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‘Lyft’s Got to Look Into its Soul’: Judge Weighs Requiring Lyft to Provide Wheelchair Users Eq

A trial to determine if Lyft violates the Americans with Disabilities Act concluded in San Francisco on Tuesday. A pending decision by Judge William Alsup may soon determine if the ride-hail company will be compelled to provide service for those who use powered wheelchairs.

The Berkeley and New York-based Disability Rights Advocates group filed the class-action complaint in US Northern District Court against Lyft in 2019, alleging it ran afoul of the ADA by failing to ensure service for those who require special wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) to get around.

The suit didn’t aim to pinch Lyft’s purse — instead, disability community advocates wished to push the ride-hail giant to provide wheelchair-accessible service in the Bay Area that’s “full and equal” to the service it provides the rest of the public.

In court, Alsup said his decision would likely not come later than August.

Wheelchair Users Left in Limbo

Powered wheelchairs are preferred in the disability community for the independence they allow, but vehicles able to fit them properly can cost tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit.

The Bay Area’s traditional taxi industry used to have a robust number of drivers behind a fleet equipped with wheelchair-accessible vans. But as Lyft and competitor Uber, which faced a similar lawsuit in 2018, rose to prominence over the last decade, taxi drivers fled the industry by the hundreds. Those wheelchair rides vanished with them.

And since ride-hail companies contend they are merely app services which connect drivers with riders, instead of owning fleets of vehicles themselves, Lyft’s attorneys argued in court that providing a wheelchair service would be an entirely new business altogether — and that it’s therefore outside the bounds of what the ADA mandates.

Without that service, however, wheelchair users are left in limbo, said Dorene Giacopini, one of the suit’s plaintiffs. Giacopini also sits on the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and is president of the board of Community Resources for Independent Living, in Hayward. She uses a powered wheelchair for her mobility.

When talking about Lyft’s lack of wheelchair accessibility, and the ride-hailing industry’s decimation of similar services from taxis, Giacopini likened the situation to what she called the “bad old days” when people with disabilities were confined to their bedrooms by their families. Often, they were trapped there for life.

“I remember being a kid and people talking about shut-ins, people who are just stuck in their houses” due to a family’s shame about their disability. Lyft’s indifference to the effect their company’s growth had on people with disabilities hearkened back to those times, she said.

Giacopini’s own parents fought against her grandparents, who said “don’t talk about her disability, keep her home.” Lyft’s practices are contributing to making some people with disabilities become shut-ins again, Giacopini told KQED.

She said there’s an “exhaustion that I think our community feels with having to deal with the inaccessible environment… And the frustration that after having worked so hard and won such great success with the Americans with Disabilities Act, that these companies have come along and caused us to lose some of the independence we had gained.”

‘Lyft Simply Refuses to Try’

Lyft defended its early wheelchair accessibility pilot in the Bay Area, which it has attempted in fits and starts since 2019. The program started with just five vehicles for the nine-county region, but a planned partnership with rental car company Hertz was to scale up its fleet to 65 vehicles, which would be owned by Hertz. That pilot project never got off the ground, as Hertz declared bankruptcy in May 2020. After that, Lyft reduced its number of WAVs to just two.

“Lyft’s goal is to provide access to WAV service in a reliable and sustainable way, and this trial has highlighted how incredibly challenging it is to facilitate WAV service on-demand,” a Lyft spokesperson wrote, in a statement.

During the trial, attorneys for disability community advocates argued Lyft already had WAV programs running in 10 different markets, including New York and Oregon, and could replicate that service in the Bay Area.

They also pointed out Lyft got roughly $2 million from its state regulators – the California Public Utilities Commission – to help get its WAV pilot project. They argued that Lyft itself determined it could potentially cover 80% of the demand for wheelchair service with a fleet of 65 vehicles, though Lyft witnesses later countered that claim.

Advocates’ attorney Stuart Seaborn argued Lyft scrapped its large-scale plan to provide wheelchair-accessible service at the start of the pandemic before it even had a chance to fail.

“The evidence has shown Lyft, a company that revolutionized the way people travel in this country, is fully capable of implementing wheelchair-accessible service in the Bay Area,” Seaborn said in the case’s closing arguments. “The evidence shows Lyft simply refuses to try.”

Attorneys want to give Lyft a year to get a program for the disability community off the ground.

Judge Alsup spelled some doubt for the disability community advocates, indicating they weren’t asking for a specific enough change to Lyft’s service, like a direct modification to the design of a vehicle, to meet ADA requirements. Instead, Alsup said, they were asking the court to order Lyft to begin a process to discover what business modifications are needed to run a wheelchair service in California.

