Uber aims to offer more wheelchair-accessible rides with shorter wait times

Uber has long received flack for its lack of widely available wheelchair-accessible rides. Today, Uber is taking steps to ensure riders who rely on wheelchairs can get rides when they need them, and without having to wait more than 15 minutes. That’s thanks to a partnership with MV Transportation, a paratransit service provider that operates across 30 states and Canada.

Through the partnership, Uber will be able to add hundreds of wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) to its platform across six markets. In New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Toronto, Uber riders can expect wait times of 15 minutes or less on average. Over the next year, the plan is to get average wait times in San Francisco and Los Angeles down to 15 minutes. Uber says rides in those eight cities account for half of all Uber trips in North America.

Because Uber doesn’t own any of the vehicles, the company has historically been dependent upon everyday people — many of whom do not have wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“I think the reality is most folks who use folding wheelchairs have a good experience but our model doesn’t work for people who use powered wheelchairs,” Uber Head of Global Policy for Accessibility and Underserved Communities Malcom Glenn told TechCrunch.

So over the last couple of years, Uber has explored a variety of models, Glenn said.

“The model we think is going to be able to get a large supply of WAVs on the platform is through commercial relationships — working with transportation providers who already have access to a large supply of wheelchair-accessible vehicles,” Glenn said.

All of the rides offered via this partnership are operated in vehicles owned by MV and operated by their trained drivers. The cost for WAV riders via the MV partnership will be the same as the cost of UberX, Glenn said. But given the cost of buying, maintaining and modifying wheelchair-accessible vehicles, Uber is investing heavily in making sure MV can offer Uber riders what they’re looking for.

“We’re making a pretty significant investment in making sure there’s reliability,” Glenn said. “Uber invests heavily in MV to make sure we’re getting the reliability all parties want.”

He added, “It’s a quite sizeable investment that we’re making but we think it’s the right thing to do in the long term.”

Uber first launched a service geared toward people with disabilities in 2014, with the launch of Uber Access. Through Uber Access, passengers can request UberASSIST and UberWAV, which is geared toward people with wheelchairs. Though, Uber Access is not available in all of Uber’s markets and is dependent upon Uber’s ability to partner with commercial providers.

This partnership, for example, does not cover Jackson, Miss., where Uber faced a lawsuit last year over its lack of wheelchair-accessible rides.

“I think we chose the cities we chose for a couple of reasons,” Glenn said. “They’re among the largest cities in which we operate. When we launch in places with large operations, we cover more people. In terms of the specifics of where we’ll go and when, I think we’re committed to getting to as many places as is reasonable to be able to get the wait times we think people should be able to expect. We want to figure out how we can make sure the service works in as best a way as possible.”

Last year, Uber was sued many times over its lack of wheelchair-accessible rides. But Uber competitor Lyft has faced similar legal challenges. Earlier this year, Disability Rights Advocates filed a class-action lawsuit against Lyft alleging the ride-hailing company discriminates against people who use wheelchairs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In addition to working with MV, Uber has additional accessibility partnerships in place. Uber, for example, also works with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to operate a paratransit pilot.

“We’re committed to making accessibility a meaningful part of what we do, and we’re proud to be doing our part to enable improved access to transportation for people with disabilities,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a blog post. “We know there is still a long way to go—and that we’re at the beginning, not the end, of this journey.”