The extraordinary cost of transporting the elderly and people with disabilities has Metro and transit agencies across the country eyeing Uber and other app-based ride services as alternatives.
Proponents of such partnerships say they could potentially reduce costs for multimillion-
dollar, heavily subsidized paratransit services. They also would help communities respond to customer demands for same-day, on-demand service that is lacking in the antiquated paratransit world.
But while some customers might crave the prompt service and convenience of app-based ordering offered by Uber and similar businesses, the idea gives accessibility advocates pause.
Citing Uber’s lack of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, for example, some advocates are puzzled by the prospect of the company getting government contracts. They say Uber and its main rival, Lyft, have not done enough to meet the needs of people with disabilities, such as those who are blind or use wheelchairs. They also question the level of training in dealing with people with special needs that drivers receive, and echo widely publicized concerns about safety, insurance coverage and the vetting process for drivers.
“Do I think that inaccessible vehicles can be used in paratransit? Sure,” said James Weisman, chief executive of the nonprofit United Spinal Association, a national critic of Uber’s inaccessible fleet. “Do I think that we should reward people who discriminate on the basis of disability with public contracts? No, I don’t.”
In Washington, New York, Boston and Chicago, officials appear to be moving in that direction, nonetheless, calling the app-based car companies a resource to improve service. Uber rides could be available to paratransit customers as soon as this summer in some cities.
Transit experts and officials say expanding options and lowering cost is inevitable as the population continues to age, disability rates continue to rise and the use of paratransit services is expected to grow. They view Uber and its rivals as a creative way to meet growing needs and balance costs.
“It’s important that we can provide service that meets customer demand, but also do it in a cost-
effective manner,” said Michael Lambert, deputy administrator for transit at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “Ultimately, this comes down to providing good customer service and ensuring that the system can remain sustainable as the population ages and demand increases.”
Besides, he said, customers want the app-based services that have transformed the way people travel in recent years. In Boston, he said, paratransit customers want flexibility, same-day booking and a way to track their ride. The city’s “T” transit system plans to launch a pilot by summer.
Eventually, it comes down to lowering costs. A paratransit ride averages $29.30 in the United States, about three and a half times more expensive than the average cost of $8.15 to provide a regular fixed-route bus or rail trip, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. In some cities, the cost is staggering: $57 in New York, $50 in the District and $30 in Boston.
In the Washington region, MetroAccess, a door-to-door paratransit service, provides about 2 million trips annually at a price tag of about $121 million — of which more than 90 percent is paid with subsidies from the jurisdictions served by Metro. The transit agency projects that MetroAccess — now the nation’s fifth-largest paratransit service, with 675 vehicles — could add at least 1 million trips and more than $50 million in operating expenses in the next decade.
As part of its strategy to reduce MetroAccess costs, Metro has tried new programs, such as D.C. Transport — a partnership with the D.C. Taxi Commission that makes city taxis available to MetroAccess customers for a flat rate of $5 a trip. The city subsidizes the trips, but the cost for service is still lower than MetroAccess.
“These pilots operate at about half the cost of MetroAccess,” a recent report on the program’s efficiency concluded, urging more such partnerships to reduce costs.
Metro also has been encouraging MetroAccess users to ride the bus and rail instead — which they can do for free. It costs Metro an average of $50 to provide a MetroAccess ride, compared with $3 to $4 a passenger for bus and rail.
But the fixed-route options aren’t always ideal for people with mobility problems, said MetroAccess customer Nadia Ibrahim, citing the unreliability of the system and frequent broken elevators at subway stations.
After months of closed-door meetings with Uber and Lyft, Metro officials last month announced that the transit agency was seeking offers from the app-based ride services.
Metro officials say the goal is to have the program in place by summer for users in the Maryland suburbs, where two-thirds of MetroAccess customers live.
Under Maryland Abilities-Ride, Metro would pay up to $15 per trip to the contracting company and cover a $12 surcharge applied to trips in wheelchair-
accessible vehicles. Customers would be restricted to four trips daily.
Advocates are critical of the daily-trip limit and are concerned about those in wheelchairs, people who are visually impaired and those whose incomes preclude them from having smartphones.
“People who are poor don’t have a $900 cellphone. They don’t know anything about an app,” said Denise Rush, 64, an advocate and longtime MetroAccess rider. Because she is blind, she said, she is unable to use the smartphone apps.
As a solution, Metro says it will seek a provider that can also facilitate the transportation service through a traditional phone call. The transit agency also is asking the companies to spell out their policies for vetting drivers and training them to serve people with disabilities. Metro would require service to be available to customers traveling with service animals, as well as at least 50 wheelchair-accessible vehicles to compliment the service, either as part of the fleet or through a partnership.
Disability advocates say rigorous driver screening is critical, particularly after recent reports of alleged criminal behavior involving Uber drivers.
Even though Metro contracts out its MetroAccess services, the Metro Transit Police department runs fingerprint and criminal background checks on all the drivers, according to Metro. And the agency’s Access Services staff has direct involvement in the service, conducting fleet inspections, monitoring service on the street and managing technology and scheduling efficiencies.
Metro officials say that if the agency pursues a plan with Uber or another ride-sharing company, it would “be prescriptive about what the background check process must entail,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
Flexibility to book same-day travel would be a major improvement over MetroAccess, which requires trips to be booked 24 hours in advance. But Ibrahim says Uber and Lyft won’t help her.
“You are creating another layer of discrimination for people who use wheelchairs, because I would not be able to use that service,” said Ibrahim, 45, who recently was named Maryland’s Miss Wheelchair. She uses MetroAccess daily to get from her home in Rockville to work at the U.S. Labor Department.
“We are just asking for the same options that any resident and any employee in the D.C. area has. It’s not anything that is extraordinary,” she said. “I have personal and professional responsibilities, in addition to navigating life, so to add six hours of my day to just travel to my doctor’s appointment and then to my job shouldn’t happen in the year 2016.”
Transportation officials say Uber and Lyft won’t replace paratransit services required by the Americans With Disabilities Act. But they say it could be an option for riders who do not use wheelchairs, which in many markets represents about 75 percent of paratransit customers.
Already, some agencies have been testing partnerships with taxi services, and many of the taxis also are not wheelchair-
Still, the question of accessibility has been a growing problem for Uber and Lyft. Customers who use wheelchairs or service animals have complained about being denied service, and both companies face lawsuits — in Arizona, California and Texas — alleging that their drivers discriminate against people with disabilities.
Uber has denied the discrimination accusations and says that because it is a technology company, not a transportation service, it is not subject to ADA requirements.
Uber officials say their cars have capacity to stow a foldable wheelchair. And in some markets, Uber has partnered with providers of accessible vehicles to offer that option.
Jeffrey P. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, is an investor in Uber.
Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University, said the ride-sharing option could empower paratransit users, because it would give them more travel freedom.
Governments can set requirements related to driver screening and accessible vehicles, he said, much like Metro is proposing. Some transit officials predict that if they provide the customers and show a growing demand, the companies will move toward building accessible fleets.
Uber already has partnerships in Atlanta and Dallas, where it markets itself as a connection to transit stations. The company plans to pursue an even closer relationship here.
Kaitlin Durkosh, spokeswoman for Uber in the Washington region, said the company has the drivers, the technology, and the customer support to do paratransit. And it wants to help address the rising costs and problems facing Metro.
“We think we can leverage our technology to be part of the solution,” she said.