D.C. Faces Challenges in Providing Paratransit Options

Wheelchair AccessibleWashington D.C.’s transit system is robust and busy. Its six rapid transit rail lines (Metrorail), 300 bus routes (Metrobus) and 600-vehicle paratransit fleet (MetroAccess) reach far into the suburbs. Metrorail alone saw an average of 712,843 weekday passenger boardings in 2015. Washington, D.C. is also blessed with one of America’s largest taxicab fleets in the country, as well as independent ride companies such as Uber. However, 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established transportation as a civil right for disabled individuals, Metro continues to struggle in providing consistent, accessible transportation to the disabled. Those in wheelchairs face especially paltry service. The transit system in our nation’s capital faces skyrocketing paratransit costs and major technological shifts, just as aging Baby Boomers’ demand for disabled access increases.

According to a recent article in Governing, Ernes Chrappah says a new program is helping improve the situation for D.C.’s disabled riders. As the interim head of Washington D.C.’s Taxicab Commission, he says his goal is “to make sure that every mode of transportation supports wheelchair accessible needs so that our customers have choice.” The Taxi Commission can help because it manages not only cabs, but also hired cars and, to some degree, Uber. In the past year, a new MetroAccess/Taxi Commission partnership program has allowed disabled riders to hail a cab, rather than depend solely on pricey paratransit van service.

The 1990 ADA (Americans with Disability Act) requires transit agencies to create alternative transportation options for those who cannot take the bus or subway. The MetroAccess fleet of specially equipped vans offers door-to-door service for disabled riders. However, the van paratransit service has become expensive—each trip costs almost $50 per passenger. To decrease van use, MetroAccess is now encouraging paratransit riders to take cabs instead.

The passengers are motivated to opt for cabs for several reasons:
• It costs $2 less to take the cab. A paratransit ride costs $7, while the city’s paratransit taxi service costs riders just $5.
• Passengers can ride alone in each taxicab, rather than with other paratransit riders in MetroAccess vans.
• Rides can be ordered an hour in advance, rather than the day before as with van service.
In addition to the cab paratransit arrangement, Metro offers rides for those with intellectual disabilities through partnerships with local non-profits.

Metro saves money with the taxicab program because cabs are not subject to the same federal rules as apply to the MetroAccess vans. Moreover, cab drivers don’t have to provide access 24 hours a day across the region, as the vans must.

One weakness in the taxicab paratransit solution is that few cabs can accommodate wheelchair users. Of the 6,500 cabs on D.C.’s streets, only 100 can handle wheelchairs. In 2014, there were only 20 wheelchair accessible cabs in the city. Chrappah’s leadership has improved the situation by bringing down the cost of purchasing wheelchair accessible taxis. Rather than paying $40,000 for a new wheelchair equipped taxi, the first 20 new owners paid just $12,500. Other cab companies and drivers paid substantially reduced costs.

Beyond incentivizing taxi drivers to purchase accessible vehicles, District law supports increased access for wheelchair drivers. A 2012 law requires cab companies with 20 or more vehicles to add wheelchair accessible cabs. Moreover, cab companies must make 20% of their vehicles wheelchair accessible by 2018. Still, for the present moment, wheelchair users will continue to face transit challenges, as 70% of D.C. cab drivers own their own vehicles and therefore the new access laws do not apply to them.

It is unclear how rideshare companies will affect the situation. Uber is rallying to provide paratransit rides in D.C. as it does in New York City. However, some advocates for the disabled say Uber and other rideshare groups have no incentive to provide disabled riders access. Carol Tyson, Director of Disability Policy at the United Spinal Association, says rideshare groups “Have managed to change in just a few short years the way our whole country thinks about transportation and how people get around. It doesn’t include making sure that everybody has a service. It doesn’t include accessibility. It doesn’t including requiring it.” Until cities can figure out how to work disability access into its agreements with rideshare groups, it is unclear whether wheelchair users will benefit from the presence of Uber and other rideshare networks.

As public transportation WiFi providers, we look for ways to increase access through train/van/vehicle/bus WiFi. Fleets outfitted with WiFi are better connected, and better able to serve drivers and riders. For instance, WiFi in paratransit vans can allow hub operators to relay route changes to drivers in real time, and drivers can immediately share key information from the road. In this way, public transit wifi could boost disabled access, as riders’ requests could more quickly be distributed to drivers. Or, a single network of WiFi devices could connect cabs, vans, and rideshare drivers to quickly view and accommodate disabled riders in any given area. To envision how WiFi access could improve your transit agency’s paratransit service, give us a call today.


[Photo by Simon Gray via FreeImages.com]

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