Today, the delivery of paratransit service is drastically different than what it was a year ago — thanks to the pandemic. Besides a major drop in ridership, paratransit providers have made substantive changes to policy enforcement, as programs continue working to protect the safety and wellbeing of riders and drivers while still complying with ADA regulations. At the same time, providers are looking to expand their options for serving rider mobility needs, well beyond the traditional paratransit model.
Together, the appetite for innovation and the need for more accessible services has resulted in new ways to prioritize safety and compliance all while employing a well-trained, balanced workforce.
Increasing Support Services
Down in Jacksonville, Fla., the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had heightened effects on paratransit operations. Between FY 2019 (pre-COVID) and FY 2020, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s (JTA’s) annual paratransit ridership dropped from nearly 370,000 riders to 264,000.
“Ridership with our paratransit services, like fixed-routes, dipped when local lockdowns and closures peaked over [last] summer — at one point by 60%,” says David Cawton, JTA’s communications director. “With sharp declines in ridership, it was important for us to work with our paratransit contractor [MV Transportation] to ensure they could maintain staffing levels and that we could identify ways to redeploy those vehicles and employees to assist in other ways.”
Some of those ways included redeploying JTA’s unused paratransit vehicles and employees to assist in COVID-19-related efforts.
During spring of 2020, JTA used its 98-vehicle paratransit fleet and staff to help the City of Jacksonville distribute close to 65,000 meals to 10 senior and public housing facilities.
“We also helped low-income residents with free rides to public libraries so they could access computers to file for unemployment and other COVID-19 benefits offered locally and by the federal and state governments,” Cawton added.
Today, the agency’s paratransit fleet is helping those passengers get to COVID-19 vaccination sites for free through JTA’s Ride to Health program.
In March 2021, the agency launched a similar program, called Wellness on Wheels, in partnership with Agape Family Health, an independent healthcare provider, to provide mobile vaccination clinics for the Jacksonville community. As part of the program, which is expected to run through at least this summer, JTA vehicles travel to different locations each day, mainly senior or public housing facilities, located in underserved areas of Jacksonville.
“We initially converted two 40-foot fixed-route buses into mobile clinics and have since converted two more due to increased demand and vaccine supplies,” Cawton says. “To our knowledge, this is the first and only service being provided by a public transportation agency in Florida.”
Since the program’s inception, Wellness on Wheels has helped more than 1,700 people receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Agape’s initial target was to administer about 500 vaccines each week, according to Cawton.
“Like many communities across the country, minority and low-income populations in Jacksonville have not been vaccinated at the same rate as other demographics,” he says. “Sometimes that is due to apprehension, but often we’ve found that it comes down to access. By bringing the vaccine to these neighborhoods and housing facilities, we are removing a barrier. These residents can speak directly to healthcare professionals who can answer their questions, provide them with facts about COVID-19 vaccines, and in turn, dispel some of the myths or fears they may have.”
In addition to that, JTA is providing all its customers with a free one-day bus pass they can use anytime to get to one of the many vaccination sites in Jacksonville.
The transit agency, like many others, is also putting the needs of its passengers and employees first by requiring face masks for everyone onboard its vehicles and enhancing its cleaning efforts, using commercial grade disinfectant each night and during mid-day service.
Because the agency’s paratransit service, Connexion, focuses on providing shared rides, JTA has also implemented social distancing protocols to limit vehicle capacity.
“The increased cleaning and need for PPE [personal protective equipment] are going to be part of [JTA’s] operations, at least for the foreseeable future,” Cawton notes. “Long term, we will continue to work with our contractor to identify other uses for employees and vehicles should we face another event that triggers reduced service or ridership.”
Another opportunity for growth, he points out, is JTA’s premium paratransit service, Connexion Plus, which was launched in 2019 with adaptive transportation network company (TNC) UZURV. The service, which offers private, direct trips to riders for medical appointments and other errands, is designed to provide more flexibility in scheduling and independence for those who may be weary of shared public transit. Cawton says the cost of rides for this service varies but begin at $6 for a trip of 15 miles or less.
