Disabled in DC: Coping With Increasing Costs and Demand for Paratransit

The challenges that the nation's capital faces to provide accessible and affordable transportation for people with disabilities reflect a nationwide struggle to live up to the ADA's promise.
by | August 31, 2015
The Washington metro area, as in most cities, has a fleet of wheelchair-accessible vans that provide door-to-door service. (Daniel C. Vock)

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area has a robust transportation network for people without cars. It has one of the busiest transit systems in the nation that reaches deep into the suburbs, one of the biggest taxi cab fleets in the country, and a welcoming regulatory environment for ride-hailing companies like Uber. But it still struggles to provide accessible transportation to people with disabilities, 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made transportation for them a civil right. 

In D.C., and many other cities, rising costs and technological change are playing havoc with efforts to increase accessibility at the same time that demand is growing because of the aging Baby Boomers.

This three-part series explores D.C.'s challenges in keeping paratransit costs under control; providing good working conditions for paratransit employees; and expanding transportation options beyond the public transit system. They are issues that the country as a whole faces as it tries to live up to the ADA's promise.

Something strange happened with the Washington, D.C., area’s paratransit service recently. After nearly two decades of huge growth, ridership fell for three straight years. But local transit officials were pleased because it meant their work was effective.

Metro, formally called the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), wanted to get control of costs for paratransit, the federally mandated service that transit agencies must provide for disabled customers who cannot use traditional buses and subways. In the Washington area, as in most cities, it consists of a fleet of wheelchair-accessible vans that provide door-to-door service to customers who schedule their trips a day in advance.

In a six-year span leading up to 2010, the number of trips given by its paratransit service, called Metro Access, nearly doubled, and costs grew even quicker. The Great Recession was part of the reason for this increase; cash-strapped non-profit groups that serve people with disabilities cut their own transportation services, directing more people to Metro Access. Metro’s paratransit fare revenues grew too, but not nearly enough to keep up with costs. And fares cover a far smaller percentage of the cost of a paratransit ride than they do for regular bus or subway trips.

So Metro encouraged people to stop using Metro Access, started letting Metro Access customers take buses and the subway for free, and tightened the screening for people to qualify for paratransit. The agency also raised paratransit fares -- in some cases doubling them. The agency did, however, also start better educating people with disabilities about how to use alternative transportation options by teaching them, for example, where the Braille signs are or how to find the elevator.

Annual Unlinked Trips

Now ridership is increasing again. It went up 4.6 percent in the agency’s most recent fiscal year, and the Metro board commissioned a study from an area university to evaluate how it can keep costs down. Meanwhile, the agency is working with local governments, human services providers and even the taxi industry to see whether they can perform more services for people with disabilities.

But advocates for people with disabilities wonder whether the constant focus on the bottom line is distracting officials from the reason for paratransit service in the first place.

“When your number one concern is cost, and not service, how much of a great service are you going to provide for people?” asked Dara Baldwin of the National Disability Rights Network, who said she sees the same attitude throughout the country. “This is supposed to be helping and enhancing the lives of people with disabilities. That is the rhetoric we should be hearing. Instead we hear, ‘How can we make it cost less?’”

[click_to_tweet]"When your number one concern is cost, and not service, how much of a great service are you going to provide for people?"[/click_to_tweet]

But Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said that the paratransit service is improving even as the agency tries to keep costs down. “The number of complaints is at the lowest in 10 years,” she said. “As we continue to maintain our high quality service, we must also balance that with costs.”

Paratransit services started in most of the country, including the Washington area, because the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act required it. The law made access to transportation a civil right and specified that local transit agencies must offer paratransit service to people with disabilities traveling within three-quarters of a mile of bus and rail stops. Passengers pay up to twice the fare of a similar trip on the bus or rail system.

Roughly a fifth of Americans have some sort of disability. In the Washington area, according to a 2002 survey, the typical Metro Access rider was a poor black woman on her way to or from a doctor’s appointment. Only a quarter of passengers used a wheelchair. Nearly two-thirds of riders were women; half were African-American; their median income was $26,000 a year; and their median age was 60.

At the same time that demand grew, Metro’s cost per paratransit trip increased. Each trip now costs nearly $50 per passenger, or, after factoring for inflation, about $8 more than a decade ago.

