Uber Boston announces partnership with disability advocates

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Uber Boston, facing criticism that it offers only limited service to people with disabilities, has agreed to work with advocates on improving the accessibility of the ride-hailing service.

The Uber Boston Disability Coalition, announced Thursday, includes the Disability Law Center, the Disability Policy Consortium, and the Boston Center for Independent Living.

It is too soon to know what the partnership may bring in terms of new features or services for riders or drivers. But the various parties are due to meet in focus groups over the next few months, said Carlie Weibel, a spokesperson for Uber Boston. Among them is Uber’s new Boston general manager Chris Taylor, who is keen to be involved, Weibel said.

Leading the partnership is Disability Law Center executive director Christine Griffin. She hopes an Uber-like system will eventually replace the MBTA’s little-loved RIDE paratransit service, which costs taxpayers millions to operate and has faced criticism by riders who say it’s frequently late and takes wildly inefficient routes.

“I think this could really end up being a salvation,” Griffin said. “It would be cheaper and faster — and trust me, no one would mourn the RIDE if we replaced it.”

“The MBTA welcomes assistance that helps meet the transportation needs of the para-transit community,” MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said in an email. In November, the MBTA began a six-month pilot program to allow passengers who would otherwise hail the RIDE to take a taxi instead. There is a chance a service like Uber could join that fleet.

Griffin, whose group publicly criticized Uber last year for not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Uber seemed sincere about wanting to solve the problem. Currently, the company offers only limited service to people who use wheelchairs in certain cities.

Despite the bad blood between taxi drivers and Uber, Boston is among the cities piloting the UberACCESS service, which connects riders who use wheelchairs with taxis that can accommodate them.  Boston is among the cities piloting the UberACCESS service which connects riders with wheelchairs with taxis that can accommodate them. (As of last July, Boston’s taxi fleet included 100 wheelchair accessible vehicles, but only 18 of those met federal standards.)  Griffin said another possibility is partnering with the contractors who provide the MBTA’s RIDE service, since those companies already own fleets of vans and employ trained drivers.

“The idea was, let’s figure out how the disability community can take advantage of Uber, which everybody else thinks is the best thing to happen to transportation since the car was invented,” Griffin said.

The biggest challenge, Griffin said, will be bringing wheelchair-accessible vehicles into Uber’s network. The company is reluctant to purchase and operate such vans itself, Griffin said, as its business model depends on independent contractors who drive their own cars.

Uber has argued in the past that it is not legally obligated to provide services to riders with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it is a technology company that provides a service rather than a transportation company. “That is an unresolved legal question at this point,” said Samuel Perkins, a founding partner at the Boston firm Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, LLP. (Perkins is currently representing the Boston Cab Dispatch and EGT Management in a lawsuit against Uber that was filed in 2013.) 

“Uber wants to solve this without changing their business model,” Griffin said. “But they’re open to a lot of ways to achieve this. I think it will be several types of solutions, not one thing.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com. Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.