Updated 7/3: This story has been updated with info from a Lyft spokesperson.
Alternative West Coast taxi companies Lyft and Uber have finally deployed in Houston with the reputation of establishing dozens of successful operations throughout the country -- and warding off ample legal protest from local cabbies.
Houston City Council members will weigh criticism from traditional Houston taxi companies summarized in an April lawsuit against Uber and Lyft, in which a long list of transportation services accused the competition of illegally operating uninsured vehicles for hire without obtaining licenses, paying attending fees and charging regular rates.
Lyft and Uber both carry liability insurance of $1 million per incident.
For customers, the trade-off for the security of riding with a licensed driver is simple: cheaper service.
Although most pushback has come from local taxi services accusing the market newcomers of running unlicensed and illegal services, Houston council members are preparing for an end-of-month vote on regulating Lyft and Uber, with a fresh disability rights lawsuit to consider as well.
Houston women Laura Posadas and Tina Williams, along with a third wheelchair-using man from San Antonio, have sued both companies. The actual lawsuit is attached at the bottom of the story. They claim they've suffered irreparable injury from Lyft and Uber's lack of wheelchair-accessible vehicles and request that the companies cease operations until they update their cars.
Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said City Council will meet with all stakeholders ahead of deciding the ultimate fate of Lyft and Uber in Houston. And now that City Hall itself is finally wheelchair-accessible after automatic doors were installed in May -- 24 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- taxi customers with wheelchairs can actually weigh in on the issue, too.
"We're hoping that everyone can come together to help us craft an ordinance that will make it a fair level playing field as much as it can for everyone and at the same time making sure that we're inclusive," Stardig said. "At the time it was first presented, I still had doubts that we were really making sure everyone considered persons with disabilities."
According to Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally, the company has already received a warm welcome in Houston, where it operates on a donation-based payment system. However, that policy is decided on a city-by-city basis. Dally couldn't say why, but Chicago lost that honors system privilege months after Lyft was established there.
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With Lyft's and Uber's extensive experience fighting off suits and angry competition in cities across the country where they're now popular mobile fixtures, their adaptability to the Houston marketplace remains to be seen. The disability suit is a new form of contention, and as for speculation that local business interests are spurring it to any extent for their own agenda, Stardig said, "I've heard that, and shame on anyone who uses the Americans with Disabilities Act as a political tool. They need to be using the Americans with Disabilities Act for officiating for people with disabilities. If it's used for anything else, shame on them. It's not the right thing to do."
Dally couldn't confirm whether there are currently any wheelchair-accessible vehicles operating in Houston. The company employs local drivers who use their personal cars.