Operating Expenses vs Operating Expenses Per Unlinked Passenger Trip

The agency took several steps to bring those costs down. Its move to offer traveler education about bus and rail options earned it national recognition. The American Public Transportation Association, an industry group, awarded Metro a prize for innovation in 2012 for “revolutionizing” its processes for determining whether applicants are eligible for paratransit service.

Metro brings applicants to its headquarters via Metro Access for an interview, where workers discuss a passenger’s transportation needs, along with the application process.

“We are almost a travel consultant with them. We talk with them about [where] they’re traveling from and to and what type of assistance they need” to see if they could use Metro’s bus or rail services, explained Christian Kent, the head of Metro’s Access services. If that is a possibility, an instructor will take the applicant out to show them how to use it and get them comfortable with bus or rail.

“We show them how to use the system, so that they’re able to travel independently,” he said. That helps applicants even if they don’t qualify for paratransit. “By the time you leave us, you have a way of getting around.”

Convincing people to take bus or rail -- for free -- rather than paying money to use paratransit also helps Metro’s finances, because bus and rail trips only cost the agency $4 a passenger. The agency estimated that in 2011, offering 559,000 free rides saved it $25 million.

Metro Access customers can take buses and the subway for free. (WMATA)

Metro also hiked Metro Access fares to cope with increased costs. In 2011, the maximum fare for paratransit jumped from $3 a trip to $7. Plus, the agency started using “conditional eligibility,” which now applies to 55 percent of its users. People who have trouble seeing at night, for example, are only eligible for paratransit trips when it's dark. Metro doesn't enforce the restrictions aggressively now, Kent said, but that may change as technology improves and customers become more familiar with the limits.

All of Metro’s buses and subway cars meet the ADA’s accessibility requirements. Buses have wheelchair lifts, space to secure wheelchairs, priority seating, slip-resistant floors, handrails and large doorways. Subway cars come close enough to the platform to allow wheelchair users to roll on and off the train.

But that doesn't mean Metro's vehicles are always accessible. Often, the trouble for people with disabilities is getting in and out of rail stations or to and from bus stops.

Frequent elevator breakdowns in the subway system, for example, can double or triple the time it takes a person with a disability to make a trip, especially when those outages occur at transfer stations, said Baldwin. When elevator outages occur, passengers with disabilities must travel past their destination, or get off before it, and then use a shuttle bus to complete their trip. Bad lighting or unclear signs for people with disabilities also makes travel on the subway difficult, she said.

[click_to_tweet]Offering 559,000 free rides to disabled people saved D.C.'s transit agency $25 million in 2011.[/click_to_tweet]

Another big worry for people with disabilities is how Metro deals with emergencies, such as a smoke-filled train that killed a passenger earlier this year. One of the passengers stuck on the train was in a wheelchair, and fellow riders helped her exit the train when help arrived. But a follow-up investigation by a local TV station showed that almost all of the methods designed to rescue people with wheelchairs from subway tunnels would require them to leave a wheelchair behind, because escape paths alongside the tracks and doors at the end of subway cars are too narrow for many of today's wheelchairs. That could be dangerous for quadriplegics or others who have life-support systems built into their chair.

“You can’t do a fire lift and pick them up and throw them over your shoulder,” Baldwin said. “You could kill them.” 

Ly, the Metro spokeswoman, wrote in an email response that "Metro’s first priority is to evacuate customers to the platform.” The agency has several devices to help people with disabilities evacuate if they are not able to use their own, she added.

More mundane concerns can prevent people with disabilities from using buses, too. Metro estimates that more than half of the 19,000 bus stops in the Washington region weren't accessible. Many, for example, aren't connected to a sidewalk or lack curb ramps or landing pads to accommodate wheelchair ramps on buses.

The vast majority of bus stops aren't owned by Metro but by local jurisdictions. Metro informs those localities about needed improvements when customers inform the agency about them. Montgomery County in Maryland says it has upgraded 89 percent of the 3,400 bus stops it identified as inaccessible in 2006. Other localities are making improvements too.

Metro staff last year came up with a list of 57 bus stops in the region that it should fix first. In its memo to the agency’s board, the staff recommended that bus stop improvements be prioritized in order of how much money they would save Metro Access. While improvements would cost about $10,000 a stop, upgrades at high traffic areas, like adding sidewalks around a bus shelter near RFK Stadium, would end up saving more money because they would so greatly reduce the number of paratransit trips metro would need to provide. As of August, the city has upgraded 23 of the stops in need to repair.