Wheels for My Wheels: Chicago Disability Groups Raise the Bar for Ridesharing Companies
In October, an Illinois disability group—Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago—and three disabled individuals affiliated with the group filed a lawsuit against Uber Technologies, Inc. in federal court. Timothy Mclaughlin, Chicago Disability Group Sues Uber over Wheelchair Access, Reuters (Oct. 14, 2016, 12:18 AM), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-uber-lawsuit-idUSKCN12D2W6. The disability group alleges that Uber fails to provide adequate transportation to individuals who require wheelchair access and is asking the court to enforce an order for the multibillion-dollar company to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Id.
In 2010, Uber launched its services, and for the first time, exposed San Francisco citizens to a phenomenon that would later become known as “ridesharing.” Charles Johnson, Timeline: History of Uber, Chi. Tribune (March 11, 2015, 10:12 AM), http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/technology/chi-timeline-ubers-controversial-rise-20150205-htmlstory.html. Ridesharing companies match drivers and riders via a phone app for the purpose of facilitating transportation. See id. As Uber and other similar companies such as Lyft and Curb, have begun to grow in popularity, so have their impact. Taxi cab companies are dramatically affected by this new and innovative technology as they struggle to compete with businesses that provide the same type of service, but are not held to the same legal standards. Corinne C. Miller, The Ridesharing Revolution, 29 CBA Rec. 38, 39–40 (2015). Because they are classified as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), and not as transportation services, rideshare companies operate in a somewhat legally protected bubble that many state legislatures are hesitant to burst. Id.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 aims to provide equal access to transportation by “prohibit[ing] discrimination on the basis of disability.” Americans with Disabilities Act, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990). Title III of the ADA explicitly requires that people with disabilities experience equal benefit from all “public accommodations.” Americans with Disabilities Act, tit. III § 36.202 (1991). The ADA mandates:
A public accommodation shall not afford an individual or class of individuals, on the basis of a disability or disabilities of such individual or class, directly, or through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements, with the opportunity to participate in or benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodation of a place of public accommodation. Id.
However, a public accommodation is defined as an “entity that owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” Id. at § 36.104. Although rideshare companies are not explicitly referenced as “public accommodations” in the ADA, disability groups argue that the regulations should apply. Mclaughlin, supra.
Recent Chicago Legislation
Meanwhile, Chicago is in the process of passing a city ordinance that would require all ridesharing companies to offer sufficient services to the disabled. Mary Wisniewski & John Byrne, Uber, Lyft Drivers Face Stricter Rules After Council Committee Vote, Chi. Tribune (June 17, 2016, 4:31 PM), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-uber-city-council-committee-20160617-story.html. Alderman Anthony Beale, Chairman of the City Council Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, passed a taxi ordinance in 2011 that required taxi cab companies with more than twenty cabs to maintain at least five percent of its services as access vehicles. Alderman Beale proposed the Rideshare Reform ordinance in June 2016, which among other things, would require ride-hailing companies to maintain the same percentage of disability equipped transportation in Chicago as the local cab companies. Id. While this kind of smaller scale legislation is progressive, it still allows rideshare companies the opportunity to pull out of the cities that up the ante and operate elsewhere in the same capacity. For example, this past summer, Uber and Lyft decided to leave Austin, Texas, when legislation was passed that required specific drop-off and pick-up rules for rideshare companies, as well as fingerprint-based background checks. Avery Hartmans, What Happened to Austin, Texas, when Uber and Lyft Left Town, Bus. Insider (June 12, 2016, 8:30 AM), http://www.businessinsider.com/what-happened-to-austin-texas-when-uber-and-lyft-left-town-2016-6.
UberWAV and UberASSIST
This pending litigation in Chicago is not the first time that Uber has been confronted with a legal dispute involving transportation access to disabled individuals. In June of 2016, a blind woman named Tiffany Jolliff filed a lawsuit with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia Alexandria Division. Lori Aratani, Blind Woman Sues Uber, Says She and Her Guide Dog Were Refused Service, Wash. Post (June 3, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/blind-woman-sues-uber-says-she-and-her-guide-dog-were-refused-service/2016/06/02/7391156e-28f8-11e6-ae4a-3cdd5fe74204_story.html. Jolliff alleged that on more than one occasion she and her service dog were refused transportation by an Uber driver. Id.
As a direct consequence of the legal action associated with Jolliff’s complaint and a class-action suit filed by the National Federation for the Blind, Uber has made great strides to broaden services offered to the disabled community. Since 2014, Uber has offered informational training videos to drivers who elect to participate in UberWAV or UberASSIST. Kate Donahue, UberACCESS: Expanding Transportation Options, Uber (Oct. 28, 2014), https://newsroom.uber.com/us-california/uberaccess-sd/.
UberWAV offers vehicles equipped with wheelchair access, and UberASSIST offers drivers who are trained to assist disabled individuals who may require special curbside attention. Id. Although the programs have been in existence for approximately two years, until the more recent pressure, Uber had yet to begin thoroughly executing the programs, both geographically and logistically. For example, following Jolliff’s dispute, Uber now emphasizes to UberASSIST and UberWAV drivers that they must be wiling to accommodate all service animals that accompany passengers. Aratani, supra.
Lyft is also working to meet disability demands by providing an “access mode option” for disabled users. This allows riders who are in certain markets to request the dispatch of a driver who is prepared to assist them, or in the case that no appropriate vehicles are available, to receive a text with information on how to acquire similar services from a local transportation company. Accessible Vehicle Dispatch Accessibility in the App, Lyft, https://help.lyft.com/hc/en-us/articles/213584508-Accessible-Vehicle-Dispatch (last visited Dec. 22, 2016).
While in theory these new initiatives are a step in the right direction, the actual positive effect of the accommodations has yet to truly be felt. CNN reported in May 2016 that, “in San Francisco, where Uber is based, there were consistently zero UberWAV vehicles available” and “[i]n Los Angeles and Portland, there were zero to one cars available, with wait times between 25 and 45 minutes.” Heather Kelly, Uber’s Services for the Disabled Lack Actual Cars, CNN (May 3, 2016, 1:16 PM), http://money.cnn.com/2016/05/02/technology/uber-access/.
In recent years, there seems to be not only a legislative trend reflecting an intent to uphold more stringent wheelchair access requirements for rideshare companies, but also an acknowledgement from the rideshare companies themselves that efforts must be made to increase services available to the disabled community. However, the question still remains, will the federal courts impose the requirements of the ADA onto rideshare companies? If so, how much change is to be expected, and how quickly will the new regulations be enforced?
One thing is certain: if the court finds in favor of Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago—holding that Uber and other rideshare companies are required to maintain services that comply with the ADA—it will be a turning point for the disabled community across the country.
 California became the first state to officially legalize rideshare services in 2013. Sean Slone, State Regulation of Rideshare Companies, Council St. Gov’t (April 14, 2016, 9:52 AM), http://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/content/state-regulation-rideshare-companies.
*Kelly Goebel is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she is a staff editor for Law Review, as well as Law Scholar for Professor Tiefer’s Contracts I class. In the summer of 2016, Kelly interned for the Honorable Alexander Wright, Jr. on the Court of Special Appeals. This year, Kelly will be working as a summer associate for Kramon & Graham, P.A.