In accommodating disabled passengers, Uber drivers may be next to pay

It’s an innocent and well-intended letter to the editor appearing in today’s (May 5, 2016) San Francisco Chronicle:

Uber should accommodate all riders

Regarding “Uber allows guide dogs to ride after suit by blind passengers” (May 2): Now that Uber has agreed to pick up blind passengers with guide dogs, my hope is that they will step up efforts to accommodate all passengers with disabilities. Uber’s headquarters is two blocks from the Arc San Francisco, a resource for over 700 clients with developmental disabilities, many of whom use power chairs and mobility supports to get to and from work, classes and home. From tech workers to seniors to young adults, the disability community wants equal access to ride-sharing services. In San Francisco, recent tests consistently show zero UberWAV cars available for riders with power wheelchairs. There are slightly more UberASSIST cars on the road to serve riders with walkers and folding wheelchairs, but wait times are too long. One in five Americans has a disability, with over $220 billion in discretionary spending power. San Francisco is ground zero for disability advocacy. I’d like to suggest that Uber planners meet with the disability community and hear firsthand how services can be improved. With our disability transit experience combined with Uber’s innovation, we can be the first city in the world to fully accommodate all riders with the push of a button.

Kristen Pedersen, San Francisco[1]

Like many stories in San Francisco, this one has a much longer history than is at first apparent. When I drove cab in San Francisco in the late 1990s, the City had mandated a certain number of “handicapped” vans to accommodate disabled passengers. Drivers needed training to properly secure wheelchairs inside the vehicles, the vans themselves were modified (allegedly beyond safe specifications), and people waiting on “the list” to receive their medallions could get them years earlier when they accepted medallions for these vans.

The whole thing was somehow a deal involving San Francisco’s public transit and I remember wondering how exactly it was supposed to cost less for a taxi driver to operate one of these vans than the City. This, in fact, is one aspect of a larger neoliberal claim that assumes with no actual justification that the “multiplier” of economic benefits for private sector spending is several times that of public sector spending.[2] It seemed to me then and still seems to me now that the costs for equivalent equipment should be the same no matter who spends the money, so the only way I could see this working was if it was coming out of drivers’ pockets.

I don’t believe I was ever actually trained to drive these vans, but I recall driving them a couple times, perhaps because of a misunderstanding with the cashiers at Luxor (who assigned vehicles) where I drove. In a business where the driver pays for his (mostly) or her time with a vehicle and gas, drivers of these vans would sometimes be sent long distances for disabled fares, having to pass up many closer fares along the way (economists understand this as “opportunity cost”). It took a minimum of ten uncompensated minutes to load a wheelchair and another ten minutes to unload it. In the name of “justice,” the taxi rates for these passengers and the lease rates (“gates”) for drivers were the same.

This all amounted to a huge cost for drivers in what is, especially for beginning drivers like myself, a very marginal business where it is the driver who assumes a large portion of the business risk. This is one problem of an exchange system of economics. Justice for disabled passengers is extraordinarily unjust for operators. Whether it had been the City directly operating these vans or taxi drivers, somebody had to pay. And the City exploited taxi companies’ demand for more medallions, which translated into vehicle leases—the source of taxi company revenue—by pushing these van medallions out. So it’s the drivers who paid, and paid dearly, to accommodate disabled passengers.

I regularly criticize economic systems of exchange for privileging whomever has the greater ability to say no, that is, to decline a deal. In systems theory language, this is a self-reinforcing feedback that widens social inequality.[3] This is one more way in which the system is stacked against taxi drivers who have little voice against disabled people’s demands for justice.

And given San Francisco’s history, I very strongly suspect it will be Uber drivers who will be next to pay.

  1. [1]Kristen Pedersen, letter to the editor, San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 2016,
  2. [2]Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013).
  3. [3]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 120.

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