In May 2015, Joe 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.

In May 2015, Joe 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.

John Rosman/OPB

In ongoing efforts to improve ride service from private-for-hire transportation companies for people with disabilities, the Portland Bureau of Transportation will launch a two-part program intended to increase the availability of wheelchair accessible vehicles.

The city says that, come June or July of this year, wheelchair users will be able to call a central dispatch center to order wheelchair-friendly rides from any participating local taxi company.

Also in the works are plans to pay ride providers a subsidy of $15-per-ride in wheelchair accessible vehicles, to help offset the additional costs of outfitting and operating the vehicles.

Nickole Cheron is Portland’s Disability Equity Policy Coordinator, and is a wheelchair user. Speaking recently on OPB’s “Think Out Loud,” she said she’d personally experienced long wait times for wheelchair accessible taxis in the past.

“It could end up being a whole hour to an hour and a half wait,” even if she pre-scheduled a ride the day before. “I have a job. I needed to be where I needed to be.” 

When Uber contentiously entered the Portland transportation market a few years ago, wait times for wheelchair accessible rides ordered by the app were often very long as well. OPB reported in 2015 that it took one wheelchair user about nine daytime hours to successfully summon an Uber ride.

Complicating the issue was the demand for wheelchair accessible vehicles for non-emergency medical transport, for which rides are often subsidized by Medicaid or insurance companies at significantly higher rates than non-medical, mileage rides for people like Cheron.

“A lot of the peak hours when someone might need a taxi were used for medical transport. So a lot of the Medicaid rides were being farmed out to taxis, because the medical transport companies weren’t able to provide the maximum of service that people required,” she said.

When the city of Portland updated its taxi regulations to bring companies like Uber — which the city refers to as transportation network companies, or TNCs — onto the market, it did away with requirements that a certain percentage of a company’s fleet be made up of wheelchair accessible vehicles. That’s because, as part of their business model, those companies don’t own their fleets of vehicles. Instead, the city set a performance standard that called for wheelchair accessible vehicles to reach riders in thirty minutes or less. Uber and Lyft, in turn, began to contract out their wheelchair accessible rides to third party companies.

“We basically said everyone has to provide this service,” said Cheron. “The transit network companies have to provide it, the taxis have to provide it. And so, there’s just way more now than there were say, five years ago.”

Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat agreed that wait times for wheelchair users have improved significantly in the years since the performance standard was set. But, she said, “many of them are still over thirty minutes, and we want to help fix that.”

Hence, the city’s new plans for a central dispatch and subsidies. They’ll both be funded by money from a $0.50 surcharge collected on all rides from private-for-hire transportation companies, which was implemented when the city updated its taxi regulations.

Treat explained that the taxi dispatch center will streamline the process for wheelchair users to find the vehicle closest to them, without having to call individual companies and compare wait times themselves. Also important, said Treat, is that the dispatch center will help the city collect better data on wheelchair accessible cab rides — data it will then use to disperse the $15-per-ride subsidies.

Taxi companies can opt to participate in the dispatch center or not, but they are required to if they want to receive subsidies from the city.

Some in the taxi industry have expressed concern that the dispatch center could negatively impact their business — already challenged by market saturation of Uber and Lyft vehicles — by diverting customers away from a taxi company’s direct dispatch.

Steve Entler, the general manager of Radio Cab, told OPB that the dispatch center would create a “whole new level of bureaucracy.”

Cheron said wheelchair users will still have the option to order rides from the cab company, or even the driver, of their preference, even if they’re farther away. That’s an important aspect of the program for her as a wheelchair user. 

“It’s a free market for everyone else, why shouldn’t it be for people with disabilities?” she asked.

Companies like Uber and Lyft will not be included in the central dispatch center. Riders will still need to order wheelchair accessible rides directly through those companies’ apps. But, the companies will still be eligible for the $15-per-ride subsidies, according to PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera.

As we start the program, we are trying to use each industry’s existing business model — telephone dispatch for taxis and app-based for transportation network companies,” he told OPB. “We are trying to improve service for people with disabilities within each business model.”

Treat explained on “Think Out Loud” that Uber and Lyft already provide monthly data to the city on their wheelchair accessible rides, which the city will use to determine the amount of subsidies they’ll receive.

Still uncertain is how exactly the subsidies will be dispersed, said Treat, “whether it’s going to go to the company, whether it’s going to go to the driver, whether it’ll be split between — that’s something the city council is going to have to make a decision on when we take the final regulations to them.”

In the case of companies like Uber and Lyft, said Rivera, it’s unlikely that any subsidies would go to the third-party services that are contracted to provide wheelchair-accessible rides. But, if drivers directly employed by TNCs have wheelchair accessible vehicles, they may be eligible to receive subsidies themselves.

Overall, said Treat, “what we are trying to do here through the $15 incentive is to actually incentivize more drivers to provide WAV [wheelchair accessible vehicle] rides, and for the cab companies to put their WAV vehicles in service more frequently. We’re hoping through a financial incentive there’s going to be more rides available, so the wait times would go down.”

KGW reported last month that, since the $0.50 surcharge on all rides was implemented, it had raised $6.7 million. That’s about double what’s been needed so far to fund the city’s enforcement of private-for-hire transportation regulations (including accessibility), leaving about a $3 million surplus.

When asked whether the city should lower the surcharge, Treat said no — the money could still be needed down the road, and “having some money to be flexible and nimble to respond to a changing industry, I think, is very important.”

“Also, it’s going to require action by our city council, so any time we would want to adjust this fee, we would have to go back in front of city council, and if we want to change the uses of it, we will have to go in front of city council as well,” Treat added.

Cheron said she’s excited about improving ride accessibility for people with disabilities like herself, and envisions a day where riders can go to a central app or phone number to order a timely, wheelchair-accessible ride from any company they choose.

“Just because people use wheelchairs, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to go about their day just like everybody else,” she said.

To hear more of Think Out Loud’s conversation with Nickole Cheron and Leah Treat, click the “play” button at the top of the page.