephanie Chuang reports.

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Accusations against transportation network companies like Uber are starting to get the attention of San Francisco city leaders, but they’re not accusations from just the taxi cab industry.

Another group is stepping forward – those in the disabled community.

Jonathan Lyens, a blind San Francisco resident, said he was trying to take Uber when the driver indicated he didn’t normally take animals in his car.

“I tried to explain to the driver, I understand this is your car but just want to make sure you understand this is what the law says. The law says I have the right to access public services with my guide dog,” said Lyens. “He said oh, that’s nice but that doesn’t really mean anything. This is my car and I can take whoever I want.”

Lyens showed NBC Bay Area the complaint he filed through the company’s app and got a response saying in part, “While the drivers are independent contractors and we cannot control their actions, we are taking this matter very seriously.”

Jamey Gump works at “Lighthouse for the Blind” in San Francisco. He said he normally has great experiences with Uber.

“Until last night when I requested an Uber in Fremont,” Gump said. “When the driver arrived he challenged me and said my pet was not allowed in the car.”

In a statement to NBC Bay Area Friday, Uber said that it has “been lauded by many visually impaired riders for increasing their mobility with a reliable transportation request option that is adaptable to their needs.”

The company specifically pointed to steps like ensuring “accessibility of its app, including implementing full VoiceOver support for its iOS application” and has partnered with “hearing-impaired drivers who use technology to communicate with their passengers.”

However, Tim Elder, a civil rights attorney who is blind, said the problems run across the board.

“People with sensory impairments like people who are blind or deaf, are they able to get the same information as non-disabled people when they’re using the technology,” Elder said. “On the flip side, are people with mobility impairments , like people in wheelchairs, are they able to access the service and have the same selection that non-disabled people have when using the apps.”

Elder warned that the transportation network companies (TNC) must be careful about this area, or it could veer into court.

“These TNCs are empowering their drivers to be selective. They can choose what areas of the city they want to service. They can choose not to accept a passenger.”

Lyens stressed he is actually a fan of Uber and other TNCs because they service the Richmond district where he lives, a place he said has few cabs.

“We we want to be their customers. We want to give them our money. To do that we need to have a way to get inside the car.”

At the same time, the city has had fewer available wheelchair-accessible services. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) said in January 2013 there were roughly 1,400 wheelchair rides within the paratransit system. By December, there were fewer than half at around 600.

Moreover, there’s 25 percent less wheelchair-accessible services, in part because companies said they simply don’t have enough drivers.

The TNCs are working under temporary operating agreements and have applied for permits. Part of the requirements set forth by the California Public Utilities Commission is an accessibility plan. It requires companies to eventually modify their smartphone apps to include functions like allowing passengers to state their access needs and adopt a policy that service animals will be accommodated.

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