“Lyft implements these programs all over the country,” Seaborn countered. “The fact of the matter is, they do provide those services.”

Judge Alsup also took aim at advocates’ arguments that Lyft could still feasibly implement the 65 wheelchair-accessible vehicle program in the Bay Area without Hertz.

“You make it sound so easy. I think Lyft should just hire you, stick you in charge, and then you be responsible for making it cost-effective,” Alsup told Seaborn, the advocates’ attorney. “It’s a problem for me as a judge to wonder where that 65 [vehicles] will come from.”

Attorneys for the advocates then pointed out that despite Hertz’s bankruptcy, Lyft failed to reach out to other car companies to form partnerships to supply wheelchair-accessible vehicles, including Enterprise, or MobilityWorks.

Throughout the trial, Lyft argued that although they have wheelchair-accessible vehicles in other cities, they are only provided because cities or states have regulations that mandated them. Those wheelchair programs don’t make money or break-even, they argued.

“We are trying to solve this problem long-term for our business overall,” Joyce Chan, vice president of product operations at Lyft testified.

‘You’re Just Donating That Money to the State Treasury?’

Some California lawmakers have tried to help Lyft help itself, by creating a program that charges Lyft a 10-cent-per-ride fee that is deposited in a fund expressly for wheelchair operations. That program, compelled by Senate Bill 1376, authored by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in late 2018.

While the program made $1.8 million available to Lyft since 2019, Chan argued it needed at least $2 million annually to run a wheelchair-accessible program locally. The funding also fluctuates so often that they cannot effectively calculate the amount into their annual budget, Chan argued, another complicating factor for utilizing it.

So Lyft pays the fee and it goes to the CPUC, largely unused, Chan said.

Judge Alsup was skeptical of that practice.

“You’re just donating that money to the State Treasury without trying to put a program in place?” he asked Chan, to which she replied, “Yes, sir.”

The CPUC is also in the process of ruling on wheelchair accessibility regulations for Lyft and Uber, but witnesses said the CPUC may not finish deliberating on those rules until 2025. Alsup said that CPUC proceeding may have impacted his ruling, but only if it were closer to fruition.

“A lot of people who need these wheelchair vehicles are going to be dead by 2025,” Alsup told attorneys.

Data scientists and technical experts also testified for Lyft, arguing that the disability community was so small that the company could not generate enough data to effectively serve them. The only way to do so would be for Lyft to manually dispatch drivers, almost like a taxi service.

Alsup was skeptical of that claim, as well.

“But you know, your entire company started with zero data points,” he told one witness. “You’re making it sound like you’re mentally paralyzed and can’t make a decision unless you’ve got a million data points.” So, Alsup said, “you’re exaggerating.”

In her closing arguments Tuesday, Jiyun Lee, an attorney for Lyft, asked the judge, “who should bear the financial burden” of learning and experimentation to create an on-demand service for wheelchair users that has “never been done before?” Private entities shouldn’t bear the burden of modifying vehicles to be wheelchair accessible, which can cost more than $20,000 per vehicle, Lee said.

Ultimately, Lee argued, the ADA says people with disabilities can ask for “reasonable” modification to make services accessible, but what disability community advocates are asking for is too much.

That burden surpasses what the ADA calls for, with “reasonable” accommodations, Lee said. In fact, she said, “that’s just outright establishing a new transportation service.”

Seaborn shot back that Lyft already runs wheelchair-accessible programs throughout the country, and therefore “cannot argue that something it is already doing would fundamentally alter its business, though doing so may be cost-prohibitive in our region.”

While the outcome of the trial may not be known until August, Alsup had harsh words for the ride-hail company on the case writ large.

“Your business model is based on the cool people in their 20s and 30s who like to go to bars and spend money and get a ride home, the people who are fully able to walk around, and people in this part of the world who have lots of money to spend,” he said.

“So you’re cashing in on that model. And the people you’re leaving out are these disabled people, who want to go out and have a drink every now and then too, but Lyft will not serve them. Lyft just will not serve them … And you ought to think about how that looks, while all those cool people are going out and having their drinks and you’re cashing in on that business model.”

A Lyft attorney tried to interrupt him at this point, but Alsup continued, “I think Lyft’s got to look into its own soul to see what’s best and what looks best. This is just me talking as a citizen. As a judge, I’m going to rule according to the law, and the plaintiffs may lose on account of this, because the law is not as favorable to the plaintiffs as they seem to think.”

However, Alsup said, “I’m telling you how it looks.”

Copyright 2021 KQED