Do Transportation Networking Companies Like Uber and Lyft Offer a Viable Alternative to Taxicabs for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired?
By Ron Brooks
American Council of the Blind
Ask ten people who are blind or visually impaired to share the top three challenges they face, and one thing is certain. Transportation will be somewhere on each and every list.
We all deal with the transportation challenge in different ways. Some of us can use public bus, rail or other forms of public transit to get where we need to go. Others of us depend on ADA paratransit to get from Point A to B. Still other blind and visually impaired people hire taxicabs or personal drivers. Still others of our cohort must rely on friends and family to get around. Most of us probably use a mix of these strategies: transit for the trip to and from work, paratransit for shopping, a taxi to get us to the airport, and a friend or family member when we need to run around town for the Saturday list of errands.
Over the past few years, a new travel option has begun to emerge. Transportation Networking Companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are changing the transportation landscape, offering a new technology-based transportation product that is more flexible, more cost-effective and in many ways, one of the most exciting travel products to hit the market in a long time. On the other hand, these new services pose new challenges: the accessibility of the technology, the quality and safety of the service, and the potential for discrimination against those of us who travel with service animals.
In 2014, the membership of the American Council of the Blind, led by the members of one of the ACB’s largest special interest affiliates, Guide Dog Users, Inc., adopted a resolution at the ACB’s 2014 Conference and Convention, calling on the ACB (with input from Guide Dog Users, Inc.) to research these new transportation services and to prepare a white paper, explaining how the new products work and the extent to which they meet the needs of ACB’s and GDUI’s members
Within the body of this paper, we will define the term “Transportation Networking Companies”, provide examples of services being provided by TNC’s, discuss how these services differ from more traditional taxicab services, explore the extent to which these services are geared to meet the needs of ACB and GDUI members, discuss “pro’s” and “con’s” of this service model for people who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise disabled, and then close with resources for additional information.
What is a Transportation Network Company?
A Transportation Network Company (TNC) is a company that uses Internet-based technology (typically a smart phone app) to link individuals selling transportation (drivers) with individuals who need transportation (customers). Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are perhaps the most well known of the TNC’s, but others include Wingz, Summon and Haxi. Some larger taxi and retail transportation providers have also created on-line technologies which enable customers to access networks of drivers directly. Examples of these tools include ZTrip (available in a number of major taxi markets across the country) and Rideshare (available primarily in the Phoenix metropolitan area).
How Do Services Provided by TNC’s Work?
The products offered by each of the TNC’s differ slightly, but in general, the TNC uses software (usually a smart phone app) to connect drivers with customers. Here’s how.
- The TNC recruits individuals to serve as drivers. Drivers must provide a vehicle that meets minimum requirements established by the company and pass the company’s insurance, background and training requirements.
- Once qualified as a driver, the driver downloads software which enables his/her vehicle (when logged in) to be visible to the company’s software.
In order to receive transportation requests from customers, the driver must:
- Create a profile within the system that generally includes the driver’s name, and the year, make and model of the driver’s vehicle. Some TNC’s also require drivers to create a more robust profile that will help to better match customers and drivers.
- Log into the software so that the driver’s location is visible to the technology and to any customer whose trip the driver agrees to provide.
- When logged in, be available to accept trips requested by customers.
The TNC advertises its product to customers—often using on-line marketing, social media, etc. In order to receive service, customers must:
- Download the company’s software/app
- Create a profile that includes the customer’s name, a picture (usually optional), and credit or debit card information which enables the customer’s trips to be billed by the TNC.
Taking a trip on a service like Uber, Lyft, Sidecar or one of the other TNC-provided products generally works as follows:
- The customer opens the app on his/her smart phone.
- The app uses the smart phone’s location to pinpoint the customer’s location. This location is generally fairly accurate, but the apps allow the customer to correct or revise the actual location, thereby improving the accuracy of the customer’s location.
