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Wheelchair users will have more access to Uber rides

Jonathan Thompson's black Dodge Caravan is noticeably different from other vehicles of its make only when viewed from behind.

The rear bumper hangs a little lower than normal. The reason is apparent when Thompson opens up the rear hatch to reveal a hinged wheelchair ramp that can be manually swung down to street level. The vehicle, one of a number of adapted Caravans in service in Philadelphia, is Uber's answer to the ongoing problem of providing car service to people with mobility problems.

The company is making adapted Caravans available for lease by drivers. Uber's peer-to-peer business model, which largely depends on drivers using their own vehicles to provide rides, means the vast majority of vehicles available through its service are not wheelchair-accessible. The leasing offer incentivizes drivers to get these Caravans on the road.

"Initial phase, we hope to see dozens of these WAV [Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles] hitting the street," said Jennifer Krusius, Uber's general manager for Pennsylvania.

The number could grow depending on demand.

Thompson, 28, is one of the first drivers in the city to participate in the leasing program. He's been providing rides through Uber's app for about two years, and the offer of a wheelchair-accessible vehicle appealed in part because his brother has cerebral palsy. The terms of the lease allow Thompson to use the adapted Caravan as a personal vehicle as well.

"When I'm not working, I can spend more time picking him up and taking him places," Thompson said.

Lease terms match those for the sedans Uber offers, but with advantages for participating drivers. A signing bonus covers the cost of the $250 up-front deposit.  Thompson is charged $640 a month for the lease, and that money is withheld by Uber from his earnings. For each week when he provides 50 rides, Uber pays $100 toward the leasing costs.

Thompson has been driving the adapted Caravan for about a month and said he has no trouble meeting that quota driving 40 to 50 hours a week. He also gets a $10 incentive every time he picks up a passenger in a wheelchair, which he said can happen 20 times a day.

The adapted Caravans, which  cost more than $30,000 to buy, can also be used for standard UberX trips when there are no passengers who need an accessible vehicle, and can also be used for Uber's more expensive UberXL service.

There are 150,000 to 200,000 people in Philadelphia with mobility issues, said Matthew Clark, an advocate for disability rights with the Fair Ride Philly Coalition, and finding an accessible vehicle on short notice is a frustrating task for them. Uber's approach is a viable way to boost the number of accessible vehicles for hire in the region, he said.

It doesn't address the larger issue, he added, that car services are segregated into those vehicles that are wheelchair-accessible and those that are not. SEPTA has made handicapped accessibility a priority on all of its buses, and Clark wants to see private car services held to the same standards.

"We need one integrated system," he said.