Uber, Lyft & Via Fight Wheelchair-Access Mandate in NYC

MANHATTAN (CN) – Subsidiaries of the ride-hail giants Uber, Lyft and Via went to court Friday to challenge New York City’s demand that they make a full 25 percent of their vehicles wheelchair accessible by 2023.

Represented by the firms Arnold & Porter, Gibson Dunn, and Ropes & Gray, the companies contend that the 25 percent requirement was chosen arbitrarily.

“As expert economist Dr. Justin McCrary observes, the 25% mandate arbitrarily requires a potential increase in the WAV supply by a factor of 100, without even estimating consumer demand and ‘regardless of whether those rides actually reach people who use wheelchairs,’” the complaint states, using an abbreviation for wheelchair-accessible vehicle. (Emphasis added in complaint.)

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission settled on the 25 percent requirement on Dec. 13, 2017 — giving all bases that dispatch for-hire vehicles in the five boroughs until July 2023 to comply.

“The TLC took this extraordinary step without analyzing whether the number of WAVs required to meet the 25% mandate – tens of thousands, at a prohibitive development and maintenance cost of hundreds of millions of dollars – would be effective or necessary to meet the demand of the approximately 65,000 people in New York City who use wheelchairs,” the complaint states.

Before the mandate can take effect on July 1, 2018 — requiring that 5 percent of all trips dispatched through June 30, 2019, take place in a WAV — six bases that serve as subsidiaries of Uber, Lyft and Via want the mandate vacated and annulled.

Led by Lyft subsidiary Tri-City LLC, the lawsuit comes a month after similar claims were lobbed in a federal complaint by traditional driver services including the Livery Round Table and Black Car Assistance Corp.

Edith Prentiss, president of the group Disabled in Action, noted in a telephone interview Friday that the industry’s opposition to this civil rights issue is overblown.

“We have fought this fight for well over 20 years, and at every step of the way, every part of the industry has fought against accessible service,” Prentiss said. “You’ll notice that service has been increasing, and they’re all surviving.”

In their complaint, Tri-City and the other ride-hail bases emphasize that their petition should not be interpreted as opposition to what they call a laudable goal of enhancing access to WAV transportation.

But “the manner in which the commission has pursued this objective has been seriously flawed and threatens to make WAV transportation less — not more — accessible in New York City,” the complaint states.

Tri-City says that the commission settled on the 25 percent figure to protect itself from “criticism of inaction” by accessibility advocates, rather than trying to understand what the demand is for ride-sharing services by the disabled community.

“Worthy goals, no matter how laudable, do not excuse public bodies from performing the due diligence necessary to ensure reasoned decision making,” the complaint states.

Prentiss meanwhile said opponents of the mandate have their own decision to make.

“If they don’t want to follow the rules, they can pack their bags and leave New York City,” she said.

In addition to her role at Disabled in Action, Prentiss is chair of the Taxis for All Campaign. She said she’s been involved in the accessibility fight “from forever … from the days when there was not a single accessible taxi in New York City.”

In 2013, the city signed a historic agreement to make 50 percent of all New York City yellow cabs wheelchair accessible by 2020.

At that point, Prentiss said, “people saw the writing on the wall and tried to work with us.”

“Uber has a hell of a lot of money stashed away somewhere,” she added. “They can follow the rules just like everyone else.”

Tri-City notes in its petition, however, that compliance with the 25 percent mandate will carry “staggering” costs, “potentially reaching over $1 billion.”

“All of these costs ‘will translate into higher prices paid by consumers-both those who use wheelchairs and those who do not,’” the complaint states. “These unsubsidized price increases, which could exceed $2 per ride by 2023, will have negative impacts on all riders, and could destroy the FHV industry, undoing some of the progress already made in enabling enhanced WAV access in New York City.”

Pointing to their corporate parents investments in WAV access, the plaintiff bases notes that Lyft offers a “Lyft Access Mode” in the app, while Uber has “enabled” and is “committed to expanding” a similar app setting called uberWAV.

Taxi and Limousine Commission spokeswoman Kimberly Joyce confirmed the city’s commitment to a future of accessible ride-hails.

“We haven’t yet received the papers, but it will in no way dissuade the city from ensuring that persons with disabilities have access to the widest range of transportation options,” Joyce said in a statement.

Representatives at the TLC also referred to the commission’s “statement of basis and purpose” from the rule proposal. It says in part: “Increasing access to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission’s fleet of over 110,000 licensed vehicles is an important step to make New York City a place that is truly accessible to all of our residents and visitors, including those who use wheelchairs.”

Barbara Leonard contributed reporting to this report.

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