MN: How Rochester is improving its transit system for people with disabilities

June 10, 2024
After dropping to fewer than 8,000 rides in 2020, service is now near or slightly above the level seen in 2019, when 41,600 rides were reported.

Jun. 8—ROCHESTER — It's been more than two decades, but Tracy Schramm remembers her first ZIPS ride.

"Literally, they took me to my first day at work back in January of 2002," she said of her use of Zumbro Independent Passenger Service , a shared-ride transit service designed for individuals unable to use fixed bus routes.

Since that first ride, she's considered the Rochester Public Transit program a crucial connection to work, medical appointments and leisure activities.

"I use it for anything and everything," she said of the door-to-door transportation service catering to people with disabilities.

Today, Schramm, who uses a powered wheelchair to get around, is a member of Rochester's Advisory on Transit, an appointed volunteer board that works with city staff to offer insights into transit operations and needs. She said her reliance on the service is one reason she's been quick to point out concerns, as well as suggested fixes.

"Because ZIPS and the city are very key to my success in the community and I need them and I recognized that, I really think it's important to bring it up when failures happen," she said.

In 2017, she was among residents struggling with the service, who approached the Rochester City Council during a public meeting to call for added funding or other fixes to address driver shortages and inconsistent service .

The lack of reliability, along with new transportation programs being started by agencies serving people with disabilities, was among factors cited as the number of rides began declining in the following years.

A 2022 Transit Development Plan pointed to a 38.4% drop in the number of rides between 2017 and 2019, but also noted recovery in passenger counts since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are seeing a rebound when it comes to ridership," said Karli McElroy, the city's new mobility coordinator. "We are pretty much on track to be at or slightly above what we were at or above what we were prior to COVID."

McElroy was hired earlier this year as part of a renewed focus on ZIPS service.

Wendy Turri, who retired as public works director on June 7, said state transit funding, rather than federal funds, supports ZIPS.

"Because of that, funds have been more limited, and in the past really there hasn't been a position that has been assigned to this," she said.

As a result, oversight duties were split between staff members who had other responsibilities, leading to spotty outcomes.

Ia Xiong, who is interim manager for Rochester's transit and parking systems, said the Rochester City Council's approval of a new staff position provides a chance to focus on strengthening the service and meeting future needs.

"I think this position is just going to help it grow," she said.

McElroy's initial efforts have been aimed at tackling consistency challenges and communication concerns as ridership grows in the wake of the pandemic.

After dropping to fewer than 8,000 rides in 2020, service is now near or slightly above the level seen in 2019, when 41,600 rides were reported.

Advisory on Transit member Joel Lovelace said the ridership increase is likely linked to system improvements, from maintaining the number of needed riders to keep buses on schedule to increased technology for handling tickets and communicating with riders.

"They are definitely putting in the effort to get better, and they are definitely getting better," he said. "Obviously, you'll never see a perfect scenario or system."

Improvements were cited by a variety of riders contacted by the Post Bulletin to share insights into the program, but some pointed out that recent improvements don't necessarily negate past concerns.

Paula Hardin, a disability rights advocate and ZIPS user, said her recent rides in April and May were on-time and deemed successful, but months earlier she was raising concerns with the City Council and transit staff.

"Getting to medical appointments on time, especially surgical procedures, is crucial to obtaining medical care," said Hardin, who has multiple sclerosis and relies on a walker. "If you have waited for five months to get an appointment and you are more than 15 minutes late, it is not likely you will be able to be seen, or it might mean a lengthy wait and hope for a break in between other patients. This is emotionally fraught and consequently very anxiety-producing."

While Hardin has seen improvements in recent months, she and others said concerns linger.

Council member Mark Bransford said a history of inconsistent service has had an impact for many residents, including his daughter, who would benefit from the service. To overcome those concerns, they frequently seek rides from more-expensive private services.

"ZIPS, as good as it can be, I have heard horror stories from friends who need it," he said, adding that it's good to hear added council support is making a difference.

"If throwing resources at ZIPS has made it better, that's awesome," he said.

McElroy said the biggest changes in recent years have been increasing the number of drivers and vehicles to reduce reliance on outside services to fill gaps.

At one point, 42% of rides scheduled through ZIPS were handled by Handi Van or Superior Van and Mobility, private transportation providers, which limited the city's control on pickup and drop-off times.

As a result, the "on-time" numbers were dropping.

A ride is considered to be on time if it's within a 10-minute window of the schedule. In other words, a driver is on time for a 2 p.m. ride if he gets to the door between 1:50 p.m. and 2:10 p.m.

This year, on-time rates have increased from 89% to 92%.

Victoria Morales, operational manager for Sun Transit, which hires and oversees ZIPS drivers, says new scheduling software has helped by factoring in time needed to secure wheelchairs or walk someone to the front door.

"It takes into account things that previously weren't taken into account," she said.

