Metro is moving forward with plans to partner with providers such as Uber and Lyft to establish an alternative to MetroAccess, its door-to-door service for the elderly and people with disabilities. Metro’s plan is to launch the program, Abilities-Ride, on March 1, according to agency documents to be discussed at a Thursday board meeting.
Under the program, MetroAccess customers will have the choice of booking– through the use of technology– a ride on the same day they need it, a significant improvement from the current MetroAccess requirement that trips be booked 24 hours in advance.
Metro estimates that between 150,000 and 250,000 trips will be taken during the first year of operations. This will result in savings between $4 million and $6 million in the first year of operations, according to documents prepared for the board meeting.
Metro will pay up to $15 per trip to the contracting company, reducing its expenses significantly when compared to the MetroAccess cost of $44 per trip.
“The program vendors are able to provide more flexible and less costly service because they are not required to carry the infrastructure required by paratransit providers,” Metro officials said in the board report. “Metro aims to leverage their flexibility and low-cost option for the benefit of addressing the travel needs of MetroAccess customers.”
Abilities-Ride will be introduced in Maryland, where two-thirds of MetroAccess customers live. But transit officials say it could eventually expand to Metro’s entire service area.
Uber and Lyft top the list of prospective contractors for the new service, which officials say would also answer customers’ growing demand for same-day, app-based transportation services.
Metro plans to issue an RFP at the end of this month with the intent to award a contract to up to three companies in early January and start service in March.
The rideshare option is expected to be popular among customers who don’t need wheelchair-accessible vehicles to travel. Still, some people with disabilities and advocates have been critical of Metro’s intent to partner with the companies, saying they lack wheelchair-accessible vehicles and training in dealing with special-needs populations.
Metro said the program will be designed to generate savings while ensuring many, but not all, of the demands of the community. The agency acknowledges that not all of the vehicles will be wheelchair-accessible, but it says that at least one of the three selected companies will offer wheelchair-accessible service.
Metro has set a range of requirements for the service providers including that they offer on-demand services, have a rigorous vetting process for drivers, and offer drivers training in dealing with people with disabilities.
Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, which offers the agency feedback on issues affecting the disabled community, has urged the agency to set safety and security standards for the program, to be open to contracting with local transportation providers instead of Uber and Lyft, and to keep in mind that many elderly and disabled customers cannot navigate web-based applications because of their disabilities.
The group, however, has also backed Metro’s objective to sustain the costly MetroAccess service, acknowledging that a new program could help lower costs. A paratransit ride averages about $50 in the Washington area, a much higher cost than using rail or bus, which average between $3 and $4.
Other transit agencies across the country also are pursuing partnerships with app-based transportation providers in an effort to lower paratransit costs. Metro officials have said that expanding options and lowering costs are inevitable as demand for service increases as the population ages and disability rates rise.