Jennifer and Peter Mendoza believe transportation network companies can increase access.
Back in 2012, Jennifer Mendoza was walking through San Francisco and noticed a bunch of cars with pink mustaches. “I Googled, found out what Lyft was, and said, ‘I have got to be a part of that.’”
At the time she and her husband, Peter, didn’t own a vehicle because public transit served them well. The very next year they moved from Berkeley to Marin, purchased an accessible ramp van that could accommodate Peter’s power wheelchair, and Jennifer became a Lyft driver.
“We talked about Lyft a lot and eventually I went to work for Lyft briefly, as a consultant on accessibility.” says Peter, a 35-year-long activist for accessible transportation who has cerebral palsy. “I, too, wanted to change the world. Unfortunately, Lyft decided not to move forward on accessibility. Today, if you go on Lyft’s app, you get a link to paratransit and other transportation resources.”
Why? Not enough owners of wheelchair accessible vehicles are signing up as drivers for either Lyft or Uber. The Mendozas note that when the California Public Utilities Commission voted to regulate Lyft and Uber in California, they required the companies to develop strategies and offer incentives for drivers of accessible vehicles.
“I don’t think people have come forward because there has not been enough outreach,” says Peter. “We really need the community of people with disabilities to come together and be a part of the conversation with Lyft and Uber.”
“It appears Lyft and Uber have yet to develop a strategy that will encourage drivers of accessible vehicles to operate on their platforms,” says Jennifer, who drove for UberWAV — Uber’s wheelchair accessible option.
Unfortunately, Jennifer received word in late March that she could no longer drive for UberWAV, as Uber has decided all van conversions must have been done by a NMEDA-certified technician. The Mendoza van, fairly new, meets all federal requirements, but is not NMEDA certified.
But it was good while it lasted, and Jennifer was the only Uber driver of a privately-owned WAV that she’s aware of, working about 30 hours a week. Usually drivers do not work set hours, but rather sign in to the app when they are ready and available to pick up a ride. But Jennifer committed to a set amount of hours so UberWAV would work for people with disabilities in her community.
Now, say the Mendozas, it’s hard to get San Francisco Uber to commit to a beefier WAV program because they say the demand isn’t there. From the Mendozas’ perspective, that’s because of the barriers the TNC is putting up to drivers. Fix that problem, and the riders will follow.
“These barriers come from a lack of understanding about accessible transportation, and it’s only going to work if there’s a better understanding of what accessibility is, and what it can be,” says Peter. “One of the things that needs to happen, too, is all the people working on accessibility for Uber need to get on the same page. You might find one thing in one market and another in another market.”
“So we’ve made ourselves available to Uber and Lyft to find drivers to talk about incentives and clear up myths,” continues Jennifer. “One myth that Lyft believed was that most personally-owned vans are not compatible with most wheelchairs, and so it’s not possible for a peer-to-peer model to work. Maybe they’re thinking EZ Lock, but most on a peer-to-peer platform would generally use the four securements and a seat belt. But they think it’s complicated and inconsistent.”
The California Public Utility Commission ought to step in and define what a wheelchair accessible vehicle is, say the Mendozas, who would like to get them started with this: a vehicle that can accommodate a power wheelchair, with a ramp or a lift installed; a conversion completed by a recognized mobility vehicle conversion company, consisting of four floor securement/tie down devices in the passenger seating area, and a lap/shoulder seat belt large enough to accommodate a standard size power chair; and that all adaptations meet/maintain Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
So with all of these problems, the couple must be pretty down on TNCs, right? Wrong. “We’re super pro-Uber and Lyft being accessible,” say the Mendozas. “We support the platform because it can increase options for people with disabilities. We wouldn’t support them if we didn’t believe there was a path to accessibility.”