UBER'S ARRIVAL last month began a new era in how Portlanders get around, but it's also highlighted a systemic problem within the private for-hire transportation industry: failure to provide equal service to clients who require specially equipped vehicles.
That's not getting any better, despite pledges from Uber and Lyft to serve Portland's non-ambulatory customers at the same level as everyone else. In fact, it's become more controversial.
Last week, equal access advocate Sue Stahl resigned her spot on the city's Private for-Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force—the volunteer group that hastily cobbled together new rules allowing so-called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) to operate alongside regular cabs in Portland during a four-month pilot program. Stahl says she quit because she's fed up with what she sees as the city's refusal to address basic civil rights.
"It's just been business as usual, which is a real shame because there was so much Portland could have done and I was excited to be a part of it," Stahl says. "It's not just the ride-sharing companies, it's the taxis, too."
Stahl's departure leaves the task force without an advocate for disabled riders' rights. Her input was crucial in the first phase, and continued advocacy for disabled riders will be needed as the group finalizes the rules that both cabs and TNCs must follow going forward.
Portland's tightly regulated taxi industry isn't known for its speedy response times to calls for rides—but for potential fares who want to hire a vehicle that meets standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), wait times can be as long as four hours, if a vehicle is available at all.
"It's a systemic problem and it's with the city," Stahl says. "It's mainly the task force, Commissioner [Steve] Novick, and the rest of his team."
She faults the task force for not adopting the "Portland Equal Access Plan," a set of guidelines created by a group of Lewis and Clark Law School students that Stahl says would have ensured parity for all riders.
Bryan Hockaday, a representative from Novick's office who acts as a liaison between the task force and Portland's Private for-Hire Transportation Board of Review, says the city recognizes the longtime problem.
"It's not just Uber. It's been an issue with the private for-hire transportation industry for decades and decades," Hockaday says. "It's a real challenge, for many reasons, to be able to provide reliable transport with such specialized and expensive vehicles when the demand for services is such a small percentage of overall calls for service."
Under current city guidelines, Uber and Lyft are supposed to give non-ambulatory customers service that's similar to what they offer Portlanders without special needs. That's not happening.
In a story published last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported on one non-ambulatory man who made more than 15 attempts over nine hours before the Uber app was able to connect him with a ride that could accommodate his wheelchair.
The story introduced the idea that Uber and Lyft might be able to hire drivers who own wheelchair-accessible vehicles to serve disabled customers. Uber says it's interested, but that's a tricky proposition.
"Most of the people who own ADA-equipped vehicles I've talked to say they're not interested because their equipment is so expensive that the risk is too high," says Wynde Dyer, a Green Cab driver and Uber foe who recently started accepting fares in an ADA-equipped van.
Dyer says to buy the van she drives and retrofit it with an ADA-compliant wheelchair lift cost Green Cab about $41,000.
Jemal Mfundshi, an employee at wheelchair van purveyor Performance Mobility in Northeast Portland and a 20-year wheelchair user, says fitting a vehicle with a wheelchair lift can increase the cost of the vehicle anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000, depending on the equipment the wheelchair-user needs.
"There are really two distinctions," he says. "I can use any vehicle that I can fit into for my personal use, but in order to meet ADA criteria for commercial use, the vehicles have to meet very specific criteria."
Even if a wheelchair user with a personally fitted wheelchair van wanted to accept fares as a ride-share driver, it's possible the van wouldn't qualify as commercially ADA acceptable, Mfundshi says.
"Do I expect to get a wheelchair van as quickly as an ambulatory person now?" he asks. "No. I don't feel access is equal at this point, and I don't think companies like Uber should get to come in and increase their market share without increasing access."
The city last week approached Mfundshi as a possible replacement for Stahl on the TNC task force. He says he'll need to learn more about the position, the time it would require, and whether there would be a conflict of interest with his day job before he will commit.