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August 08, 2009

ParaTransit for more than just the disabled

Quick. What’s the most expensive ride in public transit? No, not rush-hour peak service on Metro-North. It’s ParaTransit… the door-to-door service for the disabled.

Transit districts are legally obliged to offer ParaTransit even though it’s extremely expensive and often draws complaints about poor service. Here’s the story.

In the 1980’s when planners from the American Public Transportation Assoc. would gather for meetings, there would be a swarm of demonstrators. Wheelchair activists would block their way, demanding access to mass transit. And why not?

In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act law gave them what they wanted… sort of. Buses would have to be equipped with wheelchair lifts. Key Metro-North stations were made “ADA compliant”. Even some subway stations in New York City saw elevators installed.

But some transit systems didn’t want to retrofit to carry the disabled. And even if they did, what about the blind or those who can’t easily get to the bus stop? That’s where ParaTransit came in. The ADA law mandates that door-to-door service must be available anywhere within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed route transit line.

The cost to the transit providers? Upwards of $25 - $30 per ride, with fares covering less than 10% of those expenses. But riders must book a day in advance and often share their ride on the “short bus” with others, hence the complaints. The disabled may be blind or unable to walk, but they’re far from silent.

While many felt they’d become second class citizens in the transit arena, Mayor Ed Koch complained that it would be cheaper to pay for cab fare for the disabled than pay for ParaTransit. And, in fact, that’s what one Connecticut town is doing.

Affluent Darien is already served by “Gallivant”, a door-to-door mini-van for both the disabled and the elderly. Passengers pay a suggested $5 per ride and must book a day in advance.

But in the town of almost 20,000 with 3,200 residents aged 60 or more, the Gallivant service is vastly under-utilized, carrying just 407 one-way riders in the last quarter. That’s only about seven rides a day because of limited hours and just one van.

Administered by the town’s Social Services Department, “Gallivant” is popular with many for rides to the doctors, for shopping or the Senior Center. But for others in town the pre-booking and stigma of riding the “short bus” keeps them house-bound.

So, using a new $15,000 state grant, the town is experimenting with offering half-price taxi vouchers for anyone aged 60 or older. Following a similar program in neighboring Stamford, the Darien plan is simple: just show up at Darien Town Hall, prove you’re a resident over age 60 and buy your half-price taxi vouchers. A book of five $5 vouchers (worth $25) costs $12.50.

When you’re ready to go, call Eveready Taxi (hopes are that other cab companies will join the program) and they’ll pick you up and take you where you want to go. Pay with vouchers and tip with cash.

The initial response to the program has been slow, but those who’ve tried it swear by it, not at it. The cab company gets more business, residents who can’t or shouldn’t drive get mobility. What’s not to like? Well, it seems some folks may be trying to scam the system.

The taxi voucher program is designed to give seniors and the disabled independence and spontaneity. Trips to the doctor, shopping maybe even the movies seem fine… and help local merchants.

But now the program is getting requests for half-price taxi rides to the airports… a $120 one-way trip! It’s one thing to give a senior mobility around town, but it’s a whole different matter to subsidize their summer vacation.

The Social Services Department is considering the request. But I hope people in need don’t get left at the curb when the funds run out because others gamed the system.


Silli said...

Paratransit is going to kill transportation budgets over the next 30 years.

Dr Wong said...

Great article that got the facts right. Two points to add - the taxi vouchers should be capped based on distance or costs - i.e., a max of $25 per reimbursible ride and only for origins and destinations within town limits or a 5-mile radius. If a person wants a ride to the airport, let them pay for it. Secondly, unless the city ensures that taxi companies participating in the voucher program have wheelchair-accessible vans in their fleet, persons who use wheelchairs are still restricted to using Paratransit or the Gallivant.

Anonymous said...

Hike is too steep and so not easily acceptable by people. Special Transportation Fund which pays the deficit in operating costs for mass transit has been reduced.

Anonymous said...

Could someone provide me with the link to the exact text in the ADA that stipulates "door to door". Our service says "curb to curb" is all that is required.