Reaping the Benefits of Partnerships
While some agencies have opted to partner with ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft to assist in their paratransit offerings during the height of the pandemic, agencies like JTA and St. Lucie County Transit Division in Florida have used their standing partnerships with UZURV to their advantage.
In November 2020, the St. Lucie County Transit Division teamed up with the Virginia-based TNC for a pilot program, funded by the Florida Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged (CTD), to increase the region’s mobility options for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The program, which is an extension of St. Lucie’s previous Advantage Ride service, provides residents access to job training, employment, healthcare, and other activities in the Treasure Coast, enhancing the agency’s regional connectivity and cross-county mobility through daily on-demand, pre-scheduled trips, according to Steve Holmes, VP of UZURV's southeast region.
“Traditional paratransit offerings rarely provide cross-county, direct, private trips to riders without a premium price tag,” he says. “In the midst of the pandemic, with fewer people willing to use the shared bus/ride paratransit services, that problem became more widespread and is one of the reasons why the Advantage Ride program came to fruition.”
Ultimately, the benefit of the cross-county element is supplying riders with a larger region in which to travel at more affordable rates and substantially reduced wait times.
“On average, travel time for each trip is about 19 minutes, with a 99.8% on time arrival rate,” Holmes adds.
Another key difference between the agency’s pilot with UZURV and its previous Advantage Ride program is the added partnership with the Senior Resource Association (SRA) of Indian River County, a neighboring CTC that provides rides for senior citizens in the area who require trip assistance. (Last year, the SRA also received funding from the Florida CTD to enhance its services.)
“We’re so appreciative of this partnership because the SRA is now somewhat of a clearinghouse to serve riders in our program,” says Murriah Dekle, director of the St. Lucie County Transit Division. “When I say clearinghouse, what I mean is that the individual calls the SRA [when they want to schedule a ride] and then the association is in touch with them for the on-demand service. This really helps in saving more dollars for the entire region.”
So far, average costs per ride are around $30.35, which breaks down to about $3.36 per revenue mile.
“From a paratransit standpoint, that is an excellent cost,” Dekle says. “The door-to-door trips are the most costly, but what we recently did when we partnered with the SRA was we also factored in the ability to compensate them for administration of the grants and for that kind of one-stop shop in dispatching the trips. If UZURV, for example, had too many trips and not enough drivers, they would schedule with some other vendors in the area just to bring it all together.”
Overall, she says, costs are much lower than the agency’s total trip costs and what it receives in reimbursement from the Florida CTD grant.
The reduced trip costs have also had a domino effect on rider satisfaction.
“I think from a customer’s perspective this shows people are regaining confidence in our service,” Dekle notes. “The customer centric model that this pilot has given us, has allowed us to prove to our customers that we are doing a good job at scheduling and ensuring a lot of people do have their standing reservations.”
As of press time, St. Lucie has completed over 2,600 trips in the first five months of launching its expanded Advantage Ride program. Of those trips, nearly 27% have been cross county.
Even though CTD funding for the pilot is expected to end on June 30, 2021, UZURV and St. Lucie both agree that this is just the beginning of their growing partnership.
“We’ve seen essentially nothing but success with this program and this partnership, and we’re really excited to see the pilot grow,” UZURV’s Holmes says. “I know every single month here at UZURV we're celebrating more trust and more stories from our riders and our drivers. So, we continue to hope that this will change to fit into what is needed within the area, or stay the same, whatever is best for the riders in the community.”
To track the program’s progress, St. Lucie County has contracted with the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa to conduct an analysis of the program through customer satisfaction surveys.
“In total, with our entire public transportation network here in St. Lucie County, we provide over 10,000 trips a week. And so, of course, we are going to experience a few complaints here or there, but for the most part, we have noticed that our trend has been more compliments than complaints for the past several months,” Dekle says. “That’s what I anticipate for this program, and of course, we’re always open to feedback for how to improve because those little details are what truly make a difference.”