Don’t take away city rights to provide transportation options for all

Photo by Ståle Grut / Flickr

Safe and accessible transportation for all should be a priority for Texas. Access to reliable transportation is critically important for individuals with disabilities who depend on them for transportation to and from their daily activities and to lead independent lives.

Houston has long been a strong proponent of disability rights and has crafted first-of-their-kind regulations to ensure all Houstonians can take part in the ride-sharing revolution which has swept our state.

Unfortunately, bills pending in the Legislature would undo that progress. These bills would remove cities’ power to regulate Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft and hand it over to the State. In the process, this legislation could effectively remove requirements that TNC companies offer real-time accessible rides — leaving Texans with disabilities stranded. Legislators should reject these bills and leave rulemaking where it belongs — with the governments closest to the people, the cities.

In 2014, after the arrival of TNCs in Houston, city officials convened a task force to ensure that Houstonians with disabilities, including wheelchair users, could equally benefit from the technological advancements these companies offered. Despite their competitive differences, representatives from the taxi, limousine and TNC industries worked together with leaders from Houston’s disability community for more than a year to guarantee that all vehicle-for-hire companies in Houston provided wheelchair accessible service.

Consensus building is never easy, but the long hours and hard work of the task force paid off. The city council approved the recommendations unanimously in October 2015, creating the first municipal accessibility ordinance in the nation to receive the support of the community, the taxi and limousine industries and both Uber and Lyft. Houston proudly maintained and advanced its commitment to the rights of Americans with disabilities.

Our ordinance has already had a substantial impact on the lives of Houstonians with disabilities. New companies have already formed that specialize in providing wheelchair accessible transportation. Each and every vehicle-for-hire company in Houston now has a method of providing service to all Houstonians regardless of ability. From impromptu trips to the doctor or grocery store to special events like a Texans game or senior prom, a new world of opportunities is now available to Houstonians — at the touch of a button — that once required scheduling transportation days in advance.

The pending legislation however, merely “refers” a passenger to alternate service providers, if any are available. Unlike Houston’s ordinance, the state proposal would do nothing to ensure that a passenger who uses a wheelchair will actually receive service. It would allow a TNC driver to refuse service to potential passengers with service animals if the driver “has a medically documented condition that prevents the driver from transporting animals.” This is an insult to the hard-fought rights won by the disability activists with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which forbids the refusal of service to passengers with service animals. This sends a clear message that Texans with disabilities are to be treated as second class citizens.

TNCs have tremendous potential to expand access to transportation if they are held accountable to serve the entire community. In an era of unprecedented innovation, technology should be used to break down barriers. The legislation now being considered gives an entire industry carte blanche to ignore an important segment of our community. Using new technology to exacerbate old inequalities is not progress. It is unacceptable.

The beauty of Houston’s ordinance is that it was created through the tireless work of engaged citizens who worked hand-in-hand with companies like Uber and Lyft to craft a solution that works for Houston. The pending legislation would limit municipal authority and deny future mayors important policy tools to improve their communities. Ensuring equal access to transportation for all Texans should be a priority for lawmakers at each and every level of government. While technology and innovation stand to move the rest of the world forward, these bills would leave Texans with disabilities behind.

Maria Town

Director, Houston Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities