25 Investigates: Popular MBTA rideshare program leaving many wheelchair users with no ride

It was supposed to give people with disabilities more mobility and independence. State transportation officials even touted it as "a gamer changer" for customers of The Ride, the MBTA’s door-to-door paratransit service for the elderly and disabled.

But nearly three years after the on-demand ride service – a partnership between the MBTA and Uber and Lyft – rolled out, there is often no ride for people in wheelchairs, 25 Investigates found.

In 2016, the MBTA partnered with Uber and Lyft to launch the program that allows customers of The Ride to use rideshare services at a discounted rate. Customers, like Austin Tennison of Braintree who suffers from cerebral palsy and requires a motorized wheelchair, welcomed the news of the partnership, believing it would allow them to be more spontaneous.

By using a designated app or phone number Ride customers can request an Uber or Lyft on-demand. The Ride’s traditional door-to-door van service requires a 24-hour advance reservation.

"I am like everyone else, and I like to go out with friends and have a nice time," said 23-year old Austin.

Related: Strike averted in new deal with MBTA's The Ride operator

On a recent Friday night, 25 Investigates was present as Austin and his cousin Danielle got ready to go meet friends at a pub in town. But, first they had to find a ride – a wheelchair accessible vehicle.

"There have been nights when I’m ready to go somewhere and I really can't go because no one will pick me up," Austin told 25 Investigates' Ted Daniel.

This night was no different. Austin made repeated request for a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) to pick him up, using the designated app. He found one on Lyft, indicating there was a WAV 36 minutes away. However, after a few seconds the vehicle disappeared from his screen.

Austin then tried using Uber. There were no wheelchair-accessible vehicles available to pick him up.

More than 30 minutes after their quest to find a WAV began, Austin and his cousin Danielle called it a night.

"For anybody who loves Austin to stand and watch something like this not pan out and have it be dangled in front of him like, 'yeah, this is an option' and have it not really be is so disheartening," said Danielle.

"We should be, I think, in a different place, in a more advance place as a community right now."

Austin told 25 Investigates he has unsuccessfully tried using the Uber and Lyft WAV app on more than 20 occasions.

"It's extremely frustrating because I just want to come and go as I please," added Austin. "It's not just me. I'm sure there are many more people like me having this issue. I just hope I can be a voice for them."

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Across Massachusetts there are nearly 200,000 adults with ambulatory difficulties, according to one estimate. The MBTA pilot program is available to 40,000 Ride customers in 58 cities and towns across greater Boston.

25 Investigates requested the number of wheelchair accessible vehicles Uber and Lyft have signed up in the area participating in the pilot. It’s data we assumed would be essential to effectively serving The Ride customers.

We asked Uber and Lyft for the total number of WAVs but neither company was able to share that figure with us.

Uber did not respond to our request by our deadline and Lyft, in a statement, said:

Lyft has proudly partnered with the MBTA THE RIDE program to offer reliable transportation to many riders who otherwise wouldn't have it. Combining our ability to provide rides using wheelchair accessible vehicles with the option to order within our app or via phone has increased access to those with varied needs.

We also asked the MBTA for the same data.

Ben Schutzman, Chief of Paratransit Services at MBTA who runs The Ride program, told us he did not have an estimate, but said the percentage of customers in the program who require wheelchair accessible vehicles is in the teens.

"We were not looking at hard numbers," said Schutzman. "One of the key elements to piloting a service like this is you can start off and you can kind of see is it working, is it not working."

Schutzman added that the MBTA is focused on increasing WAV availability and to that end is offering Uber and Lyft financial incentives. The companies will get a subsidy for every hour a wheelchair accessible vehicle is on the road and available to customers.

"We've gone from seeing Uber and Lyft in the broader area doing very few to no WAV trips up until today, and we hope to see that expanding in the future to at least 250 trips a month," he said.

Bill Henning is a disability rights advocate and the director of the Boston Center for Independent Living. His agency has sued the MBTA for lack of wheelchair accessibility at transit stations.

"One of the worries all along has been the accessibility. That's been a concern with Uber and Lyft nationwide," said Henning. "I think we understood that [the on-demand program] wouldn't be great overnight, but the option of better service for a lot of people was good so long as we brought everybody along that's a fundamental element. It can't be separate but equal."

About a dozen U.S. cities have paratransit deals with Uber and Lyft like the one here in Massachusetts.

In 2017, transit network companies, like Uber and Lyft, provided a total of more than 64 million rides in Massachusetts.