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Ridesharing's accessibility struggles could have consequences for AVs

A van with Lyft and Uber window stickers moves through traffic in Manhattan
A car with Lyft and Uber window stickers moves through traffic in Manhattan. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Even as ridesharing companies expand their offerings and look towards AV deployment, many people with disabilities are still unable to access today's shared vehicles.

Why it matters: Ridesharing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, formed their business models and then — belatedly, allege critics — began addressing accessibility challenges, a strategy that could hinder disability access to AVs in the future.

The big picture: Ridesharing companies have promoted the idea that they are a transportation boon to people with disabilities, just as AV companies are doing today. But ridesharing has had mixed results for people with disabilities.

  • For many who cannot get a driver's license because of epilepsy, for example, ridesharing has increased mobility.  
  • Drivers sometimes do not allow service animals into the car, though, which can result in drivers refusing service to people who are blind.
  • Wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) are unavailable via ridesharing in most markets, or available in few numbers, which can result in lengthy wait times.

What's happening: Ridesharing companies have adopted policies that punish drivers for discriminating against people with disabilities. However, the companies still argue that they merely connect people seeking rides to people that operate vehicles, taking little responsibility for the quality of service that drivers provide.

Between the lines: How Uber and Lyft prioritize and address accessibility now will have lasting impacts as they expand their transportation offerings, including introducing AVs.

What we're watching: Uber’s recent launch of limited WAV service in certain markets is a step forward, but still does not offer equal access for all. Ridesharing companies need to expand access to new mobility options as they develop and deploy them — otherwise, access to new transportation tech will remain unequal.

Henry Claypool is a policy expert affiliated with UCSF and AAPD, and a former director of the U.S. Health and Human Services Office on Disability.