- Once the app pinpoints the customer’s location, the app calculates the distance from the customer to the nearest driver who is currently logged in and available. Most of these apps allow customers to set parameters which will help to ensure that the vehicle will be appropriate to meet the customer’s needs. For example: Uber and Lyft allow customers to request a larger vehicle for parties of four or more. Some of these apps (such as ZTrip) show all of the vehicles who are available within a given geographic region as a means of letting the customer know how many vehicles might be available at the time the customer wishes to travel. (Drivers who are not logged in, and drivers who are currently providing other trips are not considered when determining the closest driver to the customer’s location. This ensures that customers have a more realistic idea of the vehicles which are actually available at any given time.)
- Once the app pinpoints the customer’s location and that of the nearest driver (or drivers), the customer can use the app to request a trip.
- Once the customer requests a trip, the app offers the trip to the nearest appropriate driver (based on the customer’s location and any parameters such as vehicle size). The driver who receives the offered trip can accept the trip or decline it for any reason. Reasons that a driver might refuse a trip include, but are not limited to: distance to the customer, or a low customer rating (described later in this paper).
- Once the driver accepts the customer’s trip request, the app informs the customer and provides the driver’s name, the driver’s picture, a picture of the driver’s vehicle and information about the driver’s vehicle. The customer is also given the ability to call or text the driver. Some of the apps also provide access to the driver’s profile.
- As the driver proceeds toward the customer, the built-in map shows the location of customer and driver, and the app provides the driver’s estimated time of arrival (ETA).
- At any point prior to the driver’s arrival, the customer or the driver can cancel the trip. However, some of the apps will charge a fee if the customer cancels the trip.
- Once the vehicle arrives, the app notifies the customer (usually with a push notification and a text message. At this point, the customer is expected to immediately board the vehicle for his/her trip. Drivers are expected to wait a reasonable amount of time, and generally, drivers will wait because they have already invested time to get to the customer. However, if a customer does not show up for the trip, the driver may be entitled to a trip cancellation fee, and the driver will almost certainly provide a poor rating for the customer.
- Once the trip begins, the app tracks the time and distance of the trip. This becomes the basis for charging the customer for service.
- At the end of the trip, the driver presses a button on his/her phone, ending the trip, and the customer exits the vehicle.
- Unlike traditional taxicab service, customers do not pay their drivers. Instead, the app charges the customer’s account which is linked to a credit or debit card provided by the customer. The customer can add a tip and provide comments which are given to the driver anonymously. The driver also has the opportunity to rate the customer.
- A key feature of products like Uber and Lyft is the ability of drivers to rate customers and customers to rate drivers. For example: a Lyft customer is invited to rate each driver on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the best) and to provide specific comments to the driver. Customers can comment on the driver’s safety, navigation, vehicle condition, etc. Customer comments are presented anonymously. Drivers are also invited to rate customers. Ratings may be based on the customer’s promptness, courtesy, etc. If a customer rates his/her driver below a pre-determined threshold (on Lyft, it is 3 stars or fewer), that customer’s trips will never be given to the same driver again. This is also true for any driver who rates a customer below the same pre-determined threshold. These ratings are designed to encourage better quality by drivers and better behavior by customers.
How TNC’s are Different from Traditional Taxi and Other Transportation Companies
Many taxi companies have introduced their own software that enables customers to use their PC’s and smart phones to request trips, to monitor the progress of their drivers, and to pay for service. This fact gtends to blur the lines between services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar on the one hand and services like GoFastCab and Curb on the other. The key difference is that taxi companies who use services like Curb and Go Fast Cab maintain contractual agreements with their drivers (generally in the form of a vehicle lease), but companies like Uber and Lyft do not. Drivers for TNC’s provide their own vehicles and merely agree to meet the TNC’s minimum requirements in order to receive trips. In fact, many drivers for TNC’s operate service for other TNC’s and/or for other transportation companies. It is not unusual to find drivers who spend a portion of their time leasing a taxi and driving for a traditional taxi company, only to spend additional time using their own vehicle to work for one or more TNC’s.
What Does Service Provided by TNC’s Cost?
