As someone with low vision, driving has never been a viable means of transportation for me. I can't just go anywhere on a whim; even going a few blocks from home takes some planning. Most of the time, I rely on public transit, rides from family and friends, and even my own two feet to get around. This has been the norm my entire life, so I'm used to it. While there are moments when I wish I had my own car—mainly for the freedom it affords—I'm comfortable with not driving.
Beyond taking the bus, getting rides, or walking, there is one other mode of transportation that has changed my life: ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. My iPhone is unquestionably the computer I use most, and the fact I can get a ride from anywhere at anytime is extraordinarily powerful. Powerful for anyone, but especially so if you, like me, are visually impaired and thus precluded from driving yourself.
In just a few taps, I can get door-to-door service from my house to my favorite Starbucks or anywhere else I want to go. This is particularly handy on rainy days (of which there have been many lately here in the Bay Area) when I don't necessarily want to walk and wait at bus stops in the storm. It's also great for getting to places that I'm unfamiliar with, or which take many buses to get to. Knowing that I can get a car virtually instantaneously is incredibly comforting. I am and will remain completely comfortable walking or taking the bus, but having ride-hailing as an option is an amazing security blanket that I'm grateful for.
What a time to be alive, indeed.
Despite its advantages, however, there are downsides to getting Uber or Lyft. From an accessibility standpoint, I find it much easier to find my ride at a set location (e.g., my house or in front of the aforementioned Starbucks) because it's relatively easy to spot the car. Anywhere else, especially in the downtown area of San Francisco where there are lots of cars, and it gets dicey. Although there's an Uber sticker on the windshield, for example, it's impossible for me to pick it out of a crowded area. Same goes with license plate numbers, which both Uber and Lyft provide in their app. There have been several occasions I've missed rides and irked drivers because I couldn't get to where I need to be to meet them. For someone with low vision, these logistical challenges make ride-hailing a frustratingly inaccessible experience at times.
It'd be helpful if Uber followed suit with Lyft and put lights on their cars so as to make them more identifiable. This would be great for nighttime rides when it's dark out.
Logistics aside, a huge problem—one of several issues—for Uber is its reputation for refusing service to people with guide dogs. It's in blatant violation of the ADA, excluding those with service animals from the same benefits as anyone else. I've heard a few anecdotes from friends about this, and it's something I wish got more mainstream press. This ongoing issue belies the whole premise of this piece that ride-hailing services make travel more accessible to the visually impaired.
In the overall scope, though, I see ride-hailing as a tremendous net positive for accessibility. In many ways, driving a car represents accessibility at its conceptual zenith because of the freedom it allows. So long as you have gas and know where you're going, you can go anywhere you want, anytime. Until autonomous vehicles become mainstream, using ride-hailing services are the closest thing I have to driving my own car. In this context, Uber and Lyft provide an extremely valuable resource. For people like me, getting a ride like this is a godsend; it makes us more independent and self-reliant while making the world (read: our towns and cities) more accessible.
I know I get to and from more places with Uber and Lyft, and I'm sure others under similar circumstances do too. Again, while there are pitfalls, it's been my experience that ride-hailing has made my life better. I can get to more places on my own, and I needn't worry about gas or insurance costs. To me, it's a win-win situation all around.