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Subsidies not the answer for wheelchair-accessible cabs

Since Uber and Lyft opened for business in the Portland metropolitan area, including in Washington County, an ongoing controversy has ensued over whether their disruptive business models are good or bad for consumers in the region.

While many riders like them, taxi drivers don’t. Nor do people who don’t have smartphones, or are simply afraid of taking a ride in an unknown person’s private vehicle.

On the whole, however, it seems as if the promises of convenience and shorter wait times for transportation have justified the arrival of ridesharing businesses ... except in one important respect.

As reported just last month in the Portland Tribune, people who require the use of a wheelchair to get around are continuing to see transportation challenges — regardless of whether they call a traditional cab company or one of the new transportation network companies such as Lyft or Uber.

Currently, cab companies are required to have at least 20 percent of their fleet be wheelchair accessible. Yet since the rideshare companies rely on privately owned vehicles, they have so far not been able to meet that requirement, and have been allowed to contract with an outside company to do so. But thus far, only 0.01 percent of Uber’s customers have requested wheelchair lifts.

Looking long-term, the Private For-Hire Transportation Innovation Task Force is considering several solutions to the problem of leveling the playing field for Portland cab companies and rideshare companies.

Existing cab companies currently spread out the cost of vehicles that are equipped with wheelchair lifts by raising fares for everyone — a form of internal subsidies. However, the task force is considering a different type of subsidy. Under this concept, the city would collect the subsidy and then redistribute it to the companies or drivers who provide the necessary wheelchair accessible vehicles.

This idea raises the question of why Portland or perhaps other local municipalities would find it necessary to assist a giant company such as Uber with its obligation to serve all riders. As one cab driver understandably questioned: “They’ve got to figure out a way to subsidize a $50 billion company?”

Valid point.

But the reality is that while a relatively low number of people currently need wheelchair lifts for taxi service, that number undoubtedly will increase in coming years.

And as much as some people might like to think public transportation is the answer for metro area residents who have wheelchairs, it’s simply not feasible to expect every person in a wheelchair to make it to the nearest TriMet stop.

We believe the best solution is to put the responsibility of response times on the businesses themselves. The cities served by Uber and Lyft or similar companies should set a response-time window for accessible rides, and then hold all companies accountable for meeting that time. How they get there is up to them.

The Portland area isn’t alone in addressing this significant issue. Nationwide, no major metropolitan community has yet solved this problem. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t prevent Portland and surrounding communities, all of which rely on cab service at some level, from working to create their own unique answers.

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