The time for innovation in paratransit services
The importance of a quality transportation system cannot be overstated. Our road network, railroads and airports are essential to economic growth and development, as well as the simplistic goal of moving people from place to place. As we approach the next election, it is important that we foster effective dialogue with our public servants regarding the underrepresented issue of transportation and those who are left behind by the current system, especially people with disabilities.
While more than a third of the country simply calls a car through a Transportation Network Company (TNC) such as Uber or Lyft at the push of a button to travel quickly and affordably, many in the people community disabilities are stuck in the position of having to plan trips days or even weeks in advance with little or no assurance of punctuality and high cost if they require paratransit services.
While we must continue to move forward in finding innovative solutions that close transportation disparities, we shouldn’t settle for solutions that leave people behind. As things stand, transit company vehicles and hospitality vehicles are not available and paratransit is expensive and difficult to plan. Partnerships with TNCs are probably not an ideal long-term answer, but existing technology and systems can be used to develop more sustainable responses.
The state, counties, and municipalities basically have two viable options for providing ridesharing services to people with disabilities that meet accessibility regulations and are available through a smart phone.
The first choice is to simply develop regulations that require a certain percentage of a TNC’s vehicle fleet to meet federal accessibility standards. The second is for the state to leverage technologies similar to those used by Uber and Lyft to provide a comparable option.
Although TNCs and taxi companies differ in their business structure, they both provide the same type of on-demand service from point A to point B. Many taxi companies have even deployed GPS tracking to make against competition from companies like Lyft. Their vehicles are also much more likely to be accessible.
This type of competition also provides an opportunity for national and local government agencies to benefit from the technology developed and deployed by TNCs to provide services to people with disabilities.
We are in the 21st century and now is the optimal time for public bodies to implement a smartphone app tracking and payment system coupled with an on-demand service. The technology is already mature and it is quite obvious that there is a need for this service.
Agencies could roll out the service in pieces, starting with the ability to track your ride online, which would eliminate the long wait times associated with paratransit services.
Naturally, developing and providing this type of service will have a cost.
Most TNCs subsidize their rides so rides are cheap enough to balance the need to maintain a strong customer base, while paying drivers enough to maintain a large fleet. These grants come straight out of the pockets of private companies.
Every paratransit trip from the transit agency is subsidized by taxpayers’ money, which adds costs to the entire population. Even with public subsidies, paratransit trips cost more than the usual bus fare.
Public agencies would be able to fill more higher-capacity vehicles with ride-sharing models. By using the existing fleet more efficiently, they can provide faster service, thereby improving the quality of service.
Additional seats in the vehicles could also be used to accommodate ride-sharing customers who do not require accessible vehicles, but are taking similar routes.
We live in an age of innovation where we have the potential to change systems and find real solutions to transportation disparities, but before we move forward, we need to stop and think about how we are going using modern technology to improve access to transportation options.
TNCs are a very plausible option with real-time information and mobile calling and payment options, and that there is a demand for them. But effective policy is inclusive of everyone and it is time to include the disability community so they have a seat at the table in shaping such policies.
Noah McCourt is an autistic self-advocate and the founder and executive director of the Minnesota Disability Justice Network. He has held a variety of policy-making positions, including on the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and the board of directors of the Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities at the University of Cincinnati.