Uber and wheelchairs

So the U.S. Department of Justice is suing Uber for charging wheelchair users, who require additional time to get in and out of cars, for wait time, arguing that these charges are discriminatory.[1]

Which means it’s time for me to tell a story about my San Francisco cab driving days.

The first thing you have to understand is that the cab business is thoroughly scummy. Everyone has their hands out to the drivers and the drivers pretty much always have to put money in those hands. It’s not like they’re making a fortune; lease drivers pay “gas and gate,” the latter being a lease fee that, when I was driving, was somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 to $110 for a ten hour shift. Drivers owe that money regardless of how long they actually drive or how much business there was to be had, more if they stay out overtime. Drivers also have to tip dispatchers and hotel bellhops. And where companies had their own gas pumps, drivers tipped the “gas man” so they don’t top off the gas tank quite so hard. The cabs were terrible gas hogs; you could pretty much figure that would add around $20 or more to the shift’s cost.

In San Francisco, the number of cabs on the road is limited to the number of medallions; each cab a company leases out has to have a medallion on display on the dashboard. But in practice, the number of medallions kept being increased. Restaurant owners complained their customers couldn’t get cabs and cab companies made their money by leasing cabs to drivers; both contributed generously to politicians on the Board of Supervisors to get more medallions issued. And indeed, the number probably at least tripled in the late 1990s.

It’s quite the fashion to complain about how hard it is to get a cab in San Francisco. In truth, there were plenty of cabs, but numerous companies: You might call a Yellow Cab when a Luxor was right around the corner. But there was no way to get your order to that Luxor. Another problem is that when people wanted cabs, they mostly all wanted them simultaneously in the same area. San Francisco traffic simply makes it impossible for cabs to get to where the demand is. I’d catch a bit of rush hour with my shift, but it was hard to get to downtown in rush hour traffic from the Luxor “garage” on Jerrold Street, and demand would die off before I’d even made gate.

I will never ever forget coming down the hill on 17th Street toward Market one night, seeing a line of empty cabs ahead of me and seeing a line of empty cabs behind me. They were all doing the same thing I was, prowling for fares.

At some point, the politicians decided to make some hay with wheelchair users. So they started issuing wheelchair medallions which could be used on vans that were equipped with wheelchair lifts. These medallions weren’t very popular, but a driver on the “list” for a medallion—medallions were issued to “A-card” holders on that list as they became available, typically when an old medallion holder died but also when new ones were issued—could jump a few spots on the queue by accepting one, which could be converted to a regular medallion a few years later.

There weren’t very many wheelchair cabs and they’d be dispersed all over the city doing regular cab rides, so when an order came in for a wheelchair user, a driver would usually have to drive a considerable distance to pick up the passenger. Then it would take an additional five minutes to load the passenger at the beginning of the ride and yet another five minutes to unload them at the end. This is all time drivers are paying for.

The economics suck for drivers anyway but they sucked even more for these wheelchair van drivers and I was pretty clear that a lot of those drivers weren’t actually accepting wheelchair orders precisely because the economics were so awful. They were supposed to but, in practice, enforcement was lax. So, of course, wheelchair users still suffered even worse service than non-wheelchair users. But the politicians had their “campaign contributions” and they could always issue yet more medallions. It’s easy—much too easy—to blame supposedly “greedy” drivers when you don’t actually care to understand what’s going on.

All these problems really still exist with Uber and Lyft drivers except that very, very, very few are likely to invest the additional thousands of dollars to equip the vehicles they own with wheelchair lifts. Most cars simply couldn’t accommodate them anyway. As it happens, most wheelchairs can fold up and go in the back, but it still takes additional time to load and unload these passengers.

Dispatchers don’t need to be tipped at Uber and Lyft but the companies are less than transparent about how much of the fare they take in fees. Drivers often make less than minimum wage and are denied the benefits of regular employment.[2]

But that wait time Uber is charging wheelchair users for? That’s a part of the fare that drivers get a cut of. So sure, it looks like the federal government is taking on an unsympathetic corporation when it sues Uber. But assuming the courts do indeed find discrimination, and I can’t see how they wouldn’t, drivers will almost certainly be adversely affected as well.

  1. [1]Preetika Rana, “Justice Department Sues Uber Over Charging Wait-Time Fees for Disabled People,” Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/justice-department-sues-uber-over-charging-wait-times-fees-for-physically-disabled-people-11636570208
  2. [2]Alexia Fernández Campbell, “California is cracking down on the gig economy,” Vox, May 30, 2019, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/5/30/18642535/california-ab5-misclassify-employees-contractors; Stephen Caruso, “How a Supreme Court ruling on an Uber driver could remake Pennsylvania’s gig economy,” Pennsylvania Capital-Star, July 28, 2020, https://www.penncapital-star.com/working-the-economy/how-a-supreme-court-ruling-on-an-uber-driver-could-remake-pennsylvanias-gig-economy/; Matthew Haag and Patrick McGeehan, “Uber Fined $649 Million for Saying Drivers Aren’t Employees,” New York Times, November 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/14/nyregion/uber-new-jersey-drivers.html; Andrew J. Hawkins, “California seeks to force Uber and Lyft to reclassify drivers as employees within weeks,” Verge, June 24, 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/6/24/21302140/california-ag-uber-lyft-drivers-classify-employees-preliminary-injunction; Andrew J. Hawkins, “California labor commissioner sues Uber and Lyft for alleged wage theft,” Verge, August 5, 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/8/5/21356096/uber-lyft-california-labor-commissioner-lawsuit-driver-classification; Sebastian Herrera and Tim Higgins, “California Sues Uber, Lyft Saying They Misclassified Drivers as Independent Contractors,” Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/california-to-sue-uber-lyft-saying-they-misclassified-drivers-as-independent-contractors-11588700626; Steven Hill, “The broken business model of Uber and Lyft is taking a heavy toll on society,” Fortune, December 19, 2020, https://fortune.com/2020/12/19/uber-lyft-business-model-proposition-22-worker-benefits/; Sam Levin, “Uber drivers often make below minimum wage, report finds,” Guardian, March 5, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/01/uber-lyft-driver-wages-median-report; Farhad Manjoo, “The Uber I.P.O. Is a Moral Stain on Silicon Valley,” New York Times, May 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/opinion/uber-ipo.html; Alexa Noel, “Revised MIT Study Says Uber, Lyft Drivers Make About $8 or $10 per Hour,” Points Guy, March 8, 2018, https://thepointsguy.com/2018/03/revised-mit-study-says-uber-lyft-drivers-make-about-8-or-10-per-hour/; Therese Poletti, “Uber and Lyft’s ‘day of reckoning’ is finally here,” MarketWatch, August 12, 2020, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/uber-and-lyfts-day-of-reckoning-is-finally-here-2020-08-11; San Jose Mercury News, “CPUC rules Uber, Lyft drivers are company employees,” Sacramento Bee, June 11, 2020, https://www.sacbee.com/news/business/article243464631.html; Daniel Wiessner, “Penn. Supreme Court says Uber driver is employee entitled to unemployment benefits,” Westlaw, July 27, 2020, https://today.westlaw.com/Document/I0c1a2c10d05911ea853294a23e704d3f/View/FullText.html

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