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Uber, Lyft Ordinance Snubs Disabled in 'Last-Minute' Ploy, Critics Say

By Alisa Hauser | June 30, 2016 9:27am | Updated on July 5, 2016 10:59am
 Chicago wheelchair users talk about challenges with the city's ride share system.
Chicago Wheelchair Users
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CHICAGO — Members of Chicago's disabled community are furious over an ordinance passed last week by the City Council that does not require any cars in Uber or Lyft's fleet to be wheelchair accessible for at least the next year.

"[Uber] should have cabs. So what, I'm paraplegic. I can't go nowhere? I don't want to be quiet about this," said Antoine Purdis, a Wicker Park resident who uses a wheelchair.

An earlier version of the ordinance, introduced in March by Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council's Transportation Committee, required a minimum of 5 percent of Uber's fleet to be wheelchair accessible.

After Lyft and Uber threatened the tougher law would force them to leave Chicago, a substitute ordinance that did not require any cars to be accessible passed 33-15 in the City Council. 

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who voted against the plan, said that since his "no" vote, some have accused him of being "for the big taxi guys."

"There are no big taxi guys. Medallions are all junk now. It's about not throwing people in the disability community under the bus," Waguespack said.

Under a substitute ordinance, ride services such as Uber and Lyft have six months to develop a plan to improve accessibility, and another six months to implement the plan, or face a $10,000 per-day fine.

John Moberg, chairman of the Illinois Transportation Trade Association and owner of Checker, Blue Diamond and American United taxi groups, said he supported the original ordinance but not the version that passed.

"The disabled community was given a cold shoulder, they were snubbed. This was a last-minute ploy that the mayor got away with," Moberg said.

Beale, whose proposal for Uber and Lyft drivers to be fingerprinted and drug tested was cut from the original ordinance, supported the weakened ordinance.

"I am still disappointed that the ride-sharing companies don’t have to provide any meaningful access to disabled Chicagoans, which was part of my original proposal. We will obviously have to see what the companies ultimately propose, but we are slowly but surely moving in the right direction," Beale said.

To accommodate riders with disabilities, Uber's new UberWAV service will dispatch an accessible taxi from its app.

Then, the difference between the Uber or Lyft fare and taxi fare will be paid by the city’s Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Fund, an account intended to increase the number of wheelchair accessible taxis on the road, according to Access Living, a disabled advocacy group.

Access Living called the substitute ordinance "a slap in the face to the disability community." 

Officials offered conflicting information on whether Uber and Lyft would get a "finder's fee" for setting up the rides.

Charles Petrof, a lawyer for Access Living, said aldermen told his group on the day the ordinance passed that the companies would get a $2 fee.

But Mika Stambaugh, a spokeswoman with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, denied that there will be a finder fee paid to the companies. She also indicated that the ride-hailing companies will be responsible for paying the difference in fare between what they would have charged and what an accessible taxi charges.

"We are still figuring out how this is all going to roll out. We are working with ride-share companies and the disability industry to make sure that everyone's happy," Stambaugh said.

In an email, Jennifer Mullin, spokeswoman for Uber, said that "the fee structure has not been decided by the city yet (to my knowledge)" for connecting Uber users to wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Petrof acknowledged there were many unknowns.

"What it was announced as was one thing, what it will become is something different. How the city will interpret this bill is in question and how the ride-share companies will respond to this bill is in question, too," Petrof said.

There are 175 wheelchair accessible cabs in the city, or 2.7 percent of an active fleet of 6,273, Stambaugh said.

In April, the city announced several financial incentives to encourage taxi cabs owners to get 400 wheelchair cabs on the streets by 2018.

Moberg is skeptical the industry will be able to reach a goal of 400 accessible cabs, especially considering hundreds of licensed cabs are not even in use right now due to economic conditions, including competition from Uber and Lyft.

"At least 60 percent of fleets are behind in payments and one-third are seriously behind," Moberg said, predicting bankruptcies that will further deplete the number of active cabs. 

Some wheelchair users who require just a bit of assistance say they've been ignored by Uber drivers. Joey Gugliotta, a Wicker Park resident, said he was recently refused service.

"He said the chair would not fit in the car. I can get in and out of a car. My chair is foldable," Gugliotta said.

Mullin said that all Uber drivers "are expected to accommodate riders using walkers, canes, folding wheelchairs or other assistive devices to the maximum extent possible."

David Tuffs, a driver of a wheelchair accessible cab, charged that "Emanuel is using the city's accessibility fund to subsidize Uber."

"If you want a wheelchair taxi, call the city's Open Taxi number. Nobody in a wheelchair should be using Uber," Tuffs said.

People who need wheelchair accessible cabs can call a city-run ParaTransit service that costs $3 per trip. Wheelchair accessible cabs can be ordered by calling 1-855-WAV-1010 or through the Open Taxi app.

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