Paratransit services are a small miracle, linking otherwise disadvantaged riders with jobs, families and independence. But the cost and operational burden can be considerable to operators that provide ADA-mandated complementary services. The search for more efficient paratransit is constant.
Steve Fittante, director of the Middlesex County (N.J.) Department of Transportation, thinks that too often paratransit services fail to consider integration with the mainstream transit network. “As the demand for transit increases, along with a tighter fiscal climate, it’s critical that a more efficient mix of fixed-route and demand-response services occur,” he says.
A simple transition Improved capability for paratransit agencies to say yes to trip requests.
Increased revenue and ridership for transit systems.
Expansion of mobility options for paratransit riders.
One of the biggest challenges is the task of convincing paratransit riders to leave what they feel is a comfort zone. “I think it is a hard sell but the advantages can be there,” says Fittante. “Sometimes, the fixed-route bus or rail ride is faster and/or more comfortable than a paratransit trip and this really helps the recruiting cause.”
Generally speaking, integrating paratransit and regular transit isn’t rocket science. A good integration policy only requires some planning and a creative, efficient use of mode transfers. The key is flexibility.
For example, one method would involve designing selected fixed routes with extra recovery time at the end of a 60-minute schedule. Adding 15 minutes to a trip would allow enough time to perform route deviations in the immediate vicinity. A paratransit rider who makes an advanced reservation could be picked up during the extra “flex-time,” while the fixed-route service remains on schedule.
Another basic idea, says Fittante, consists of setting up safe, sheltered areas so that paratransit riders can be comfortable while waiting. “This is particularly important if the use of transfers is voluntary and the system is trying to encourage unacquainted fixed-route passengers to use fixed-route services,” he adds.
One failsafe, says Fittante, is to create a vehicle-to-vehicle transfer, in which a paratransit driver waits with the passenger to ensure they are safely transferred onto the fixed-route vehicle. In this scenario, riders have a comfortable place to wait, and the paratransit driver is available to provide the entire trip if necessary.
Operator training requires some changes, too. “Transit drivers need to be trained to look out for passengers who are transferring so they can provide assistance to those riders who are less familiar with fixed-route services,” Fittante says. “Paratransit drivers, on the other hand, must be familiar with connecting fixed-route service times, boarding points and alternate stops if a scheduled connection is missed.”
Benefits for all involved
A great advantage to integrating paratransit and fixed-route services is that most of the infrastructure required for the change is already there. No significant equipment purchases are necessary, and upfront costs are generally low. Other benefits include:
Integration is not a panacea for all of paratransit’s problems. In some cases, it’s not even plausible. For example, if dwell time plus travel time in a transfer trip exceeds the length of a trip exclusively provided by paratransit, a short-distance urban trip would be impractical.
According to Fittante, there are several reasons why more operations aren’t currently integrating services. “One issue is that you are asking a population that has limited experience with fixed-route transit to give up a direct, one-vehicle trip for a transfer trip,” he says. “Another is that many paratransit services are fare-free, and the paratransit operator either must require its passengers to pay a fare or pay for the fare itself on behalf of its passengers.”
The main obstacles, says Fittante, are fear of the unknown by paratransit passengers and the extra work that is required to make sure all vehicles meet necessary paratransit and transit passenger requirements. But in the end, he says, “agencies need to weigh expensive paratransit costs and the costs of having to refuse trips against the extra work required to make integrated trips happen.”