Wheelchair user Ricky tests the ease of travelling around London using both black cabs and Uber

Uber, the app-based taxi service now in London, is certainly stirring things up.  Accusations of flouting legislation on the use of meters, of ramping up prices during the tube strikes, and of failing to adequately vet drivers have been seen in the press, across social media and even in a recent debate in Parliament.  On the other side, Uber-aficionados delight in the convenience and affordability of the service.  That’s all well and good for the majority, but how does it affect wheelchair users?

Every black cab in London is wheelchair accessible.  Uber drivers are not subject to that requirement  and, as a result, most of their cars are fairly standard saloons; if you want to travel in your wheelchair, Uber isn’t really an option.  But what about if you are prepared to transfer?  We’ve long heard of black cab drivers who don’t stop when hailed by a wheelchair user, or who say that their ramp isn’t working (particularly when it’s raining) and we’ve been hearing similar tales of Uber drivers who cancel bookings when they’re told they’re taking a wheelchair user.  Is the problem sufficient to prevent wheelchair users using either service?

Ricky uses a lightweight manual wheelchair and can independently transfer.  He invited Alex and Beth on a jaunt around the sights of central London, taking a succession of black cabs and Uber vehicles.

Ricky waiting for a taxi

It didn’t take long for Ricky to flag down the first black cab, and the driver was quickly out to set up the ramps; unless you are on a particularly high kerb, these ramps are far too steep to self-propel up but all three cabbies we used helped Ricky in.  Once inside, a helpful sticker suggests placing the back of the wheelchair against the dividing partition, but there’s simply not enough space to turn the chair; for most wheelchair users, any journey in a black cab involves travelling sideways with your back to anyone else you are in the cab with.

On Tottenham Court Road, the first available black cab to notice Ricky made eye contact and then sped-off.  Fortunately, he was the only one who chose not to stop and the next cabbie pulled over, let Ricky know that there was no ramp on the right hand side of the car, and pointed out where he’d go and wait on the other side of the road so that Ricky could get in.  In a city with so many one-way streets, the lack of ramps on both sides was, said our driver, a design flaw that he’d like to see corrected.

Ricky being helped by driver into a black cab

Our Uber experience didn’t get off to a great start when the account we had intended to use turned out to have been deactivated for “security reasons”.  Since there’s no helpline to call, problems with Uber accounts aren’t sorted quickly enough to allow you to complete your journey the same day.  With another account set up, our first Uber vehicle arrived and, after a few attempts, got in close enough to the kerb for Ricky to transfer into the front seat.  The driver wasn’t that keen to leave his seat, but he was happy to let Alex and Beth fold up Ricky’s chair and get it in the boot.

When we booked the next Uber, we used the messaging facility to let the driver know that he’d be picking up a wheelchair user.  The driver promptly cancelled the ride.  But the next two drivers we used weren’t put off by our message, with one of them telling us that it really helped him out since it made us easier to spot on the busy street corner we were waiting on. Both drivers were exceptionally helpful, took instructions on how to get the wheelchair into the boot and, when we reached our destination, made a point of picking a drop-off site that made it easier for Ricky to get out.  Only one of the Uber drivers had taken a wheelchair user before, but all three were bemused by the idea that a driver would cancel a job for that reason.
Ricky looking for cabs

At no point did we wait more than 7 minutes for any taxi, and that includes the time lost by the cancelled Uber job and the black cab that didn’t stop.  The Uber rides were considerably cheaper than similar journeys in the black cabs and that, perhaps, is one of the biggest issues; as Uber popularity surges, so running a black cab is in danger of becoming less profitable.  Uber detractors have already warned that if demand for black cabs drops sufficiently, London could be in danger of losing its fleet of wheelchair accessible taxis.  For those that can’t easily transfer or get their wheelchair into the boot of a car, that would be a huge loss.  At the same time, those who can transfer gain from a convenient, cheap option that, say its supporters, is introducing competition into the market.

Back at home, Ricky reflected on his afternoon about town:

“If I’ve got a choice, I’d prefer to take a black cab. It’s more expensive, but it saves me the hassle of getting out the chair. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t use Uber.  I think I’d be wary about using it on my own because you’ve got to rely on the driver sorting out the wheelchair, but I wouldn’t be worried if I was with friends.  For me, this afternoon has shown that I could use taxis more than I do.”