Many people are eagerly looking forward to ride-hailing finally being available in Metro Vancouver, but Vince Miele is not one of them.
The Tsawwassen resident, who uses a wheelchair, said he and many others who have disabilities and use mobility aids will be left behind when services like Lyft and Uber begin operating, because they will be unusable by those who can’t get in and out of a standard vehicle.
“There’s been a erosion of access for people with disabilities, and I think this move to ride-hailing is just another step in this erosion,” said Miele. “It’s erosion because here’s another mode of transportation that’s being offered, and there’s a segment of the population that won’t be able to take advantage of it. I really feel that it’s a form of discrimination.”
Since last fall, the Passenger Transportation Board has been reviewing applications from ride-hailing companies that want to operate in B.C. To date, only one application — from a company planning to operate in Tofino and Whistler — has been approved.
When services do eventually start operating, ride-hailing drivers will use their personal vehicles, which means that few, if any, rides will be able to accommodate people who are unable to transfer to a vehicle seat or use mobility aids that can’t be easily stowed in a trunk or back seat.
Taxi companies are required to have wheelchair-accessible taxis in their fleet. According to statistics from the Passenger Transportation Board, about 14 per cent of taxis in the province are accessible, and about 19 per cent in Metro Vancouver, though it can still be difficult for people with disabilities to get an accessible cab.
There is no such requirement for ride-hailing companies.
“It’s quite insulting and disheartening and really makes you question whether our society is moving forward at all with any intention of greater accessibility when we continue to have things being introduced that aren’t accessible,” said Gabrielle Peters, who uses a manual wheelchair.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Transportation, “Drivers of ride-hailing vehicles must take all reasonable steps to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities,” including those with service dogs.
The only nod to “protecting accessibility” in provincial regulations is a 30-cent-a-trip fee for non-accessible ride-hailing vehicles. According to the provincial government, the fee will “support funding for accessibility programs,” but those programs have not been defined.
“We’ll be working on how to allocate these funds once applications are approved, companies start operating, and the per-trip fee revenue is collected,” the Ministry of Transportation said in an emailed statement.
The lack of clarity around how the money will be spent has been criticized.
“There should be a plan, there should be a timetable. Saying that is their mitigation of this is patently ridiculous. It’s an insult to people with disabilities, pure and simple,” said Greg Pyc, who has paraplegia and has used a wheelchair for more than 40 years.
It took the City of Ottawa almost two years to decide how to use the money it raised through the voluntary seven-cent-per-ride accessibility surcharge it implemented in late 2017. It lowered the cost of taxi coupons for people with disabilities, increased the number of coupons allowed per customer, and funded community agencies providing transportation in rural areas.
Toronto just implemented its fee, the proceeds of which will be used to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis.
Some believe a fee is not enough or is the wrong approach altogether.
“Accessibility is a conscious decision to create a society and things within it — systems, ideas, places, services, policies — that include everyone, not a surtax. That’s almost like charity, like tithing. It’s insulting,” said Peters.
Terry Green, chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities’ transportation committee, said the easiest way for governments to make services accessible is to build requirements into the licensing scheme, as they do with taxis. The reality, he said, is that governments are reluctant to do this for ride-hailing, because ride-hailing drivers use their own vehicles.
“My response is that this is a transportation service that is being offered to the public and it’s supposed to be offered equally to our citizens with disabilities. Consequently, they should be at least, in the spirit of the legislation, required to provide accessibility to the level of other transportation providers,” said Green.
Jutta Treviranus was distressed to hear that B.C. had not written accessibility requirements for people with disabilities into its regulations for ride-hailing, beyond charging the per trip fee.
“This is a human rights issue,” she said.
Treviranus is the director of Toronto’s Inclusive Design Research, and was involved, along with many others, in the development of ride-hailing regulations in Toronto, which include a requirement for companies with more than 500 vehicles to provide wheelchair-accessible service, and for drivers of accessible vehicles to go through training.
She said that without regulations and conditions on licensing, there is no obligation to do anything to make the service accessible. She doesn’t think it’s too late to do better in B.C.
“If Uber is not yet licensed, and they’ve been successful in keeping Uber out of the province, and Uber wants to get in to the province, now is the time to negotiate, and the negotiation should be to get equivalent service,” Treviranus said.
The lack of accessibility is not unique to B.C. Ride-hailing companies have faced backlash, including lawsuits, from people with disabilities and advocates. For instance, Uber has been sued for discrimination in New York and Lyft has been sued in California.
Uber’s head of Western Canada, Michael van Hemmen, was not available for an interview, but in an emailed statement he said when Uber first hits the road in Metro Vancouver, he does not anticipate wheelchair-accessible vehicles being available on the app “because drivers will be using their own vehicles, and most vehicles are not wheelchair accessible.”
However, he said Uber has written to the province to ask for access to revenue from the 30-cent per-trip accessibility fee to make wheelchair-accessible vehicles available on the app.
A Lyft spokesperson said in an emailed statement that accessibility is important to the company, and drivers are required to make every reasonable effort to transport passengers and their wheelchairs.
The two companies have services or features to accommodate people with disabilities — Uber has WAV and Assist, while Lyft has “Access Mode” — however, they’re not available in all markets.