Before the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, access to public transit for people with disabilities was extremely limited, mainly because of indifferent and erroneous assumptions about the numbers, needs, capabilities and aspirations of people with disabilities. Today, access to transit is vastly improved, and industry statistics reflect this accordingly.
Since 2000, local bus fleets nationwide have moved from 81 percent to 100 percent accessible, and millions of customers with disabilities are making use of fixed-route transit who could not have done so before. The original intent of requiring complementary paratransit service was to bridge that gap, extending the equivalent of fixed-route transit to people with disabilities who could not make use of an otherwise inaccessible system, yet the demand for paratransit service has grown exponentially since its inception, despite North America achieving a mostly accessible fixed-route transit network.
The question is, do we need more paratransit or is it time for something else?
Among the ADA’s many strengths is it was developed with significant input from the disability community, and it requires ongoing engagement with the community for any changes being contemplated that could affect them (the “nothing about us without us” doctrine). However, now that ADA paratransit service has been fully implemented across the country -- count (and few you will find) the number of people with disabilities who are involved in decisions regarding the deployment of service or its evolution into other offerings that might better meet the needs of the target constituency.
In the past 33 years, we have often attempted to “perfect” paratransit without asking if there was something better or if the disability community’s expectations had changed. There are many reasons for this:
- The regulations themselves have not changed (except to clarify further we are expected to interpret existing requirements more in the customer’s favor).
- We have been motivated to apply sophisticated technology not previously available to resolve long-standing paratransit problems.
- Our tendency to plan services for people with and without disabilities separately.
While the first two reasons are understandable, the third is harder to defend, except perhaps to attribute it to the law of inertia.
By operating paratransit service in its current form, we are preserving a 1990s artifact that offers only a half-portion of what is available today, such as only “next day service” instead of the “just-in-time” service being enjoyed by customers of transportation network companies (TNCs); shared rides that are typically not commingled with riders of other (mainstream) services, which often result in longer ride times due to scheduling being dependent on the placement of the trip with respect to other customers’ trips, as well as trip time negotiation, which is the notion that eligibility for the service can be restricted on a trip-by-trip basis when the practical application of such vetting is difficult to implement – not to mention that restricting transit use should not be our objective. Efforts to perfect this version of service also fall short – now we have technology that more precisely informs the customer of how late the ride will be. That applies updated algorithms to the same population of trips to be scheduled, still with a “next day” orientation, and that only offers service where fixed-route transit exists, even as agencies begin to replace fixed-route service with on-demand.
Customers with disabilities overwhelmingly desire equity and inclusion. They want to go about their lives in a manner similar to those around them. To achieve this, we must ascribe to the philosophy of “one system” that serves everyone – one in which accessibility for all is in the genetic material that makes up whatever we create. The one “system” does not (and should not) be interpreted as one “entity.”
If there is one thing we have learned from the pandemic, it is the transit industry alone cannot meet the expansive demand for service that comes from our very diverse society. Partnerships are the name of the game, and transit agencies must work effectively with their human services counterparts, among others, to maximize the number of options available to customers while keeping costs sustainable. Many agencies have already begun this practice and the partnerships they have created are yielding positive results, but many others are creating microtransit pilot programs and other partnerships in which accessibility is a secondary consideration and this is a missed opportunity.
We have heard in recent years transit agencies are faced with the reality they are not merely transportation providers, but also mobility integrators – hubs of the communities they serve that consolidate mobility information in accessible formats that enable customers to choose from an array of options, many of which are provided by third parties. Partnerships with TNCs are one form of this, and as agencies move to replace low-performing fixed-route service with on-demand service, a new mobility option has emerged, and since paratransit service is, by definition, on-demand – then should we not be aiming microtransit services to accommodate demand that heretofore had to be served by paratransit? With microtransit being offered with same-day (perhaps same-hour) service, customers with disabilities can now be afforded service that is by design substantially better than traditional ADA paratransit and at a lower cost to the agency.
By incorporating accessibility into these new modes of transit, we are “building back better” with an accessible infrastructure that should reduce the dependency on paratransit for future generations. The vision of a single “system” accessible to all is one that has been discussed for many years but is often viewed as aspirational. The prevailing belief has been it would take such a costly investment in infrastructure that it could only be achieved in the very distant future, but the future is now. Between the federal funding that has been made available for infrastructure renewal and the rethinking of the deployment model of fixed-route transit, there has been no better time to revisit the concept of universal design in our nation’s transit systems.
To do this, we need a new approach. First, it is vital that representation from the disability community be included in the design of microtransit and other emerging modes of transit – not just for paratransit. Such representation is also sorely needed in leadership positions at transit agencies from which strategic decisions are made. Second, we need to commit to making accessibility an integral part of all our service offerings. This includes ensuring accessibility of the new kinds of vehicles that are being designed for transit, such as the autonomous vehicle and those with renewable energy. Third, we must think holistically about the transit ecosystems we create in our communities and how services can complement one another as they collectively respond to overall demand.
Transit agencies must be willing to partner much more often and embrace the mobility integrator role. This means partnering with social service organizations and small businesses that provide transportation and related services; identifying and sharing grant funding sources with these partners, and broadcasting numerous options to the public to create the most accessible, navigable environment for everyone. Finally, we must remember that ADA paratransit was never meant to be the mode of choice for people with disabilities, but rather a guarantor of mobility when other options fell short. Everything we do to empower our customers with disabilities is very much in the spirit of the ADA, and there is nothing in the regulations that prohibits going above and beyond minimum requirements. Many agencies, genuinely wanting to do right by their communities, exceeded the requirements in years past by offering more paratransit service than required and then encountered sustainability issues. But now the opportunity is before us to resolve paratransit sustainability by enabling even better choices for our customers, some of which we will operate and some of which we will support. It turns out that one size does not fit all, and it never did.
So, to the question at hand – have we outgrown paratransit? The answer is – mostly yes. As one who has spent most of the past 35 years designing, repairing, delivering, refining, talking and teaching about paratransit service, I continue to be grateful for the transformative effect it has had on our society and for the many opportunities it has given me to serve.
Because of paratransit, millions of people with disabilities have been able to “live their best lives,” engaging in all of life’s activities and being “seen.” Some form of paratransit service may always be needed because of: (1) the special assistance provided by our many professional paratransit operators; (2) the accessible fleets that are funded by transit agencies more than any other source and (3) because of the inaccessibility of the infrastructure around transit (i.e., sidewalks, curb cuts and other path of travel barriers) that will continue to take years to resolve, but there is a difference between maintaining paratransit as the primary option for customers and the brighter prospect that paratransit is a de minimus option among many others available to people with disabilities, many of which will offer more than what paratransit can deliver. This is the equitable future we should all be working to achieve.
Christian T. Kent is principal at Christian T. Kent, Transit Management Consulting, LLC.