The cost of service provided by TNC’s vary, but typically, services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar cost less than traditional taxicab service. In fact, in some markets, the difference in price may be as much as 30%. However, some of the TNC’s use what is generally referred to as “surge pricing”. Surge pricing means that prices can go higher at times when demand for service is high. (Surge prices may range from slightly more than standard rates to several times higher than standard rates, so it is important to know what the surge pricing rules for the TNC are before proceeding.) When surge pricing is in effect, TNC apps like Uber and Lyft will generally advise the customer so that he/she can make an informed decision about whether or not to book the trip.
Are Services Provided by TNC’s Accessible to People with Disabilities?
The accessibility of services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar is a mixed bag. Here’s why.
- The accessibility of the apps varies by product and depending on the operating system used, e.g. VoiceOver for Apple devices vs. speech products available for Android phones. In general, the apps for Uber and Lyft are relatively accessible. Map functionality is not great, but the text-based elements of the apps work well—including the vehicle’s ETA.
- Vehicle accessibility varies widely, both by product and by city. For example: Uber has launched wheelchair accessible services in several markets, including New York City, Washington DC and elsewhere. However, comments on a number of accessibility-related blogs indicate that Uber’s definition of wheelchair access is not universal and may not meet all accessibility provisions of the ADA.
- Service animals are welcome, but some individuals who use service animals have experienced discrimination by drivers who don’t want to transport service animals. (Uber has been called out specifically, and the NFB has filed a suit against Uber on this issue.) (Of course, guide dog handlers have experienced similar discrimination from taxi drivers, and it is arguable that the driver rating systems employed by companies like Uber and Lyft may actually give customers who use service animals more leverage to ensure better access for themselves and their guides.)
One of the challenges that customers with disabilities face when using services like Sidecar, Lyft and Uber is what to do when there is a problem. Information regarding how to file a complaint or a claim of discrimination is available via the web but not readily available from the apps. The accessibility-related information is a bit difficult to find on-line. Uber’s website indicates that accessible service is available in some locations, but the text is somewhat vague. When discussing the access to accessible vehicles, Lyft presents a list, organized by city, of other companies that customers can contact for accessible service, leading to the logical conclusion that Lyft really has little or no wheelchair accessible service to offer. Finally, on-line information regarding each company’s policy on guide dogs and other service animals is hard to find and somewhat vague. (In general, service animal and other accessibility-related information is buried in the “Help” section of each company’s website, and it is not available via each company’s app.) Therefore, it is a good idea to have these sites bookmarked in your smart phone’s Internet browser—just in case.
What are the “Pro’s” and “Con’s” of Services Like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar?
- Pro – TNC’s generally cost less than traditional taxi service. The exception is when surge pricing is in effect.
- Pro – Services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar allow customers to pay without having to present cash or a credit card. This is not only convenient. It also makes the trip quicker, gets around the inaccessibility of most of the in-vehicle taxi equipment currently in use across the country, and promotes the safety of passengers and drivers who do not have to store or handle cash.
- Pro – TNC apps tend to be relatively accessible, and they provide critical information such as the drivers’ name, contact information for the driver, information about the vehicle and the driver’s ETA.
- Pro – Service quality tends to be at least as good as with that offered by traditional taxicabs. This is because customers rate drivers, and drivers rate customers.
- Pro – Although some drivers may discriminate against people using service animals, most guide dog handlers who use both services report that discrimination is more prevalent on taxicabs.
- Con – At times, the cost of services like Uber and Lyft may be higher, due to surge pricing.
- Con – If service is busy, it may not be possible to book a trip at all.
- Con – If a customer needs an accessible vehicle, it may be difficult to obtain one from services like Lyft, Sidecar and Uber. (This may also be true for most taxi companies.)
Are Services of the TNC’s Legal?
In most markets, traditional taxicab services are heavily regulated. However, in most markets, regulations are not set up to govern services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. Thus, the regulatory environment is less defined, and it is evolving. Generally, customers are not responsible for the legal compliance of these services. However, a customer’s ability to sue or recover damages from a TNC may be impacted by the regulatory environment. Thus, while the legal environment may not impact the cost or quality of service, it may impact the customer’s rights when something goes a rye.