A writer with Cerebral Palsy pits the competitors head-to-head to evaluate the accessibility of Toronto's ride-sharing industry.
The moment my Uber driver, Joe, sees me emerge from my apartment building, he steps out of his car to open the vehicle’s backseat passenger door. Once I hop inside, he adjusts the passenger seat, pushing it forward to make space for my legs. “Can I help you with anything? Give you a hand?” he asks when we arrive at my destination. I politely decline.
These measures might seem excessive—as if the driver were vying for a five-star rating. But for those like me with accessibility issues, going the extra mile (pardon the pun) can make all the difference.
Joe is a driver trained for Uber’s newest service, Assist, which became available in Toronto on Feb. 26. It’s the ride-share company’s attempt at making the navigation of the city easier for those with disabilities or seniors. I know the struggle firsthand: getting around the city with Cerebral Palsy (CP) is often a challenge.
Yet, for all the hubbub surrounding the city’s taxi wars, little has been explored regarding how competing services have dealt with accessibility. In the name of journalism, I tried both services to explore it myself.
Though Uber has been lauded as an industry-changing initiative, it’s taxi drivers who have long been revered as the (somewhat) accessible counterpart to the ride-sharing company. As Jonathan Kay divulges in his definitive Uber-versus-taxi story for The Walrus, Uber has long ignored the accessibility issue—but cabbies haven’t. “Traditional taxis have not done a sterling job of serving disabled passengers,” Kay writes. “But things are changing. Toronto recently has begun phasing in a new general licence that will utterly transform the city’s taxi fleet by requiring fully accessible vehicles…with folding ramps.” Taxi schools, he continues, also stress the importance of “safety and accessibility.”
It’s perhaps what has pushed Uber to unveil Assist. At the same price as UberX, the new service competitively offers extra assistance getting in and out of the car to those who need it. Drivers are also trained to load and unload the wheelchairs or mobility aids riders may have. All Uber drivers with a star rating of at least 4.8, such as Joe, were invited to attend a two-hour seminar in preparation for being an Assist driver.
Despite this, I’ve always thought that Uber was a great service for people with mild to moderate disabilities. I have been reliant on Uber for about a year when TTC is not quite enough. UberX was a real saviour last winter, for instance, when I needed to be at school everyday but snow and ice made it almost impossible for me to walk on down the sidewalks without slipping or falling.
While no two people are affected in the same ways, my CP predominantly effects my walking. I walk with two canes for balance and occasionally use a wheelchair if I am going long distances, or having more difficulties than usual. I don’t usually need anything special, but considering I can’t drive, a drive from point A to point B is often helpful. It is also great to be able to do this independently, without having to depend on my boyfriend to drive me around all the time.
So last Tuesday, I decided to try out Assist. I needed to go from my apartment, near Queen West and Beverly, to my boyfriend’s apartment, near Don Mills and Lawrence, but the snow would have made the hour-long public transit journey challenging.
I noticed a few days before that there were more Uber Assist drivers available in the downtown core than in North York, which could pose a problem for anyone living with disabilities on the fringes of the city. In my case, driver Joe arrived within just six minutes—just enough time for me to get down to the lobby. I was immediately surprised by his getting right out of the car to open my door; it’s not that I’ve never had an Uber driver offer to help, but those who are willing to do so usually only rush out of the car once they’ve noticed my canes. I appreciated his willingness, even if I didn’t need much extra help on this particular trip.
Joe was friendly and eager to chat so I took the opportunity to ask him about his experiences with this new service. He told me I was only his second Assist rider, but he was happy to do it. This isn’t entirely out of good will: While UberX drivers earn 75 per cent of the profit, Assist drivers are incentivized to train, earning 85 per cent per ride. The 26-minute ride set me back just $23.05.
When it was time to return home, I ordered a taxi via the Beck website. (I tried their app, but it kept crashing.) Similar to Uber, I waited only about six minutes, and the driver had no issue finding the address. I concede that finding a taxi outside of the downtown core is likely faster and easier than an Uber.
I knew that a taxi ride often costs about double that of an UberX, so I told Gordon, my driver, to take me to Pape Station. This trip took about 10 minutes and cost $23.43. As I was getting out of the car, Gordon asked it I needed a hand. I appreciated the offer and said thank you, but told him I was fine because I figured it would be more trouble that it was worth for me to explain how he could be helpful; unlike Joe, he didn’t undergo accessibility training.
My experiences in both Ubers and taxis are still limited: I didn’t bring my wheelchair this time (but maybe I’ll feel more comfortable bringing it in the future, thanks to UberWAV), and my needs might be less significant than those of other riders who require more assistance. How either would perform in more intensive situations is unknown to me.
The choice between Uber and taxi is a personal one, in which factors like availability, helpfulness, understanding, cost, and timeliness must be weighed. But beyond those factors, it is important to recognize that choice now exists. In a city where accessibility can often be lacklustre at best, Uber Assist and accessible taxis provide two new ways to explore—and that alone should be celebrated.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of profits both UberX and UberAssist drivers make. Torontoist regrets the error.