Opinion: Reimagining paratransit requires federal leadership and funding
While New York City and state can leverage their collective dollars to improve this service, the fed should also pay and provide oversight to ensure quality into the 21st century.
Could you imagine reserving every subway or bus ride you had to take a day in advance without the option to reschedule? A last-minute work meeting, trip to the grocery store, or impromptu dinner with friends would be nearly impossible.
As a power wheelchair user born with cerebral palsy, I am accustomed to this type of long-term planning because I rely on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Access-A-Ride service to get around New York City. Access-A-Ride is the largest paratransit operation in North America. Paratransit, mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is supposed to be comparable to mass transit. Unfortunately, it is anything but – trips must be booked the day before and are often delayed due to inefficient scheduling. An investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District found that Access-A-Ride had “substantial numbers of significantly untimely pickups or drop-offs; substantial numbers of trip denials or missed trips; and excessively long trips.”
While an advanced reservation system may be suitable for some, working-age people with disabilities such as myself require same-day flexibility to be productive and employable members of society. While Access-A-Ride has recently touted “record customer satisfaction” of 76%, many of its users begrudgingly refer to the service as “Stress-A-Ride.” The executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled opined that the improvement “essentially means that rider satisfaction went from horrendous to awful.”
Although Uber and Lyft have made seamless same-day, door-to-door travel nearly ubiquitous, Access-A-Ride and its counterparts across the country are stuck in 1990 when the ADA was passed – and before I was even born. This should no longer be acceptable in 2023, especially not for the world's largest minority that faces barriers in all facets of life. We can do better, but will need national leadership and funding to bring paratransit into the 21st century.
Some paratransit providers, including the MTA, now offer on-demand pilot programs. Since November 2017, the MTA has enabled 1,200 of Access-A-Ride's 160,000+ total users, myself included, to book same-day trips via e-hail taxis and for-hire vehicles. The pilot has become too successful for its own good, going beyond ADA requirements by providing a non-shared ride more akin to a personal car service than a jam-packed subway. The MTA noted that pilot users have generally taken significantly more same-day trips than they did when they had to book in advance, putting a strain on its already dire finances. As a result, the MTA planned to double the number of pilot users to 2,400 while restricting them to 16 same-day trips a month with a maximum per trip subsidy of $15, with the customer on the hook for any remaining balance, in a Phase 2 that they subsequently delayed due to the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, disability advocates opposed the limits and instead called on the MTA to expand the unconstrained on-demand service to all AAR users. With pandemic policies thankfully loosening, it is likely that the MTA will announce a revised Phase 2 plan for the pilot in the coming months.
Gov. Hochul’s Proposed Executive Budget would shift 100% of paratransit operating costs onto New York City, only three years after her predecessor used the very same budget process to compel the city to increase its contribution from 33.3% to 50%. City officials including Mayor Eric Adams and Comptroller Brad Lander have publicly voiced their opposition, with Lander calling it “especially infuriating” in his testimony before the Legislature.
There is a way to provide the on-demand flexibility that the disability community seeks in a cost-effective manner, namely by converting traditional shared ride paratransit into a same-day system using Uber-like routing technology. Instead of debating who should fund an outdated system, the state and city should work together to leverage their collective dollars to improve Access-A-Ride. Most importantly, the federal government should also play a funding and oversight role to ensure quality service.
As the accessibility of legacy subway systems increases over time, with maximum accessibility at the earliest in 2055 in New York City after a historic legal settlement, there will be less of a need for paratransit as more people with disabilities will be able to use fixed-route services. The MTA’s 2020-2024 Capital Program includes a nearly $6 billion investment in subway accessibility and the Federal Transit Administration’s All Stations Accessibility Program has provided transit agencies in nine U.S. States, including the MTA, with a combined total of almost $700 million in FY 22-23 grants to support rail transit accessibility. Efforts to fund fixed-route accessibility should be commended and continued, but the federal government should also provide grants to paratransit providers to enable them to offer on-demand service.
Same-day shared rides will undoubtedly increase paratransit demand and costs, but the contention that service would be “too good” undermines the disability community’s civil right to accessible transportation. Securing additional funding for paratransit nationally may be challenging in today’s increasingly polarized political climate, but disability access is a universal part of the human experience that should not be subject to partisanship. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg and FTA Deputy Administrator Veronica Vanterpool are former MTA board members who are acutely aware of the need for paratransit improvements. They, the rest of the Biden Administration, and both parties in Congress should engage with transit agencies and the disability community to fund and offer truly comparable, flexible, and reliable same-day shared ride paratransit nationwide.