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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Uber offers wheelchair-accessible cabs in effort to overtake taxis” was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 10th May 2016 11.31 UTC

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For the first time, Uber users in London can book wheelchair-accessible vehicles through the company’s minicab app.

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UberWAV is offering specially-outfitted cars to wheelchair users in the capital for the same price as a normal UberX ride. But users will have to wait considerably longer than most: the company says that in the first few weeks “we expect average wait times of around 25 mins in zones 1–2 and 40 mins in zones 3–4”.

As well as providing a much-needed service for wheelchair users, the launch of the feature at 4pm on Tuesday can be seen as a defensive move in the minicab company’s long-running battle with London’s taxis. Drivers of black cabs have consistently cited the need to take wheelchairs as a major reason why their fares are higher than those of Uber, and why their services are important for the capital to retain.

In a letter to the Guardian sent in October, Steve McNamara, the general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, wrote that “unlike private hire firms, [taxi regulations] ensure that our drivers are UK taxpayers, comprehensively insured, undertake the famous ‘Knowledge’ instead of relying on a satnav and have taxis that are the only form of public transport in London that is 100% wheelchair accessible”.

Uber directly targets black cabs in its announcement of the new service: it says it “will give wheelchair users an additional way of getting from A to B with fares on average 30% cheaper than black cabs”, and “drivers are licensed for private hire by Transport for London and have passed an enhanced DBS check – the same as black cab drivers, teachers and care workers”.

The launch of UberWAV has been welcomed by disability campaigners. Lisa Quinlan-Rahman, director of external affairs at the charity Scope, said “We are pleased that Uber is launching a new service for disabled customers. Disabled people want to have the same choice as all other consumers in London, and have the same options available on method of travel, time and price.”

But when Uber gives with one hand, it can take away with the other. Users who decide to ditch their own accessible vehicles and rely on Uber’s may want to look to Austin, Texas, beforehand. The company pulled out of that city entirely on Monday, following the rejection at the ballots of a referendum which would have removed the requirement to perform fingerprint-based background checks on its drivers.

“Disappointment does not begin to describe how we feel about shutting down operations in Austin,” said the general manager of Uber in Austin. The company had hoped to win the vote for Proposition One, an initiative that the ride-sharing industry spent more than m (£5.5m) lobbying for. Instead, voters decided to uphold the city council’s regulation, which had already been in place for several months at the time the vote happened.

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