• By: Eric Murphy

Uber and the accessibility question

Above: A user organizing a ride through UberAssist. Photo by Eric Murphy.

Ottawa’s plan to legalize Uber has locals who use accessible taxis concerned that the service they’ve fought for and relied on for years may be drawn-back, or even cease to exist.

“In Ottawa I can call West-Way taxi, or Capital Taxi or Blueline, say ‘I need a wheelchair accessible vehicle to pick me up at my house,’ and I get it,” says Peter McGrath, a lawyer for the federal government who uses a power wheelchair.

This service is essential for anyone like McGrath who needs to stay seated in their wheelchair while travelling. They cannot use Uber’s new Assist service because it does not require vehicles to have ramps, and Para Transpo is a poor alternative because riders have to schedule their trips well in advance.

If poor business forces the taxis to scale back, McGrath is afraid he’ll be left without a ride.

Peter McGrath is a lawyer for the federal government and a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

“What will the city do to ensure that accessible vehicles are available 24 hours a day?” he asks.

Councillor Diane Deans, who led the planning committee that oversaw the proposed taxi regulation changes, says that Ottawa’s accessible taxis aren’t going anywhere.

“I can’t imagine the taxi business ever going out of business,” says Deans. “They have $9 million in accessibility service alone. They have all of the phone-call arranged taxi service in the city.”

Furthermore, Deans’ committee has recommended that if Uber is legalized, the ride-hailing company should have to either dedicate at least 15 per cent of its driving time in Ottawa to accessible vehicles, or pay 30 cents from every Uber ride into a fund for accessible services. Technically, the city currently isn't able to force Uber to pay that 30 cent surcharge, but Deans says that they are pursuing the provincial authority that will let them do just that.

“That money would go into a pool and we would work with the Accessibility Advisory Committee to determine how best to use those funds,” Deans says.

Peter McGrath doesn’t share Deans’ confidence in Ottawa’s taxi service or the new fund.

“If Uber crowds out all the cab service, and why wouldn’t they, how are the cabs going to compete?” he asks.

McGrath doesn’t believe the cab companies can survive off of the $9 million accessibility service or the business that would come from phone calls and people who pay in cash. He is also concerned that the 30 cent surcharge on Uber rides would be largely directed to Para Transpo. McGrath argues that because you have to book it in advance, Para Transpo is woefully inadequate. He’s not alone in that thinking.

“I use Para Transp . . . but it’s kind of my last resort,” says 21-year-old Sarah Mercer, who uses a manual wheelchair. “If something comes up, I can’t just call Para Transpo and have them pick me up.”

Mercer’s experience with accessible cabs hasn’t been perfect either. She’s called them and been left waiting for half an hour or a full hour, and sometimes they never arrive. One night, after waiting for roughly two hours for an accessible taxi, she used Uber instead.

“I’ve never really had a problem with [Uber] showing up on time,” Mercer says.

Some fear that the taxi companies may be edged out of the market, leaving a gap in accessible service. Photo by Eric Murphy.

Since Mercer uses a manual wheelchair, she can have an Uber driver help fold up her chair and store it in the car. However, people who must stay seated in an electric wheelchair, like McGrath, don’t have that option. Neither traditional Uber drivers nor those in the UberAssist service that launched in Ottawa on March 23 have the ramps or space that he needs.

Uber does have a power chair accessible service called UberWAV that’s available in a number of cities, including Toronto, but even if it were to come to Ottawa, McGrath is skeptical about the reliability of UBER’s model.

“The problem is that Uber is just an app . . . they don’t own their own fleet of vehicles,” he says. “I can request a wheelchair accessible van. What they can’t guarantee is that a wheelchair accessible van will be available.”

Users in other cities have faced that problem. In a 2015 article from Wired, a group of protesters weren’t able to summon an UberWAV vehicle while standing right in front of the company’s Manhattan headquarters.

“I’m not sitting here trying to cause a problem,” McGrath says. “If UberWAV can guarantee that they will provide more accessible trips than what’s currently available in the city of Ottawa now, sure, I’m happy to have it.”