A Performance Approach to Equal Access to TNCs

Transportation network companies (TNCs) began providing ride hailing services in cities across the United States almost a decade ago. Since then, cities have developed regulations to help promote equal access and non-discrimination towards riders of various income levels, races, and physical abilities. Last week, Uber, Lyft, and Via sued the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) over a new requirement for each company to individually reach a target of 25% of all trips in the City to be conducted in a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) over the next five years.

The TLC hopes that the new requirement will improve accessible service by providing additional WAV availability. Previous requirements for vehicle-for-hire dispatches (namely taxis, as TNCs did not exist yet) mandated that they retain a certain percentage of their fleet to be WAV vehicles, but allowed them to leave those larger, higher fuel cost vehicles in the parking lot, thus not being quickly available to the population that would rely on them.

The 2010 United States Census reported 56.7 million people in the country living with a disability, and the Census Bureau’s supplemental 2010 Survey of Income and Program Participation results showed 30.6 million people reporting difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or using a wheelchair, cane, crutches, or walker. It’s both the duty and the requirement under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of both the public sector and private companies to afford these millions of Americans the right of mobility and transportation to access education, jobs, services, and recreational activities.

We can only evaluate the effectiveness of affording this right if we know what to measure.

The TNC’s argument that the regulations are burdensome and arbitrary begs the question of what the City is trying to accomplish through the new regulation. The goal that TLC and New York City have is not to have accessible vehicles sitting in parking lots, nor is it to have accessible vehicles making trips for the sake of making trips; the goal is to provide equivalent service to people who require WAVs. The rule defines “equivalent service” for people who need WAV vehicles and people who don’t as equivalency in:

  • Response time to requests for service
  • Fares charged
  • Hours and days of service availability
  • Ability to accept reservations
  • Restrictions based on trip purpose
  • Vehicle types offered
  • Other limitations on capacity or service availability

The rule set the 25% of trips in a WAV requirement in the hopes of reaching these equivalencies.

All of these measures can be tracked through the technology used by Uber, Lyft, and Via (and many taxi companies). Now that the technology exists, the policies can follow with a data-driven, performance-based approach. The use of performance measures has been gaining traction in transportation over the last decade. Connecting the performance measure of vehicle trips to the goal of providing service to people with physical disabilities suggests a gap, however. Another option for a measure would be to directly track wait times, fares, service availability, reservation acceptances, trip purpose, and vehicle classifications for all riders, including and denoting people who specifically request WAVs.

Part of the problem in setting the right performance measures is that we do not in fact know what the level of demand is. The TNC lawsuit claims that “the 25 percent number is arbitrary and doesn’t reflect the demand of riders,” but we don’t know the demand of riders to begin with.  In New York City, people who require WAVs have reported long wait times, and lack of vehicles available at all, while in San Francisco WAV passengers wait up to 14 times as long for WAVs, though the vehicles aren’t available at all up to 80% of the time.

The question of supply and demand means that few WAVs on the streets could lead to fewer requests for them if people assume the service will not be able to meet their transportation needs, as is the current case. Therefore, a combination of requiring availability of the service (such as the proposed percentage trip dispatch measure), with a measurement of the actual service provided (such as wait time for riders who require a WAV), would provide a more comprehensive picture of whether or not TNCs are providing equivalent transportation options for people with disabilities.

Taking a performance-based approach to the WAV regulations for TNCs would allow the companies to provide equivalent service to riders in whatever way the company chooses, as long as they are able to meet the goals set out by the City.

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