(This article was originally posted on April 26, 2018.)
Transportation allowances for individuals with disabilities is a longstanding consideration for transportation agencies. Public agencies account for these social equity issues, such as utilizing accessible vehicles that private Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft often don’t address. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act requires public agencies provide paratransit service within three quarters of a mile from any fixed-route service. Despite these requirements, paratransit services are often not user-friendly, due to requiring trip reservations a day ahead of time, and then, only being able to provide a highly variable arrival window of sometimes 30 minutes or more. This results in high cancellation rates and inefficient use of resources.
Currently, approximately 20% of paratransit users require accessible vehicles. This means that other ambulatory users make up over 80% of riders, and could be accommodated by lower cost TNCs. Paratransit-contracted-per-trip costs can range from $40 to $60, whereas TNC costs for the same trip can be under $20.
Partnering with TNCs
Because of this cost difference, many agencies have begun to use on-demand TNCs for paratransit trips for their ambulatory customers instead of the higher-cost alternative. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in Boston was one of the first organizations to explore this operation with their on-demand pilot for RIDE paratransit customers.
MBTA promotes their program as, “The MBTA pilot program with ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft offers on-demand transit service to RIDE paratransit customers.” You can book trips right from your smartphone, instantly.
• Fares as low as $2.
• Shorter wait times.
• Instant, same-day booking.
• Faster trips.
• Access to wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
The pilot program has been extended to July 1, 2018.
This program has reduced the average per-trip cost from $46 to $13; however, it has also increased the popularity of the service, increasing usage significantly. MBTA has estimated a net savings of about 6% resulting from the new service. By capping the per-trip subsidy, they have successfully produced a net savings.
Other strategies for cutting costs include ideas like limiting the number of subsidized trips per day per user or limiting the trips to take passengers to an accessible fixed-route stop/station. Complaints about the original RIDE service last year resulted in MBTA cancelling their contract with their paratransit coordinator, Global Contact Services, in December 2017. Riders have clearly come to expect the higher level of service that the on-demand program has provided, rather than relying on the longer wait times of the services like RIDE.
Similarly, Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (RTA) just released a Request for Information (RFI) for their novel concept of incorporating paratransit as part of their overall Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) architecture for Non-Emergency Medical Transport (NEMT), RTA Fixed Route Transit, transit operators in other counties, taxis, bike-share, car-share, parking, TNCs, and other services. They envision one seamless, cashless system with Dayton RTA as “mobility managers” for the region. This is one of the first agencies to take on FTA Associate Administrator Vincent Valdes’ vision of transit agencies as the “multimodal mobility managers for their region.”
Qualifying for fed subsidies
FTA funded 11 agencies at the end of 2016 as part of a Mobility on Demand (MOD) Sandbox funding program. As part of this program, the agencies were allowed to ask for exceptions to the social equity requirements to qualify for ongoing federal subsidies.
To qualify for federal subsidies under the National Transit Database (NTD) formula funding, the trips must meet several requirements, including:
1) Trip data is provided for the NTD.
2) Trips are ride-shared, not single-passenger rides in most cases.
3) Accessible vehicles be provided to those in wheelchairs.
4) Title VI requirements be met including:
a. Provision for unbanked passenger (i.e., cash, prepaid debit cards, smart cards).
b. Provision for passengers without technology like smartphones.
5) Driver training for assisting those that need extra help and sensitivity training.
6) Driver drug and alcohol testing.
7) Vehicle heightened safety testing requirements and insurance requirements.
The MOD projects, as a whole, did not meet these requirements. For instance, private TNCs have been hesitant to provide their trip data, which is a core requirement for NTD formula funding for the public agencies. While TNCs have piloted accessible services, they have not found a profitable model that can encourage those with accessible vehicles to participate. Their business model usually centers on their mobile apps, which do not meet Title VI requirements. Also, they have been very resistant to require any special training or testing of their drivers.
