Anyone who travels daily throughout metro Atlanta (sighted and visually impaired) understands how difficult and frustrating the experience can be at times. From long waits for crowded trains and buses to mind-numbing traffic congestion, Atlanta certainly has mobility issues with a still developing consensus from regional leaders on how to fix them.
In 2012, Uber, a San Francisco startup, splashed onto the scene and in short order, revolutionized how Atlantans move around their car-centric metropolis while upending the traditional taxicab industry frequently criticized by Atlantans for poor customer service. This new transportation model ushered in by the likes of Uber also has the potential to benefit the blind community as well, although with some risk that each individual must consider for themselves.
Uber is a “ridesharing” company that partners registered drivers in a geographic area to customers needing a ride. Unlike traditional taxicabs, you create an account profile online, complete with credit/debit card information, contact number, and even the ability to upload a photo. When a trip is needed, all you do is simply open the free mobile app, select the vehicle type that best fits your transportation needs and price range (from the popular UberX to luxurious SUVs and black cars) and then type in the pickup location (or have GPS find it). Once the destination address has been entered, the app generates a fare estimate and you can accept or decline it. If you agree, the closest car matching your selection arrives and whisks you to your destination. A receipt and reminder to rate the trip experience is then emailed to you before booking another trip with the app. No cash ever changes hands, and the great thing about all this is that the app is totally accessible using screen reading technology on smartphones. In addition to all of this, the ability to seamlessly access driver networks while traveling in any of the growing number of American cities served by Uber opens up the door to better mobility and travel for the blind community.
I have used UberX several times during the 2014 Georgia legislative session using Apple’s VoiceOver technology with no issue at all. Each fare estimate was very close to the actual fare billed to my credit card and the cars were clean and well maintained. Uber’s greatest appeal to me is the ability to estimate how much my trip will cost before even getting in the car. This level of freedom and convenience offers little need to carry cash or a credit card, something not universally available in the Atlanta taxi industry.
While this blog post highlights the positive potential of Uber to people with vision loss, the Uber experience has been less than stellar for some in the disabled community, and I feel it is my duty to point out problems some customers have encountered with the car service, even though I have not experienced them personally. A notable story from Uber’s home base of San Francisco reports on some Uber drivers allegedly refusing service to customers with guide dogs. The company responds that it requires all drivers to accept service animals, and failure to do so will result in a driver being removed from the Uber network. Of long-term concern to the broader disabled community is the impact this new transportation model could have on traditional for-hire transportation services which are regulated by state and federal law. A lawsuit has been filed in Texas claiming that Uber and another ridesharing company violated the ADA in not providing wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The question as to how and under what regulations Uber must operate will likely be determined in state, and ultimately, federal court.
In Atlanta, Uber’s impact has been overwhelmingly positive, offering fast, affordable, and cashless transportation to a region starved for viable transportation solutions in the short-term. Accepting Uber’s commitment to non-discrimination for blind customers with guide dogs at face value, this has the potential to drastically increase the mobility options for the blind community in Atlanta by offering customers fast, convenient and accessible car service when you must get somewhere quickly. In addition the availability of twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week service through a smartphone app that is fully accessible with screen reading technology without the need or hassle of carrying a fare. Now, you really can’t beat that.
As a person with vision loss, how do you get around Atlanta? Have you heard of the Uber app? Have you used the service? If so, what was your experience? Share your comments and let’s talk about the need for revolutionizing transportation in the Atlanta area.