Four weeks have passed since Uber legally re-launched its service in Portland on April 24, after the city council, in a divided vote, approved a 4-month long experiment in taxi deregulation.
“We didn’t roll over when Uber came to town illegally. We fought back,” Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick said at the time.
One of the city’s victories in the negotiations that allowed Uber to re-launch was Uber’s commitment to provide wheelchair-accessible rides. Uber provides some form of wheelchair-accessible service in several other cities, including San Francisco, Chicago and New York, but Portland was the first place where the company agreed to launch its wheelchair option, which it calls the WAV view, from the start.
Uber, which the city refers to as a “Transportation Network Company” (TNC), doesn’t own its own fleet of vehicles. So it announced it would partner with First Transit, a national para-transit company, to provide accessible rides.
“What I am especially proud of is that we are insisting that the TNCs meet a standard of service for people with disabilities,” said Novick.
Today, the more than 500 drivers who have joined Uber outnumber permitted taxis in Portland. At any given time of day, the app shows a dozen or so cars cruising the streets, waiting to connect with customers.
It’s a different story, however, if you try to request a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The app generally responds “No WAV Cars available.”
“They admit that they have no capacity to meet our need, so I wasn’t surprised,” said Joe VanderVeer, former chairman of Portland’s Commission on Disabilities.
VanderVeer works as an assistant for a law firm and lives with his wife, Pam, and their dog, Zell, in a tidy apartment in the hills of Southwest Portland.
When he was 4 years old, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. It damaged the part of his brain that controls movement and balance, and for most of his life, VanderVeer has used a wheelchair.
Last week, VanderVeer spent several days testing Uber’s wheelchair-accessible service. It took him more than 15 attempts and nine hours checking the app before he was able to successfully request a ride to the grocery store. He had no complaints about the ride itself.
“He was an awesome driver. It was a great experience overall,” VanderVeer said. “He’s the only driver. I hope they get the daytime thing figured out, because it would be nice to be able to use Uber during the day.”
As a test, VanderVeer also tried requesting an accessible ride using Broadway Cab — not something he generally does, due to the long waits he’s experienced using taxi services in the past. A wheelchair-accessible cab showed up at his door within 35 minutes.
Based on their own description of what they offer, Uber’s service appears to fall well short of the city’s requirements that transportation app companies provide equitable service to people with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs.
The contractor Uber works with to provide wheelchair vans, First Transit, has no drivers working on the Uber platform during the day on weekdays, and has just one van driver working on call from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
On weekends, the numbers are a bit better — Uber and First Transit have three vans available, though again, they only appear to provide service in the evenings.
“Uber does not own any vehicles, so we are reliant upon existing providers in the market in order to help provide that service,” said Brooke Steger, Uber’s general manager for the Northwest.
“Fundamentally, there’s a problem, because we have not been able to find supply during the day.”
Steger said most of the wheelchair-accessible vans in Portland, including those operated by First Transit, are booked by people who need need non-emergency medical transportation, and it’s difficult for Uber to compete with that demand.
“These trips are billed back to Medicaid, insurance and federal grants. They bill at a much higher rate than your typical UberX trip would be,” she said. UberX is the company’s basic service.
New Service Standards
Last month, when the city announced it was rolling out a regulatory pilot program that allowed Uber and other ride-finding app companies to operate legally, it changed its requirements around wheelchair service.
The pilot program reduced the number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles taxi companies have to invest in, from 20 percent of their fleet to 10 percent. It also created a new standard that applies to both taxi companies and ride services like Uber, requiring service to be “reasonably prompt” and “equitable.”
The standard ramps up each month during the 120-day pilot program. By August, there should be no more than a 20-minute difference in the time it takes wait for a wheelchair van ride and a regular ride.
Portland’s pilot program also requires “a dispatch system in operation 24 hours each day capable of providing reasonably prompt service.”
Bryan Hockaday is a staffer for Portland Commissioner Steve Novick. He said the city wasn’t aware Uber’s service would not be available most weekday hours.
“We don’t know the full details of their capacity to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicle service,” he said. “We do know that citywide, service is limited. We’re not connecting enough of these vehicles to provide timely service to those who need it.”
Hockaday stressed that the pilot program is designed to be an experiment, and to identify gaps in supply and demand.
“This issue is not new. It’s not an issue exclusive to Uber,” he said. “Wheelchair-accessible service in the private-for-hire industry has been quite limited and quite unreliable for years now in Portland.”
Hockaday said staff with the Transportation Bureau will be conducting compliance checks in the coming months. The city is also urging people with disabilities to book rides and fill out a survey to report on their experiences.
So far, Uber reports that just eight people in wheelchairs have used the app to request a rides.
“We need the community to let us know. It’s really essential that everyone who is experiencing this outage is contacting us, so we really have an idea of how many people out there are being affected,” said Nickole Cheron, Portland’s disability program coordinator.
For his part, Joe VanderVeer has proposed an elegant solution to Uber’s van supply problem: recruit family and friends from the disability community who own wheelchair vans and are interested in earning extra income driving part-time.
“I’m dying to drive for Uber. I would do it all day, every day, this summer,” said VanderVeer’s wife, Pam. “We have the best wheelchair van you could ask for.”
The couple has a wheelchair-accessible 2014 Honda Odyssey.
Pam has a disability herself — a genetic condition that means she has a short stature and brittle bones. She would love to supplement her income as an on-call medical transcriptionist. The couple is hoping to buy a house.
“It’s an issue of, ‘Can I use your service as a customer? And can I participate in the employment opportunity you’re offering?’ ” said Joe VanderVeer.
But while the couple has proposed the idea to Uber, they have yet to figure out how to make it work. They have concerns about whether Uber’s collision coverage would be adequate for their van, which is worth about $80,000. And the company doesn’t yet have a system for letting private drivers like Pam use its app to provide wheelchair-accessible rides.
Brooke Steger, the Uber executive, said she agrees that partnering with people like the VanderVeers who own accessible vans and are interested in working as drivers will be key to improving the company’s service.
“The opportunity is 100 percent there,” she said. “There’s an additional in-person training that’s going to be required. We’re working with providers and the city to create that training program and put people through it.”