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Understanding How Customers Feel about Paratransit Will Help Us Fix It

February 5, 2020
Source: Metro Magazine

Virtually every transit agency has a few angry customers, and I used to be one. I depended on transit and when it failed, it was maddening. A late train, a crowded bus passing me by, a late or circuitous shared ride on paratransit — any and all of these relatively routine occurrences could send me into an emotional tailspin.

I can remember numerous times, standing at a transit stop or waiting by the door for paratransit, breathing hard, stamping my foot, and mumbling curse words about my missing ride. I remember wondering why everyone else at the transit stop — presumably all of whom were also late — seemed so nonchalant, and I remember wondering why the paratransit dispatcher on the other end of my seventh ETA [estimated time of arrival] call lacked my sense of urgency.

I can also remember numerous instances at work, watching as people with disabilities railed about service failures, calling on transit professionals (including me) to be fired. I have listened to customers sometimes relaying politely, sometimes yelling, other times swearing and occasionally crying about the appointments missed, jobs lost, surgeries that had to be rescheduled, doctor’s office charges that had to be paid, and the list goes on and on — all because paratransit was late, or the ride went in circles, or the vehicle just didn’t show up at all.

I have also listened as transit colleagues have wondered, “why are so many disabled people so angry all the time?”

Earlier in my career, I would have speculated that perhaps those customers are just in pain, or don’t understand the nature of paratransit, or some other widely accepted sentiment. But customers with disabilities are just as smart as our other customers, and many live with discomfort all the time, so these explanations just didn’t ring true. Then, one day, as I was reading anti-paratransit diatribes on Facebook and thinking about my own strong emotional reactions to transit and paratransit service failures, it hit me. Most people have many transportation options: If the car breaks down, there’s often a second car, or transit, or a taxi or a rideshare service. But for people with disabilities, these alternates often do not exist: It’s transit or paratransit or nothing. Thus, when people with disabilities get mad about a transit or paratransit service issue, it’s probably not pain or confusion. Rather, it’s probably the fact that they had no fallback, and their day just took a turn for the worse.

Understanding this has made it much easier for me to accept the anger and frustration customers with disabilities sometimes express. I understand that the yelling, the tears and the occasional cursing are often the results of frustration, and this makes it much easier for me to stay calm. But my experiences as a passenger and as the occasional passenger punching bag have also convinced me that merely doing what the law requires or getting it right most of the time is not enough.

For example:

  • The ADA requires paratransit on a next-day basis. But what if my daughter forgot about a class project and needs to go to the store tonight? Even a bus rider can run this last-minute errand with only minor inconvenience. But if I need paratransit, I’m out of luck.
  • The ADA permits negotiated pick-up times, pick-up windows and shared rides. The ADA’s definition of paratransit was intended to mirror public transit, which is, by definition, shared-ride service. To help transit agencies manage the cost of service, the ADA also permits agencies to negotiate pick-up times to be up to an hour before or after the requested time, and to arrive within a specified pick-up window — usually about thirty minutes. Taken together, these service characteristics, coupled with customers who cancel trips, drivers who call in sick, traffic conditions that are impacted by weather, vehicle accidents and breakdowns, construction and congestion, result in service that is extremely unpredictable from day to day.

A typical forty-five-minute trip to work on Monday might turn into a late pick-up and a ninety-minute sight-seeing trip on Tuesday, or an early pick-up and a thirty-minute trip on Wednesday, or a super-late pick-up because of two last-minute add-on riders on Thursday, and so on.

In my experience, this unpredictability results in complaints about trip-sharing, so most of us think that trip-sharing is what customers dislike most about paratransit. However, in almost every conversation I’ve had with riders who understand the nature and legal requirements for paratransit, the real complaint is service unpredictability. Put simply, customers don’t mind sharing their ride if they know what to expect, but they can’t stand not knowing when to expect their vehicle or how long it will ultimately take to get where they want to go.

  • Although not specified within the ADA, most transit professionals are satisfied when on-time performance is at or above about 90%, meaning that 90% of pick-ups and drop-off’s fall within specified (usually 30 minute) pick-up and drop-off windows. This seems reasonable, given the realities of traffic, construction and congestion. However, if you’re going to work five days per week, it means you’ll be late for either your trip to or from work at least once per week. That doesn’t sound so bad, but during the course of my career, I have personally listened to several customers who literally lost their jobs due to being late to work one time too many.

So what’s the answer?

The answers are not easy; this is especially true given the increasing demand for paratransit, the rising cost of service, and the realities of constrained budgets. Nevertheless, understanding how and why customers feel the way they do about paratransit can help us to look “beyond the box” we built thirty years ago simply because it was the best box we could build, given the legal and technical factors in place at the time.

So can we build a better box? … I think the answer is “yes,” and we are already seeing some evidence of what that might look like.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Many paratransit systems are implementing online tools customers can use to manage and monitor service. These app and web-based tools don’t change the fundamental character of paratransit as an advanced-reservation, shared-ride service, but they do give customers the ability to book and cancel trips, check on rides and view estimated pick-up and drop-off times. This means customers can spend less time on the phone, less time waiting by the door, and most importantly, they can have a better idea of what to expect for that day’s service.
  • More paratransit providers are implementing alternative transportation systems that either supplement or augment ADA paratransit. These providers often use non-dedicated vehicle providers such as taxicabs, rideshare services and other providers who can deliver on-demand service that does not require customers to book ahead or share their trips, and in many cases, these providers can operate at a lower cost than the agency’s ADA paratransit service. Even where shared rides are still the norm, these supplemental providers can take non-productive and/or unpredictable trips off of the dedicated vehicle fleet, thereby improving productivity and predictability of service for everyone.

Ultimately, I think the transit industry and disability community need to engage in a dialogue that addresses customer service needs and desires, and the legal, operational and financial realities of the transit service landscape.

Transit and the community also need to talk about how paratransit might be better incorporated within the larger mobility ecosystem. This would help to ensure that paratransit — which is the costliest service that most transit agencies provide — is available to anyone who needs it, and is also designed to integrate with other highly accessible but less costly transit services, including fixed-route bus, rail, microtransit and any other services offered.

This integrated approach will not only stretch resources farther; it will help to ensure that the new mobility paradigm is for everyone — including people with disabilities — and is able to promote the kind of integration that we all want for ourselves and the communities where we live, work and play.

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