While transit agencies are now offering more on-demand transportation options to their paratransit customers, they are now looking for ways to also provide those same options to those who rely on wheelchairs or have other special needs.
To provide greater mobility options for this market that vitally needs it, transit agencies are exploring new avenues through partnerships that not only increase options for all of their paratransit customers but also shave dollars off of their bottom line.
In the summer of 2017, Richmond, Virginia’s GRTC Transit System launched CARE On-Demand by partnering with UZURV, with Roundtrip coming aboard in the winter of that year.
All of GRTC’s CARE paratransit customers are eligible for CARE On-Demand.
“Both of these companies match passengers with drivers to provide on-demand transportation services, much like Uber or Lyft but for paratransit,” explains the GRTC’s Carrie Rose Pace, director, communications. “The services they offer are ADA-compliant, match our service hours, and in many cases are a premium optional service that is available to our customers.”
For the pilot program, customers pay the typical $6 CARE Plus fare, with the agency subsidizing the trip for up to an additional $15, while the customer covers the rest should it go over $21. If the trip is over, Rose Pace says that extra cost is communicated to the customer before they book the trip and won’t change after the reservation is set. She adds that the typical CARE trip costs the agency about $29 per trip.
As part of the pilot agreement, the GRTC required its partners to comply with ADA requirements, including being able to accommodate passengers traveling with wheelchairs. The service also enables passengers to travel with a Personal Care Assistant (PCA), or a service animal.
Another requirement GRTC’s partners needed to meet was that they were able to respond to a customer’s reservation request on the same day within two hours.
“They have both actually gotten that time down — UZURV can typically respond within 30 minutes, and Roundtrip can typically respond between 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the type of vehicle,” Rose Pace explains. She adds that the agency implemented the program based on feedback from its customers.
“They weren’t necessarily asking for an on-demand solution, but they told us that they wanted to be picked-up faster, to be able to make changes the same day, and to be able to ride by themselves, which isn’t an option on our traditional paratransit program because they are all shared rides,” Rose Pace says.
Initially while looking into how it could meet its customers’ needs, GRTC explored the implementation of a taxi voucher system and began looking for taxi providers that could meet the need.
“In the end, what we found is that insurance levels were sometimes a challenge for the taxi companies, and even with Lyft or Uber, because they wouldn’t have that same level for the individual driver that we needed or expected, especially when it came to ADA and training for that curb-to-curb or door-to-door piece,” says Rose Pace. “We really needed those things so that the program would be comparable to our traditional paratransit services.”
Eventually, the program evolved to include transportation network companies (TNCs) like UZURV and Round Trip, who could guarantee the minimums GRTC has for service, safety, and performance metrics, as well as meet the demands of its customers for one seat rides, solo rides, and the ability to bring a PCA or service animal.
Rose Pace says that feedback for the program has been overwhelmingly positive and that to this point the program is exceeding GRTC’s expectations.
“Our goal with this program was to transition at least 10 percent of our CARE ridership to on-demand, and we now have about 11.5 percent of our CARE ridership using the on-demand service to complete their trip,” she says.
Expanding on success
In October 2016, Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) launched a pilot program enabling its paratransit customers to begin taking trips using ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft.
“We joke that it took six months to hit our first 10,000 trips on the pilot, but now we are doing about 17,000 trips a month,” says Ben Schutzman, chief of paratransit at MBTA. “The program has grown tremendously and has become popular with riders, with the service now providing 11 percent of the total trips taken by our customers.”
In April, MBTA announced it is partnering with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to launch a one-year pilot program that provides financial incentives to TNCs in an effort to increase availability of wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs).
During the pilot program, Uber and Lyft will receive a subsidy on a per-hour basis for every hour that wheelchair-accessible vehicles are available for use. The per-trip fee assessed through the 2016 Act Regulating TNCs will be used to reimburse participating TNCs in exchange for providing on-demand WAVs within The RIDE paratransit service area. It has been estimated that this subsidy will cover approximately 50% of actual WAV supply cost with TNCs contributing the remainder.
“We hope the program will give customers greater confidence and trust in the reliability, and that we can kind of bridge the gap in what is a more expensive service than other vehicle classes on the Uber and Lyft platforms,” says Schutzman.
One side benefit of the program is that since the WAVs will be driving around the greater Boston area, other wheelchair users that may not be part of the MBTA’s paratransit program will also have access to more mobility options.
Schutzman says MBTA hopes to increase the number of WAV trips the TNCs service from the current 250 to closer to 1,000 trips a month. He adds that during the one-year pilot, success will primarily be measured based on WAV reliability, average fulfilled trip estimated time of arrival, completed WAV trips per month, and WAV Supply Hours. New information will be provided on a monthly basis to allow the MBTA to monitor the program and make programmatic changes as necessary.
“Just like when we started the first pilot, we want to test the program, get the data back every single month, and see how it’s working,” Schutzman says. “We will also hear from customers, as well as from Uber and Lyft, and if we need to tweak things along the way, we’re absolutely prepared and ready to do so.”
MassDOT and the MBTA will also be collaborating with the participating TNCs in educating the public about the increased supply of accessible vehicles through targeted marketing and community engagement.
“We will use all of our relatively free resources and direct contact with customers, and Uber and Lyft will do the same with the customers that are on their platforms,” Schutzman explains. “We have to get the word out, because I truly believe this is one of those things where we can put the supply out there, but unless customers trust it really is there, the project could tank or just have empty miles, which is not what anyone wants.”
For the WAV pilot, MBTA will evaluate along with MassDOT to determine, if it’s successful and if should be expanded beyond the RIDE service area to other Regional Transit Authorities.
As it moves forward with its partnerships with Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand providers, the agency would like to have its call center be involved in the decision-making process, allowing its schedulers to pick the most efficient and cost-effective way for its customers to travel.
“Making smarter, more integrated decisions is what I would say is the frontier for where we know we need to get to, especially because we are paying on a revenue-hour basis versus on a per-trip basis,” Schutzman says. “[Our] services will be out there on the streets, it’s just a matter of being able to use them in a smart way and still provide good service for our customers.”