The Costliest Ride

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a city of just over 150,000 people, almost half of the annual public transit budget doesn't go for buses, or trolleys,...
by | June 30, 2009

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a city of just over 150,000 people, almost half of the annual public transit budget doesn't go for buses, or trolleys, or any newfangled light-rail system. It goes for vans--to provide mobility to disabled people who can't use the regular vehicles. These riders receive curbside service outside their homes, and are dropped off at their destination of choice, at a cost to Sioux Falls of $25.61 per trip. Every sizable city has some version of this program. It's called paratransit.

And it's a piece of the public transportation puzzle that's often forgotten--by everyone except transit agencies and those who depend on the service. The agencies can't ignore paratransit because they're legally obliged to provide it under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. But it's hugely expensive. Sioux Falls' cost per trip is actually lower than most--a one-way ride for a single disabled person costs more than $30 in many places. While most big cities don't spend as much proportionately as Sioux Falls, it's common for a transit agency to devote 10 percent or more of its operating budget to paratransit. And the fares normally cover less than 10 percent of the costs.

The agencies don't like having to spend this money, and the disabled don't especially like the quality of the service they're getting. Rides have to be arranged at least a day in advance and generally are available only in limited geographic areas to those who have very serious disabilities. Some requests are rejected. Even when they're accepted, booking a ride can involve long waits on the phone. The vans are often late arriving and occasionally don't show up at all.

This is a case where both sides are right. The service costs a lot of money to provide and isn't very efficient. And the problems are likely to get worse. Transit agencies are suffering through serious budget problems and looking for ways to cut back on the programs, even as the aging of the Baby Boomers is bound to increase the share of the population with disabilities--and increase demand for paratransit.

There's no easy solution. But some cities, including Pittsburgh and Seattle, have come up with promising responses. If paratransit service is expensive and inconvenient, perhaps there's some way to help people with disabilities ride the same buses and trains as everyone else.

The origins of paratransit date to the 1960s, when transit planners had big ideas about creating a parallel system that offered door-to-door service for all riders--not just the disabled. There was one major problem: They never realized just how much this would cost. When it became obvious, local governments backed down. Many began offering some paratransit to the disabled, but this service was very limited. In the 1980s, New York City Mayor Ed Koch complained that it would be cheaper to pay for taxi rides for the disabled than to use vans to take them where they wanted to go.

But that changed in 1990 with federal passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA law said that people with disabilities must have equal access to public transportation. This meant, for starters, that traditional fixed-route modes of transit had to meet new accessibility standards. Buses, for example, had to have wheelchair lifts. But a wheelchair lift doesn't do much good for a blind person who can't find his way to the transit stop, or someone in a wheelchair who lives in a neighborhood without sidewalks or curb cuts.

So ADA mandated that people who couldn't ride fixed-route transit still had to be offered public transportation. Under the terms of the law, this meant paratransit service must be available anywhere within three-fourths of mile of a fixed-route transit line. The law also stipulated that paratransit had to be available during the same hours of the day as fixed-route transit, and that fares for ADA paratransit riders couldn't be more than twice the fare on the fixed routes. The costs quickly mounted up, as did the complaints about service. The agencies didn't hire enough operators to book trips, it was charged, or didn't buy enough vehicles to meet the demand for service.

These allegations were the continuation of a troubled history. In the 1980s, when the American Public Transportation Association gathered for meetings, activists demanding accessibility would greet them with street-clogging protests. "Anytime all the transit officials went out and tried to go from building to building or get out of their hotels," says Marilyn Golden, of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, "there were throngs of wheelchair users blocking them and getting arrested and chanting and singing." Today, the adversarial relationship continues in many cities. Transit agencies often are sued for failing to meet ADA strictures for paratransit. Some advocates suspect transit agencies don't mind these suits: It's cheaper to hire lawyers than it is to provide good paratransit service.

That said, this tense relationship obscures the fact that, on balance, paratransit service has slowly been getting better. By fits and starts, transit agencies have improved their record on some of the basics. It's less likely today than a decade ago that when someone calls for an ADA paratransit ride, they'll be told that no vans are available.

Even as the quality of service has improved, however, the scope of service has diminished. In the past decade, cities gradually have limited the geographic areas in which paratransit is available and created new restrictions on who is eligible. Now, with transit-agency budgets hurting, those trends have accelerated.

The question is what should be done about it. How can transit agencies provide decent service to the disabled without spending a fortune?

There's no shortage of ideas. Some local governments take Ed Koch's advice--they partner with taxi companies to expand the system's paratransit capacity without having to hire more salaried drivers. Others allow bus drivers to spend some of their workday on paratransit, creating a better-paid, better-trained, more reliable pool of drivers than if the system had to hire from scratch. And others are working to expand the number of trips that serve more than one passenger at a time. Sioux Falls has sought to increase revenue by allowing commuters who aren't disabled to book rides home on the paratransit vans.

There are limits, though, to how much difference any of these strategies can make. Even with the smartest, best-managed service, it's still going to be very costly to pick people up at their homes and drop them off at their destinations. That's a fundamental problem--unless you can come up with a system that finds practical alternatives to using paratransit in the first place.

There may be some. Pittsburgh, for example, has developed a sophisticated way of determining eligibility for the service on a trip-by-trip basis. In that city and in surrounding Allegheny County, all those who apply for paratransit service are evaluated in person to determine just what their physical capabilities are. Each customer is judged to be either ineligible, unconditionally eligible or conditionally eligible. It's "conditional eligibility" that represents the innovation. Some applicants are classified as eligible for the service only when traveling to a place without accessible bus stops. Or only in adverse weather conditions. A blind person or someone with a cognitive impairment might be eligible for trips to unfamiliar places, but not for trips they make routinely and are capable of navigating.

In Pittsburgh, some of this is done on a day-by-day basis. Other systems have instituted conditional eligibility in bad weather by allowing paratransit pickups between, say, October and March. Allegheny County checks the forecast every day. "We're not providing a $20 trip if they can manage a $2 bus ride," says Jeff Joll, the associate director of ACCESS Transportation Systems, the contractor that manages Allegheny County's paratransit service. There's a loophole that customers can invoke if they want to: When they're ruled ineligible for a trip, they're still allowed to request a paratransit ride--they simply have to pay double the normal fare.

What do the disabled think about that? "People complain about it all the time," says John Tague, who chairs the Governor's Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities in Pennsylvania. "You want to be an unconditional rider." Tague knows. He's eligible for ADA paratransit rides in Pittsburgh only when the temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, Tague says that, overall, he supports trip-by-trip eligibility. The savings from it are a key reason Allegheny County is able to provide paratransit service throughout the entire county, not just to the limited areas ADA requires.

Other transit systems have embraced the idea of mainstreaming paratransit riders into fixed-route transit. King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, is experimenting with personalized transit training. The idea is that someone who is blind, for example, might be capable of riding a bus, but could still have plenty of understandable fears. How will I know that the right bus has arrived? How will I know when it's my stop? By sending a trainer to ride along with the person for a few days, these sorts of concerns can be allayed--and a paratransit rider can become a regular bus rider.

While advocates for the disabled are cautious about efforts to push people into fixed-route transit--fearing that transit agencies will try to overdo it to save money--almost everyone agrees that it can be liberating for a disabled person to learn to navigate the regular transportation system. Door-to-door paratransit is an undoubted convenience, but it's also a hindrance if the trip has to be planned and ordered days in advance. "The very existence of paratransit," says Lawrence Carter-Long, an advocate for the disabled in New York City, "says to me we've failed in terms of providing adequate transit options."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |