“Uber has been amazing,” says Lauren. “When my legs are bad and I can’t face walking getting an Uber is just so helpful.”
Lauren has an invisible disability, the sort of lazy person you see going one stop on the bus because she’s in pain. “A lot of the time a bus just isn’t an option. It’s just not convenient. Being able to get call a cab and get to where I need to be is a real life saver.”
But Lauren is unusual: many disabled people are entirely excluded from the sharing economy.
Disabled people are excluded from a lot: just look at the wheelchair symbols on the TfL map. But every licensed London taxi is meant to be wheelchair accessible. One of the reasons black cab drivers find Uber so irritating is that the private cab firm can charge a metered fare without the added cost of running an accessible vehicle.
In a way, then, Uber already receives a subsidy – but a subsidy that goes entirely to those who can get in and out of its cars.
We subsidise bus and train fares too, but we insist they offer accessible services. Isn’t it time for a similar arrangement for Uber?
As public transport becomes more personalised, it creates an incredible opportunity to offer disabled people greater freedom. Working out how to make Uber and similar services accessible is more important than bemoaning that they aren’t already.
The cross-subsidy disabled people receive from the fact black cabs are wheelchair accessible is difficult to calculate, but the bus subsidy is large. From 1997 subsidies for disabled and elderly passengers rose from almost nothing to nearly £1bn pounds. Including payments for rural bus routes, subsidies account for 45 per cent of all bus operators’ revenues. Whether a direct subsidy per journey, a flat fee per mile travelled or some other arrangement, a public subsidy isn’t a ridiculous idea.
The government pays a proportion of the fare for each bus journey; this amount is low as bus fares are generally lower than cab fares. A similar value of subsidy per Uber journey wouldn’t make a big difference to long journeys – but it might mean the difference between a trip to the local shops and not going out at all. Just getting to a bus stop can be difficult, especially when your final destination is further away again on the other side. Such small differences really matter when you have reduced mobility.
The sharing economy has always been a euphemism for exploiting valuable assets more efficiently. But until recently a lot of disabled people have been excluded from sharing in these efficient services: an Airbnb doesn’t need to meet the same accessibility standards as a hotel.
But this needn’t be a giveaway; in exchange for subsidy, Uber could be required to add an accessible option alongside the ubiquitous Honda Prius. The firm has already trailed an accessible option in the US, and you can hail black cabs with the UK app.
Until now I have elided how unpopular Uber are – or rather, while their services are incredibly popular, many people do not like them. Uber has been accused of intimidating journalists, not paying its fair share of tax, not protecting its female drivers, and more. With this in mind it is easy to balk at the idea of offering them a subsidy.
But Stagecoach employed aggressive expansion strategies when it was a young company, often scheduling its buses to arrive minutes before its competitors. (Its owner, Brian Souter, used part of the fortune this earned him to helped bankroll opposition to the repeal of the infamous Section 28.)
Making the sharing economy more accessible isn’t optional: in fact, it will only become more important. We have already decided that we will subsidise public transport, directly and indirectly. We are not above subsidising companies we may not like if the cause is right. Uber is emblematic, but any accessibility subsidy would have to be firm neutral so competitors like Lyft aren’t unfairly disadvantaged.
It sounds controversial at first – but subsidising Uber would be consistent with present policy and step forward for improving accessibility.