Photo Courtesy of Spare

Photo Courtesy of Spare 

Paratransit services are a lifeline for individuals with disabilities who can't use regular public transportation.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first enacted in 1990, it became the guarantor of mobility when other options, like fixed route, fell short. When we think about it this way, really, so much of transportation revolves around equity and inclusion.

But with new modes in place – think demand-responsive transportation (DRT) – and the introduction of modern technology, what lies ahead is an opportunity to enable more riders with diverse needs to utilize the fixed route transit system that’s available today through travel training programs. In the words of a study done by the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), it’s about “developing an eligibility process that stresses abilities rather than limitations”.

That's where conditional eligibility comes in.

What is conditional eligibility?

Conditional eligibility is all about determining who can use paratransit services based on certain conditions or criteria. It's like a special pass for those who need a little extra help getting around. Instead of being eligible all the time, conditional eligibility means you meet specific requirements to access paratransit services when you really need them. 

Eligibility typically falls into three categories: unconditional eligibility (always eligible), temporary eligibility (temporary eligibility due to an injury or surgery), and conditional eligibility (eligible only under certain conditions). Conditions can be related to mobility, distance, or visual impairments and unfamiliar locations.

The challenge with conditional eligibility

The truth is: the sheer amount of criteria means that conditional eligibility is extremely complex and difficult to enforce at the agency level. In fact, a TCRP study revealed that 30 percent of transit agencies reported not using conditional eligibility, meaning that applicants were found either unconditionally eligible or simply not eligible. One of the failings in making conditional eligibility work in practice is that the tech stack isn't there to properly support the policy.

Let’s explore two scenarios:

  1.  A transit agency creates the right eligibility criteria, but struggles to interview people and assess them with technology. In this case, implementation is still not feasible.
  2. A transit agency has mechanisms in place to properly assess an individual, but doesn’t have the right technology to capture route-specific barriers in a system that is incorporated into their scheduling. Enforcement of this program is still not feasible.

Why we need conditional eligibility

Let's face it: there's always a demand for paratransit services, and the costs per trip can be high. So, collectively we've got to make sure we're stressing abilities, rather than limitations when looking to maximize existing fixed-route transit infrastructure.

The concept of conditional eligibility creates a framework for us to get there.

With the right policy and technology, conditional eligibility and travel training programs offer:

  • Greater independence for riders – empowering those with disabilities to gain the skills and confidence to use regular public transportation.
  •  Increased system capacity – by reducing the demand for paratransit services, transit agencies can increase their system capacity and better accommodate the needs of a diverse rider population.
  • Cost savings – by encouraging eligible riders to use regular public transit when possible, agencies can reduce overall paratransit costs and allocate funds more effectively.
  • Reduced environmental impact – encouraging regular public transportation use can help reduce the environmental impact of paratransit services, as fewer specialized vehicles are needed on the road.

Add modern technology in the mix

Transit agencies have traditionally implemented conditional eligibility programs with and without technology for many years. In the absence of technology, these programs that include application, verification and documentation, review, decision, communications, and recertification are implemented manually, relying on paper-based processes and human verification–all of which are prone to error and offer a subpar customer experience.

In recent years, advancements in modern technology have fundamentally changed paratransit services and the way it's delivered. From introducing a better way to introduce same-day paratransit to optimizing routes and vehicles in real-time, agencies are now beginning to tap into technology to streamline and enforce parts of the eligibility process.

In addition to mail and fax, agencies are offering digital application and submission methods such as online portals and smart scanning, thereby reducing paperwork to only when needed. Comprehensive performance reporting tools are also made available so that agencies can monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their programs, driving continuous improvement and innovation. Automated notifications can be created and sent to applicants, informing them of their eligibility status, renewal deadlines, or any changes.

Finally and most importantly, technology helps set up and enforce conditional eligibility. To-date, many agencies set up these programs, but little enforce them, let alone, through automation.

When technology and policy work together, that is when conditional eligibility truly works for everyone. Imagine a rider with mobility impairment who can automatically book trips even if it’s snowing outside. The technology enforces all criteria and automatically identifies if the rider has been travel trained between two locations before presenting this information to the dispatcher. This is the future of transit–where ultimately, transit agencies can enhance efficiency, reduce administrative costs, and provide a more user-friendly experience for applicants throughout the conditional eligibility program.