For its 10th annual paratransit survey, capturing a snapshot of the industry, METRO received responses from 98 paratransit providers from 36 states across the U.S. and one system from Canada. Respondents answered 32 questions about their fleets, ridership, concerns and innovations.

This year, we added about 10 questions to find out more about paratransit operators’ partnerships with taxi services, which contractors operators work with, and more details about travel training programs, such as how many years they have been in operation; whether they are supported by organizations such as nonprofits, senior or disabled advocacy groups, colleges or schools; and if the programs helped operators cut costs by moving some riders to the fixed-route system.

A total of 7,024 vehicles are represented in this year’s survey results, with the largest fleet making up nearly one-quarter of that, at 1,925 vehicles, and the smallest paratransit fleet comprised of one van. The average fleet size is 47, about the same as last year, and the median is 23. Twenty-three percent of respondents reported having mid- to full-sized vehicles (more than 25 feet in length) in their fleets. Small vehicles comprised 40% of fleets, down from last year’s half. A breakdown of bus sizes for all fleets can be found in Figure 1 (see page 20.)

One significant change in this year’s surveyed fleet mix is that vans made up nearly half of all vehicles represented, at 43%, quite a bit more than last year’s reported 7%. Taxis accounted for 8%, just about in line with last year’s 6% and 2011’s 7%. Ninety percent of all vehicles represented are wheelchair-accessible, a sizable uptick from 2012’s 70%.

Operators transported a total of 24.9 million riders in 2012. Sixty-seven percent reported increases, averaging 8%, which is the same as last year, while about one-third reported a decrease in service, with an average of 6%. The highest ridership increase reported was 54%.

Taxi service
We added some questions about taxi service this year after seeing more paratransit operators, such as San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) and MV Transportation, offering the service at its operations. Slightly less than one-third reported using a taxi service to supplement their fleets. Of that portion, about one-quarter found it helpful with accommodating demand. These carriers also shared benefits such as scheduling flexibility, meeting on-time performance goals, and serving rural areas.

“Taxis provide operational flexibility for scheduling uneven trip volumes and can help meet OTP goals when used to pick up customers with projected late trips on the day of service,” John Bodnar, ADA project officer, office of MetroAccess Service, Metro, said.

However, some challenges listed were having enough funding for the service, drug and alcohol testing compliance, and, as one carrier put it, “dealing with high risk medical trips such as dialysis centers.”

2014 vehicle buys
Nearly two-thirds of surveyed operators plan to purchase new vehicles next year, up about 10% from last year. The total number of vehicles on order is 829. While one-third of respondents do not plan to buy vehicles in 2014, (Figure 2), one operator reported plans to buy more than 100 vehicles in the upcoming fiscal year, and 7% plan to buy anywhere from 26 to 100 vehicles. The largest number of respondents, however, plan to purchase one to 10 vehicles next year. The top three paratransit vehicle manufacturers those surveyed are looking to buy from are ElDorado National, Champion Bus Co. and Goshen Coach.

Productivity and billing
Of the slightly more than one-half of operators who use contractors to deliver rides the top two contractors they reported working with were MV Transportation and Veolia Transportation. About 60% of respondents reported their contractors billed by the hour, with 40% billing by trip. Only one carrier reported being billed by both hour and trip.

The average billing per trip came out to $21.43. The per-hour average is $37.34. Regarding productivity, carriers that bill per hour average 2.34 passengers, up only a bit from last year, while carriers that bill per trip averaged 2.15 passengers.[PAGEBREAK]

One significant change in this year’s surveyed fleet mix is that vans made up nearly half of all vehicles represented, at 43%, quite a bit more than last year’s reported 7%. Shown: One of the vans used in Miami-Dade Transit’s Specialized Transportation Services.

One significant change in this year’s surveyed fleet mix is that vans made up nearly half of all vehicles represented, at 43%, quite a bit more than last year’s reported 7%. Shown: One of the vans used in Miami-Dade Transit’s Specialized Transportation Services.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents require in-person interviews for eligibility. The average percentage of denial decisions is less than 5%. About two-thirds report denials. Denials experienced as a percentage of trips scheduled is, on average, 1.82%. More than half had no denials as a percentage of trips scheduled.