TNCs have lowered the trip costs and increased ease-of-use for first-, last-mile transportation over traditional taxi services. However, end-to-end use of TNCs is still too expensive for most travelers to use on a regular basis.
Transit agencies are subsidized at least 50% of their operating cost due to the recognized benefit of moving single passenger travelers to shared services.
UberPool and LyftLine shared-ride services have helped reduce costs but would clearly benefit from similar subsidies to their trips. Major players, like Google Maps, are still displaying TNCs as competitors to transit, instead of a compliment to transit. Transit systems operate many unprofitable routes that could be better served by a ride-sharing services, but in dense corridors transit is more efficient and reduces congestion. Finding a way to have TNCs as first-, last-mile companions to transit service would benefit the public, the TNCs, and the transit agencies.
Many cities are deploying multimodal trip planners that combine transit with TNCs. While multimodal apps can provide door-to-door trip-planning and a single common payment system, which can increase transit ridership, these multimodal apps will not see large-scale adoption unless the first-, last-mile trips are subsidized to the extent that transit trips are subsidized.
However, innovative approaches are being developed to address these needs and make a system that can meet the NTD requirements. To meet these requirements, an agency must take charge of their multimodal services and be committed to delivering a system that addresses these requirements. Instead of seeing their paratransit service separate from their fixed-route service, they need to see it as a resource to meet the accessibility needs of the general population. They must provide a multimodal door-to-door solution for all their riders. In doing this, they can reduce paratransit costs, improve ridership, and remove inefficient fixed routes.
Figure: System Diagram for a Multimodal Trip Planning System and Common Payment System
To meet the requirements, the transit agency should consider the following features to their system:
1) Control the data. Transit agencies should not depend on TNCs to plan trips. The TNCs provide deep integration tools that allow the agency to make trip requests.
2) Optimize trips based on ride-sharing. They should provide trip optimization that meets the business requirements of the agency, not the TNC. Paratransit vehicles in conjunction with their normal operations can shared rides with general public passengers. Lost ambulatory rides can be compensated with general public trips. Paratransit contracts would have to be adjusted to allow this modification.
3) Accessible vehicles can be provided to those in wheelchairs as part of the same app the general public uses. Paratransit account information can be entered in as the payment method for qualifying travelers.
4) Title VI requirements can be met by:
a. Allowing unbanked passengers to use cash to pre-purchase trips from TVMs or enter prepaid debit card or smart-card information into the app instead of credit or debit cards. Kiosks (can be as simple as a wall mounted tablet) at transit stops can be used to request TNC pick-ups using the above payment methods.
b. Provision for passengers without technology, like smartphones, by providing an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system that allows use of a touch-tone phones to request a pre-purchased trip pick-up by entering in a trip ID code. These ID codes can be generated at a TVM or kiosk as described above.
5) While TNCs don’t want to force their drivers to undergo the enhanced driver training and vehicle testing required for federal subsidy, drivers can still opt-in to this program. Transit agencies could expand their existing training and testing programs to allow TNC drivers to participate, if they chose to do so. The application can verify drivers that have opted in and have been certified by using the TNCs’ provided driver phone numbers and vehicle license plates to identify trained drivers and approved vehicles. These can be compared to a list of qualified drivers before using them for a trip.
TNCs are realizing there is a much bigger untapped market in paratransit and NEMT trips and are adapting their business practices to meet this demand. Lyft recently announced the Dispatch Developers portal, which will allow Lyft APIs to be incorporated into third-party dispatch apps that do the trip-planning and access available Lyft vehicles to service their trips.
Similarly, as shown in the diagram above, paratransit providers won’t fear the loss of ambulatory customer trips to the TNCs because they would be compensated for the difference by accepting general public trips and reducing cancelled trips. The on-demand service can provide improved utilization of their fleet when not being used for accessible trips.
Designing a proper multimodal service can be a win-win-win proposition to the mobility providers, transit agencies, and the traveling public.
Robert James is Chief Engineer of Emerging Mobility for HNTB (www.hntb.com).