Ridesharing, Accessibility, and Public Pressure

On April 9, the New York State Assembly, the New York State Senate, and the New York State Governor passed an enormous bill that “enacts into law major components of legislation necessary to implement the state fiscal plan for the 2017-2018 state fiscal year.” One of those components was a legal framework for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in Upstate New York. Early drafts of this legislation included dedicated funding for transit, but failed to provide adequate access for the disabled. As enacted, this legislation provides no funding for transit but does provide the potential for equitable access for the disabled.

The Assembly, Senate, and Governor all proposed drafts of this legislation that provided funding for Upstate’s regional transit authorities through the fees assessed on ridesharing companies. That’s critical funding because the regional transit authorities provide transportation for the poor and the disabled–two populations that cannot use traditional ridesharing services. In the final budget, the money from those fees goes right into the State’s treasury, bypassing the DOT and upstate regional transit authorities. It’s not clear what horse got traded for that funding, but it’s a raw deal for the poor and the disabled in Upstate New York.

While the State’s decision to underfund upstate transit agencies has and will continue to harm disabled people living in Upstate, this legislation contains a provision that could mitigate the damage. It creates an 11 person Transportation Network Company Accessibility Task Force which will study the need for, and recommend policies to ensure, handicap accessibility in ridesharing.

Previous bills were weak on this subject. Most required ridesharing companies to write policies concerning accessibility, but went no further. Others went too far.  An Assembly bill contained vague language that could have required all cars engaged in ridesharing to accommodate wheelchairs. It was obvious that the people writing the budget don’t understand this issue well enough to come up with reasonable policy, so it was prudent to form a task force that can advise them.

However, if this task force is going to benefit the disabled, everybody concerned about equitable access to transportation (we should all be concerned) needs to keep up the pressure. Now that the budget has been passed and Upstate’s able-bodied population has guaranteed access to ridesharing, popular attention will shift away from the issue and the task force will be able to work without much scrutiny. As the task force does its work, disability advocates must watch it like a hawk in order to ensure that it recommends policies that will actually provide equitable access.

Once the task force has made its report, advocates will still have to maintain that scrutiny in order to ensure that those recommendations turn into real policies. The task force can compel neither ridesharing companies nor the State government to actually provide equitable access to these services. The task force is simply empowered to “complete a report” and then “present such report to the governor, the speaker of the assembly and the temporary president of the senate, and make such report publicly available for review.” For their part, ridesharing companies need only adopt the task force’s findings “to the extent practicable.” It will take public pressure to make those companies and the state legislature do something substantive.

New York State missed a huge opportunity with this ridesharing legislation. Public transit is an essential service for the poor and the disabled, and fees assessed on ridesharing companies could have provided it with the kind of robust funding that it so badly needs. All parties involved in the budget process proposed to do just that–then, they all dropped the ball. The onus is now on upstate’s populace to advocate for equitable access to ridesharing services for the disabled people who live here. It’s not going to happen unless people push for it.