For many people with visual impairments, finding an accessible, reliable, and affordable means of transportation is of paramount concern, and is very often integral to pursuing social and employment opportunities. Ridesharing companies such as Uber are becoming an additional mode of transportation in many American cities, and in most cases, competing directly with the taxi cab industry.
Caption: Screenshot of Uber User Interface
What Is Uber?
Uber was launched in San Francisco back in 2009. It is currently available in 47 cities in the United States alone, and has expanded to 35 countries worldwide. The company relies on a mobile app to connect passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire. The term "ridesharing" is frequently used to describe services such as Uber, but this term may be a little misleading. The basic model of paying a company to transfer you from point A to point B still applies. However, unlike a taxicab, Uber drivers use their personal vehicles to drive passengers. Rather than communicating with a dispatch to arrange for pickup, passengers request pick-ups directly through the app. UberX is the most popular service that Uber provides, and is also the most affordable, since the vehicles used for this service are not considered luxury vehicles. Depending on the city, Uber may also provide other types of vehicles and rates to choose from, including "Black Car" and "SUV." The "Black Car" option represents a high-end sedan, while the "SUV" option provides a larger vehicle with seat capacity for up to six people. There are other companies that provide a similar service to Uber, including Lyft and Sidecar.
Pricing and Availability
Uber rates can vary from city to city. Typically, the cost of using UberX is less than that of a standard taxicab. During peak times, when there are more requests for rides being made than there are vehicles available, Uber uses what it refers to as "surge pricing," which means passengers are charged a higher rate for their rides. The higher rate is displayed within the app before the ride is requested, which gives a passenger the option to complete or cancel the request for a ride at that point. In the most extreme cases, surge pricing can increase the standard Uber fare by multiple times the standard rate. Fortunately, extremely high rates due to surge pricing are rare. Uber experienced considerable backlash when rates went as high as eight times the standard rate on New Year's Eve in New York City. Fortunately, New Year's Eve in New York City only comes around once a year, and when surge pricing is in effect, it typically does not exceed more than two to three times the standard fare. In March of 2014, presumably due to the backlash that Uber received because of its surge pricing practice, the company introduced "Surge Drop" notifications, which notify customers via text message when surge prices drop in their area. UberX rides have recently become subject to a $1.00 "Safe Rides Fee" as a means to offset rising insurance costs.
Uber App Setup and Accessibility
The Uber app is available as a free download for both the iOS and Android market. For this review the app was tested using the following devices and software:
- iPhone 5 running iOS 7.1.1
- Nexus 4 running Android 4.4.2
Uber is to be commended for making the Uber app accessible with VoiceOver, the native screen reader for iOS. All of the buttons and controls within the app have been effectively labeled. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Android operating system when using its native screen reading program, TalkBack. Several buttons and edit boxes within the Uber Android app are unlabeled. Therefore, the initial setup, and functionality of the app with TalkBack after setup, is inaccessible.
The app's user interface for both iOS and Android platforms provides a high contrast color scheme combination of white, light gray, and black, which makes the app easier to use for people who benefit from increased contrast levels. The native screen magnification features of iOS, and Android Version 4.2 or higher, work seamlessly with the app by allowing you to increase the size of the viewable area. However, there are no additional options within the app itself to increase any of the text size. If you have low vision, and you are using an Android device that is running Version 4.1 or later, there are unfortunately no accessibility options to increase the viewable area or font size of the app.
In order to register an account, Uber requires that you have a mobile phone number. The registration process can either be done online, or within the app itself. During the registration process, the app is linked to a credit card, PayPal account, or Google Wallet. Your account is automatically charged at the end of each ride. This automated electronic transaction completely eliminates the need to exchange cash with or submit a credit card to the driver. Tipping the driver is also automated. By default, the Uber account is set up to automatically tip the driver 20%. You are given the option to change the tip amount by accessing your account online. Changing the tip amount is a feature that is currently only available via a Web browser, and not within the app itself.
A detailed statement is sent to your e-mail address after every trip. It provides the pick-up and drop-off addresses, the amount you were charged, and the total length of the trip. It will even provide you with the first name of your driver.
The app displays a map of your area at startup, with all of the Uber vehicles' locations within your vicinity. This map is not accessible via the iOS and Android screen readers. However, the map itself is much less important than the estimated pick-up time and the rate that you are being charged, since you have no control over which one of the displayed vehicles may respond to your request for a ride. Once again, the estimated time of arrival and rate is completely accessible using VoiceOver on the iPhone. Unfortunately this is not the case with the Android app using TalkBack.
