Why does it take a federal case to use Uber?

By Douglas J. Usiak, July 28, 2022

I do not think that there is anyone in our country who has not heard of the Uber ride-sharing company. Technically, like competitors Lyft and Turo, all are “Transportation Networking Companies” (TNCs), since they do not own their own vehicles, as do taxicab firms, but provide an online platform for customers to book and pay for rides in vehicles driven by their owners, in exchange for a commission. In the 13 years since its founding, Uber has developed specialized subdivisions such as larger SUV-sized vehicles and limousines, and sidelines such as food and package delivery, freight transportation, and electric bicycle and motorized scooter rental. The San Francisco-based firm has operations in about 10,550 cities in 72 counties, and 118 million monthly active users averaging 19 million trips per day. As of six months ago, Uber had 71% of the ride-sharing market in the United States (and 27% of the food delivery).

Uber has also developed a reputation for ignoring local regulations when they expanded and encouraging customers to pressure elected leaders to retroactively authorize them to operate there under a policy of “seek forgiveness, not permission.”

In July 2016, when Uber was only allowed to operate in New York City and wished to expand upstate, disability rights advocates pointed out regulations requiring that a certain percentage of “ride for hire” vehicles need to be wheelchair-accessible vans (WAVs), laws which are mostly obeyed by taxi companies. However, Uber argued that their drivers owned their own vehicles and could not be compelled to buy WAVs. The firm garnered public support by conducting a brief campaign in which potential drivers passed out free premium ice cream bars in select cities in New York State, successfully leading to the state legislature’s decision not to enforce the same criteria on Uber.

Even with that state “wink-wink, nod-nod” tacit endorsement of their service, it has been reported for several years that individual drivers have been refusing to give rides to particular passengers, based on arbitrary and capricious reasons. However, six years ago, Uber began an official policy of routinely discriminating against passengers who required more than two minutes to board the vehicle (as determined by GPS readings indicating its arrival time) by automatically charging a “wait-time fee,” which cannot be waived by the drivers for any reason.

Thanks to the disability watchdogs and their advocates, last November, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) was convinced of the injustice of this policy and sued Uber Technologies, Inc. The suit stated that, since many passengers have disabilities that mean they require more than two minutes to board the Uber car (particularly if a wheelchair must be folded up and packed in the trunk), this policy shows an illegal “pattern or practice of discrimination” against these customers, which is barred by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The DOJ and Uber reached a multi-million-dollar settlement of the lawsuit on July 18, providing millions of dollars in compensation to more than 65,000 riders who had a disability and were charged the fee. Uber will also waive wait-time fees for passengers who certify that they (or someone they frequently travel with) need more time to get in an Uber due to a disability.

This past week, many people with disabilities observed and celebrated the ADA’s 32nd anniversary. It’s a landmark civil rights law that clearly shows what is, and is not, lawful when attempting to suppress people with disabilities from fully using the vast richness of our country. Uber’s attempt to penalize a small segment of our population only led to excluding a larger class of people. The over-2-minute-wait fee would punish the elderly who use walkers, support canes and other mobility devices. Families with children that use strollers would be affected. We can identify many more Americans who were, or would be, affected by this action of failing to be equable with everyone.

You know, sometimes I just wonder why it takes a federal case to see the obvious.

Douglas J. Usiak is the chief executive officer of Independent Living of Niagara County, an agency that assists individuals with disabilities to gain the information and resources needed to improve their quality of life and participate in society on an equal basis. For more information, call 716-284-4131, extension 200.