New fight in Uber vs. taxis 

click to enlarge Luxor driver Giovanni Favognano, left, helps load wheelchair user Fiona Hinze on Howard Street near the Independant Living Resource Center where Hinze works. Paratransit services appear to be a heated battle among officials in city government. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • Luxor driver Giovanni Favognano, left, helps load wheelchair user Fiona Hinze on Howard Street near the Independant Living Resource Center where Hinze works. Paratransit services appear to be a heated battle among officials in city government.

The future of wheelchair-accessible transit in San Francisco is in crisis, but one plan could either revitalize it or doom it, depending on whom you ask.

Uber has been in talks with San Francisco to obtain exclusive use of city transit services for people with disabilities, called the paratransit system, The San Francisco Examiner has found.

Public records reveal that The City has proposed privatizing its paratransit fleet, at least in part.

This could possibly open direct competition between taxis and Uber in the realm of wheelchair transit. But the sector is far from profitable, and that has raised the concern of taxi officials. They question whether Uber, a company with a notoriously aggressive profit motive and valuated by investors at $40 billion, could adequately serve a population often surviving on Social Security and assisted living.

Bluntly, taxi officials said Uber's profit motive mixed with a public service could leave riders with disabilities stranded.

Not all wheelchair users agree.

"It's not uncommon for people to wait for rides that never show up," said Jesse Lorenz, executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center.

"Uber is out to make a profit, but it's not a bad thing if they're inclusive at the same time."

Emails between city officials also reveal disagreements over the Uber paratransit pilot may have widened a schism between the Mayor's Office and the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency's former taxi division director, Chris Hayashi, who retired from her position last year.

The paratransit system is comprised of a fleet of city-run vans, as well as taxi-run vehicles equipped with wheelchair access. A debit card-like system is provided to wheelchair users for the taxis, which is subsidized by The City.

Wheelchair users, who often have disabilities, are provided $30 worth of taxi rides for every $5 they pay under the system. Paratransit vehicles are provided by the taxi industry and the SFMTA runs the debit system.

By contrast, ride-service companies Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, known as transportation network companies, have long come under fire from the disability community for not providing wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Only in the last few months has Uber quietly rolled out wheelchair access from its new service, Uber WAV (wheelchair-access vehicle).

Uber WAV requires a $25 minimum ride for use, and does not accept the city-subsidized debit card.

But city emails reveal a different path Uber may have taken to provide paratransit, and one it may yet take.

"Would it be possible to find a time for us to talk to someone about facilitating paratransit via Uber's platform?" Ilya Abyzov, Uber's San Francisco general manager, wrote to the Mayor's Office on March 17.

A meeting was scheduled with city officials for April 3 to discuss a pilot program, which would have facilitated Uber's use of the paratransit infrastructure The City built with the taxi industry.

The emails do not mention providing this access to Uber's competitors, Lyft or Sidecar.

The meeting's location was described in a calendar e-vite as the "Death Star."

Hayashi butted heads with the Mayor's Office over the potential pilot plan for Uber, shortly before the meeting.

In a March 24 email to Gillian Gillett, director of transportation policy for the Mayor's Office, Hayashi wrote, "How long does it take to say, 'That is a bone-head, ill-considered idea that we have zero incentive to support?' [Uber] needs to make themselves look good for their September report to the CPUC, and they are holding their hand out asking us to let them use the infrastructure that we built in order to set themselves apart from their competitors -- while they enthusiastically and deliberately tear it down with the other hand."

To Hayashi's critiques, Gillett replied, "It's not like the Paratransit contract is a stunning success for the riders or the City."

"I'm officially offended," Hayashi wrote back. She then cited a survey's reported 93 percent rider satisfaction rate with paratransit rides in The City.

Hayashi also hinted at a schism between the views of the Mayor's Office and the SFMTA on tech transit companies like Uber.

"I know I am not making any friends in the Mayor's Office, but I thought I should point out that I have served the City and County of SF for 24 years," Hayashi wrote. She also reminded Gillett that she raised over $50 million for The City in new revenue from taxi medallion sales.

"Given the fact that I have had the courage to go against City Hall on this TNC issue for reasons that I consider critical to the public interest, I expect my retirement to be ignored by the Mayor's Office and Board of Supervisors," she wrote.

"But I deserve better."

Hayashi retired from the SFMTA three months later.

Though she was unavailable to speak for this story, Hayashi commented on her retirement to The Examiner in July.

"Really, a large part of the decision is about timing with my years of service to The City and my age," she said. "It's not," she added, referring to Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, "because Travis has kicked my ass."

It is unclear if the Uber pilot program is still being considered by city officials.

Kate Toran, former head of the paratransit program and Hayashi's replacement as head of the taxi division, denied any plans to allow Uber access to paratransit.

"There is no SFMTA pilot program for Uber to be part of paratransit," she told The Examiner. "They do not meet our insurance requirements."

Lorenz said "that's a big deal" to paratransit riders, as the population is one with many health issues.

Paratransit wheelchair taxi trips have declined since 2013.

Two groups provide transit options to wheelchair users through the paratransit system in The City: SF Access and traditional taxis. SF Access trips have remained stable at about 6,000 rides from wheelchair users from 2013-14.

But in January 2013, there were about 1,400 wheelchair taxi trips, according to the SFMTA. By October of last year, the monthly use had declined to 457 rides.

"The demand is there," Toran said.

The problem isn't lack of wheelchair users, she added, but lack of drivers.

Drivers are flocking from the taxi industry to drive for TNCs, like Uber. This leaves fewer drivers for the taxi industry's paratransit vehicles, leaving wheelchair users with far fewer transit options overall.

And Uber's track record with the disability community is shaky. A new lawsuit alleges its drivers denied rides to blind people with seeing-eye dogs.

Uber did not respond to requests for comment.

"The Mayor's Office and the SFMTA are continuing to discuss how to make paratransit services more accessible," said Christine Falvey, the mayor's spokeswoman, "as more and more people choose TNCs as a transportation alternative."

This article has been updated from its print version.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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