By default, the app will auto-populate your current location using GPS on your phone. If the auto-populated address is incorrect, you can manually enter the correct address. You are also given the option to enter your destination and receive an estimated fare quote before you decide to go through with the request.
Communicating with the Driver via Text or Phone
After a pickup has been requested, the app provides you with the driver's name and the type of car he or she is driving. The app does not currently allow a person with a disability to indicate any additional needs or assistance that may be required. The app does provide an additional Actions button, which becomes available after a pick-up request has been made. One of these actions includes the ability to contact the driver before they arrive, either by phone or by text message. Since the Uber driver will not know that you are visually impaired or blind, contacting the driver before they arrive to indicate precisely where to meet, and to let them know how to identify you, is extremely useful. For a person with low vision, it may also be difficult to identify the vehicle when it arrives. Since the vehicles are privately owned, they will be more difficult to identify than company-owned taxicabs. The app does not currently indicate the color of the vehicle that is being used, although it does let you know the type of car being driven. As the driver arrives at the specified pickup location, a text message is sent to your phone stating, "your Uber is arriving now." Receiving this text message allows you to know exactly when your ride has arrived, and reduces the need to be on high alert for an extended period of time. It also reduces the time that you need to wait outside to meet your driver.
The positive impact of the estimated time of arrival, and the line of communication between the Uber driver and passenger, is significant. Knowing the driver's estimated arrival time, and actual arrival via a text message, will allow you to more effectively manage the time you have remaining before the driver arrives, thereby allowing you a greater amount of control. I have found this to be especially true in social settings when I know approximately how much time I have to wrap things up and say my good-byes, and to gather my belongings before the Uber driver arrives.
Uber Policy on Guide Dogs and People with Disabilities
Uber has yet to adopt a policy to accommodate the needs of people who use service animals. In fact their policies make no reference to service animals. The only reference made to animals is a section in their policies entitled "Can I Ride With My Pets?" Uber states that they "leave the decision whether or not to transport pets at the discretion of your driver." Read Uber Policies for their full statement.
Uber is enmeshed in a number of legal wranglings within several states for not abiding by the same local and state requirements of taxicabs. A growing number of people are also challenging Uber and other ridesharing companies' policies regarding people with disabilities. Since the vehicles are privately owned and operated by independent contractors, Uber and other ridesharing companies are currently not required to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that "public transportation authorities may not discriminate against people with disabilities in the provision of their services."
After each trip, both the driver and rider rate each other with a one to five star rating system. This system can be an effective method to provide accountability for both the driver and rider, and improve the experience overall. However, in the absence of any policy in place by Uber regarding people with disabilities, the potential exists for a rider to potentially receive a negative rating from a driver simply because of their need for a service animal, thereby potentially compromising future requests for pickups.
The Bottom Line
In a country that continues to maintain its love affair with automobiles, Uber offers people with visual impairments an alternative to the traditional taxicabs in several cities within the United States. When surge pricing is not in effect, the cost of UberX can be very reasonable. The iOS app allows a person who is blind to easily schedule a pickup with just a few gestures on their smartphone, and the automated system eliminates the hassle of having to pay the driver directly with cash or credit card. Uber's estimated arrival time is also much more exacting than traditional taxicabs, since GPS is used to accurately track the distance between you and the driver.
Uber is clearly not for everyone. There are many American cities that do not offer Uber services at this time. In the cities that Uber is available, the company's business model is highly reactive to the supply and demand of the market, which can sometimes translate into a lack of available Uber drivers at the time a request is made. On the flip side, it can also mean that if surge pricing is in effect, the service may not be feasible for many.
If you happen to be a blind traveler with a guide dog, and are refused a ride from an Uber driver, there appears to be no legal recourse that can be taken under the ADA at this time. This makes the Uber service unreliable at best for people using a guide dog, and discriminatory at worst. Although it's evident that Uber has invested resources into making their iOS app accessible for people who are blind and visually impaired, the current version of the Uber app for Android is virtually unusable for a person who is accessing it via TalkBack. With the proliferation of Android smartphones on the market today, it would be in the company's best interest to make it more accessible, not only because it happens to be the right thing to do, but because it would also be a profitable investment.