McElroy said she's hoping a future adoption of new technology can help address other delays caused by weather or traffic issues beyond a driver's control. The goal is to provide a tracker so ZIPS riders can see whether a bus is on time, similar to tracking already part of the fixed-route transit system.

Until then, she said work on other communication with riders and drivers continues.

As one of the 25 current drivers, Jon Lubahn, said communication is crucial, which is why he treats his riders as family and works to ensure they get the best service possible.

Lubahn, who has been a driver for 13 years, has worked with three contractors and said recent changes have been noticed.

"I've seen some improvements, and I've seen some things that haven't improved it much," he said. "It's still a work in progress."

Among that work is the recently approved plan to add two more leased buses to the city's fleet of five vehicles for riders who are ambulatory and 11 buses that can accommodate wheelchairs.

Added training is also part of the plan. After hearing rides were being denied due to a lack of drivers and vehicles at a specific time, Turri said training is meant to help ensure the city program complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The federal requirements don't necessarily dictate that any requested ride must be accommodated, but they do require staff to attempt to offer options, rather than deny a ride.

"You can negotiate the time an hour before or an hour after the requested time," McElroy said, adding an earlier ride is typically encouraged when a specific appointment is involved.

With rides expected to be scheduled at least a day in advance, Morales said the opportunity exists to schedule with Handi Van or Superior, but that can be a challenge when too many requests overlap.

Lovelace said that's where riders can help. As someone who regularly uses ZIPS for shopping or leisure activities, he asks about the schedule when seeking a ride to ensure he's not overcrowding the system.

"If I have 100 people and only have 50 spaces and all 100 people call in on a specific day, somebody is going to get declined," he said.

When it comes to addressing concerns, whether denied rides, lack of communication or scheduling, McElroy said she's in the process of determining where priorities lie.

"If we are not focusing on what is a priority for the people who are riding it, then we are spinning our wheels in some sense," she said.

To focus on the work, she's been reaching out to riders and people who provide services to riders, since those who rely on the service might be reluctant to criticize it to a city staff member.

Jennifer Mann, an Olmsted County Adult and Family Service program manager, said in those cases people will typically bring concerns to social workers and others. In recent months, she said those social workers have been hearing fewer complaints.

"Things have really improved," she said, crediting some of that to McElroy's outreach to county staff. "The individuals we serve are happier. They are getting picked up more timely. They are not getting left behind, where they may have been in the past."

Ability Building Community Director of Operations Katie Gifford, who served as the organization's transportation manager until recently, echoed the importance of the outreach, pointing to past concerns with people being dropped off too early or too late.

"They are heading in a good direction again," she said.

To maintain that direction, the city has been conducting a rider survey, with some riders given printed copies and others being encouraged to answer questions online. The online version is available through June 20 at .

McElroy said she plans to add surveys in the future to help determine the next steps and see what's working.

"That way if we do implement — any sort of improvement to the program — we can see the impact," she said.

Schramm and Lovelace said they'll continue to provide feedback as members of the city's Advisory on Transit and as riders relying on the service.

"As they kind of work through the moving parts, so to speak, with the riders, the drivers and all the training, I do think things get better," she said.

Zumbro Independent Passenger Service, commonly known as ZIPS, is a Rochester Public Transit shared-ride service designed for individuals with disabilities when they are unable to use fixed bus routes.

Here are a few things to know about the service:

1. Rides cost $3.

As part of Rochester's transit and parking services, ZIPS operates on a mix of service fees and transit support without tapping into local tax revenue.

Eligible ZIPS riders who can periodically ride a fixed-route bus are eligible for reduced $1 fares on those rides.

Rides can be paid for with cash, check or pre-purchased passes. The city's transit app also works with the program, but requires special setup, due to eligibility requirements.

2. Eligibility requirements determine access to ZIPS rides.

Anyone deemed unable to independently navigate the city's fixed-route bus system is eligible for ZIPS service.

It can also be provided to someone with a disability when there is a lack of accessible vehicles or bus stops for a destination.

Eligibility must be certified by a care provider, and it can be denied if a person's condition is deemed to require potential medical care during travel or poses a health or safety risk to others.

Applications are available online or by contacting Karli McElroy, the city's mobility coordinator, at [email protected] or call (507) 328-2407.

3. Care attendants ride for free.

An eligible ZIPS rider can be accompanied by a personal care attendant at no added cost. It can be a paid attendant or anyone else needed to provide assistance.

When space is available, other companions can also accompany an eligible rider, but they are expected to pay the $3 fare per ride.

4. Rides are typically scheduled a day or more in advance.

Rides can be scheduled up to seven days in advance, with the expectation of at least one day's notice.

Eligible riders are given a number to call for reservations, and the calls are monitored between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays and holidays.

5. ZIPS operates more than 17 hours each weekday.

The earliest possible pickup for a weekday ZIPS ride is 5 a.m., with the latest scheduled pickup possible at 10:30 p.m.

On weekends and holidays, drivers are scheduled for pickups between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.


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