No-show policies
Nearly all respondents, at 96%, do have a no-show policy. Some reasons operators shared for considering no-show policies included, “to increase percentages,” “since eliminating a previous policy, the number of no-shows has begun to increase,” and “wasted time and fuel.”

Wheelchair use
We added some questions this year to more closely gauge wheelchair use in operators’ systems. The majority of operators, at 58%, responded that less than half of their paratransit riders use wheelchair lifts. Nearly one-third reported that about half use the lifts, and slightly more than 10% said most do. Only one respondent said all ADA riders use the lifts, as well as one who said none use them.

Travel training
About 60% of respondents said they have a travel training program, while 20% do not, but are thinking of creating one, and 20% do not have a travel training program and are not looking into creating one, mainly due to a lack of resources. Reasons in favor of considering a travel training program ranged from aiming to mainstream some riders onto fixed route buses; reduce the number of rides on paratransit; making more riders aware that even though they have disabilities, they can ride regular fixed-route buses; reduce paratransit costs; and open up viable options for the elderly and individuals with disabilities.

“This would allow them to be more independent and save money in the process, to decrease riding cancellations due to passengers overbooking of trips,” one provider added.

Respondents reported, on average, that their travel training programs have been in place for about nine years.

In response to whether the program is being supported in part by any other organizations (nonprofits, senior or disabled advocacy groups, colleges or schools) about 42% said they received such support.

Approximately one-third are supported by nonprofits or receive support from disabled advocacy groups, 14% get support from colleges or universities, about one-fifth cited Federal Transit Administration New Freedom Funds, and nearly 10% are supported by neighborhood or city paratransit programs.

When asked whether the program helped its operation cut costs by moving more riders to its fixed-route system, 61% said it did help. Half of those were able to quantify the amount of savings, reporting an average of 3.38% in savings.

Mike Whitten, executive director, Manchester, N.H.-based Manchester Transit Authority, commented that the system’s paratransit ridership has “definitely decreased,” adding that the June figures show paratransit is “down by 8% so we may be starting to see a plateau.  We attribute the vast majority of this decrease to clients transitioning off paratransit and onto fixed route.”

Two-thirds of providers reported integrating fixed routes with paratransit services, which is about the same as last year’s 70%.

Slightly more than one-third of providers reported adding new technology to their operation, which is on par with last year. About one-fifth implemented scheduling and dispatch software, 15% added or upgraded AVL systems, 12% added IVR call systems and 8% adopted online booking.

Other technological innovations included mobile data terminals [see sidebar on p. 22], installing surveillance cameras on vehicles, new trip scheduling procedures, “brokerage of DAR trips to primary contractor with multiple other transportation companies sub-contracted to perform trips,” sharing metrics with drivers and electronic fare pre-payment.

Concerns and challenges
Recruiting and retention are still by far the top worries for surveyed operators, at 39%. Nearly one-quarter are concerned about customer service, a number that has decreased a bit from last year’s 37%. Another common concern, cited by 16% of respondents, is training. Injury came in at slightly more than 10%. Some other concerns carriers shared were over scheduling, “driver blind spots,” wages, "too much passenger interaction" and the “increasing size of mobility devices.”

Costs and funding far outweighed any other challenges for operators; 40% selected these issues as the biggest challenge they deal with. One operator shared the fact that paratransit service “consumes nearly 50% of the agency’s funding.” 

In second place, one-fifth of operators selected demand. Limited resources, service area size, customer expectations were other common hurdles listed. One respondent replied that, “One of the biggest challenges in providing paratransit service is providing service within policy limits. There are many passengers that expect more from ADA providers, such as extended service times, no negotiation of one-hour scheduling window and additional help beyond the policies. Saying no to such requests often leads to the perception of bad customer service, and being perceived as irresponsible to the ADA community.”

Some less-cited problems included “securement and safety incidents and issues related to mobility devices and oversize passengers,” and “communicating with care providers, especially group homes with multiple staff members.”   

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