Eric Kayne / Houston Chronicle

Taxi wars: Trying to find a ride with Uber — and failing

Outside Houston’s freeway loops and for riders in wheelchairs, Uber service is spotty

Editor’s note: This is the last story in a four-part series, reported and published with the Houston Chronicle, which examines the impact of Uber, the app-based ride-hailing service, on America’s fourth-largest city. Read parts onetwo and three.

HOUSTON — If you’re in the right place and don’t need special accommodations, this might be the best time to look for a ride in Houston. Taxis are plentiful, with willing drivers in the usual spots. An army of UberX drivers are eagerly combing Houston streets, and many believe the number is growing.

It’s truly a buyer’s market, said Midtown resident Todd Slusher, 26, who frequently uses Uber. “I’ve never waited more than five minutes,” he said. “It’s great.”

That convenience, however, isn’t evenly distributed across the city. In popular neighborhoods such as Midtown, where many people live, work and play, Uber rides are easy to come by and the app gets high marks. But in areas farther from the core, and for disabled passengers, a ride can be far harder to find.

When Uber representatives argued for rule changes in Houston, they said the app-based service would democratize driving and create opportunities for enterprising drivers to find niche markets, including serving Houston’s disabled community. But the wait for an UberX vehicle — the company’s low-cost brand — can be longer in Houston’s central, working-class Third Ward than downtown or in trendy spots such as the Heights neighborhood.

Word of mouth is just reaching the residents of the Third Ward, a predominantly poor and African-American area. “For a long time, they just didn’t know about the service,” said Lateefah Eburuche, an UberX driver who lives in the Third Ward.

I’m out here by myself. There’s parts of this city that just are not safe.


UberX driver who would not give his last name

Access is improving in Houston, Uber says. It recently declared that “the number of rides beginning in underserved neighborhoods increased significantly in the first half of 2015,” which city officials do not dispute. And in response to scrutiny of the corporation’s practices, Uber announced in early September that it would partner with the local NAACP and the advocacy nonprofit Change Happens! to recruit 5,000 drivers from underserved communities, where underemployment is widespread.

Although Uber doesn’t strictly control where drivers work, many with UberX say they avoid areas where demand is lower and the crime rate is higher, preferring to stay uptown, near offices and bars.

Charles, a driver who declined to give his last name, said he will drop off anywhere in Houston. But if he doesn’t like the look of the neighborhood, he will not stick around or accept a rider. “I’m out here by myself,” he said. “There’s parts of this city that just are not safe.”

To date, taking an UberX from downtown to the once rural, suburban city of Humble has been easy, but finding a return trip, more uncertain. Within Houston’s outer freeway loop, home to roughly 2.2 million, Uber is everywhere. Outside it, where another 4 million people live, service can be spotty — for UberX and cabs alike.

According to the rules set by Houston and many other cities, however, there is a big difference between the two kinds of vehicles: Cab companies must guarantee service everywhere, to everyone. Uber drivers have no obligation to work in a particular neighborhood.

[Uber] isn’t playing by the same rules. [Serving the disabled] is not a profitable venture, but it is one we are prepared to participate in, and they should, too.

Duane Kamins

owner, Lone Star Cab Co.

Uber has gained a loyal following by providing timely service in high-traffic areas — “approximately three minutes now in major cities throughout the U.S.,” said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. An abundance of drivers, however, increases competition for trips, making it tougher for drivers to earn a good income, some say. Company officials disagree.

“We don’t create demand; the riders do,” Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said in an email detailing the company’s practices. “By analyzing that data on a regular basis, we can provide insight into the historically busiest areas and share that information with our driver partners so that they can maximize their earnings.” Researchers at the firm Data & Society assert that, to the contrary, Uber misrepresents both supply and demand; it determines pricing based on a combination of predicted and actual demand and displays “phantom cabs” to passengers on the app.

It’s undisputed that the company identifies “consistently high demand” areas where bar hoppers and others are looking for a quick trip. Uber marks off these zones for drivers, establishing online boundaries known as “geofences.” Hancock refuted the idea that Uber doesn’t adequately serve low-income areas, noting that the Third Ward lies within one of these geofences.

A Lone Star Cab is seen outside of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Sept. 9, 2015, in Houston.
Jon Shapley / Houston Chronicle

If lower-income Houstonians feel undeserved by Uber, however, many disabled residents remain entirely unserved. Though Uber eventually took part in discussions with a task force aimed at improving accessibility, it initially said the law doesn’t require it to provide for disabled passengers, because its drivers are independent contractors. Taxi firms, which are required to operate wheelchair-accessible fleets, countered that this lack of service is proof that Uber just wants easy, lucrative trips.

“We have invested because … it is the right thing to do,” Lone Star Cab Co. owner Duane Kamins said of wheelchair-accessible taxis. “[Uber] isn’t playing by the same rules. [Serving the disabled] is not a profitable venture, but it is one we are prepared to participate in, and they should, too.”

Uber gives drivers information about how best to serve blind and hearing-impaired riders, and it caters to people with service animals and elderly patrons with special needs. Collapsible, manual wheelchairs can also be accommodated, if they fit in the trunk of an UberX vehicle. The company has nevertheless been sued for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hancock could not provide a single example of an Uber vehicle in Houston equipped for a noncollapsible wheelchair. Also, people who must stay seated in them while en route are excluded from Uber service.

This disparity frustrates some disabled riders, who want the same cheaper and convenient options for rides and assert that Uber should have to accommodate all passengers. “Let’s say McDonald’s, they don’t own any of the restaurants themselves, but they have franchises. Those franchise owners have to comply with law,” said Michelle Colvard, vice chair of Houston’s accessibility task force and a wheelchair user.

Taxi driver Crystal Gardner helps Lara Posadas board the taxi in front of City Hall after a Houston City Council vote on Aug. 6, 2014.
Mayra Beltran / Houston Chronicle

Disability rights advocates, meanwhile, say the entire paid-ride system has gaps, and hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. “Make no mistake, the disabled community is equally if not more responsible for this condition,” said Toby Cole, who led the task force, along with Colvard, that recommended changes in Houston’s vehicle-for-hire rules. “We have failed to find our voice.”

Partly to appease concerns raised by the disabled community, city officials asked Uber to participate in discussions about how to serve disabled riders. Cab companies also had a slot on Cole’s task force, along with Lyft, an Uber competitor that has remained involved even though it is not operating in Houston.

Last month, the task force finally settled on regulations that set a minimum number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles in cab fleets over time. Uber and similar app-based companies, meanwhile, can choose whether to meet the standard by providing accessible vehicles or by guaranteeing disabled passengers rides within a certain time frame.

Uber would most likely provide wheelchair-accessible service by contracting with a vendor specializing in transportation for disabled clients. Uber has a similar arrangement in Austin.

Cole, who called the task force recommendations a “workable solution,” said these rules are a good start, but that oversight will be key. “Without enforcement, these recommendations mean nothing.”

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