A time for innovation in para-transit services

30 March 2022

The Importance of a quality transportation system cannot be overstated. Our highway system, railroads and airports are essential to economic growth and development and also to the simplistic purpose of moving people from place to place. As the next election approaches, it is important that we foster an effective dialogue with our public officials regarding the under-represented issue of transportation and those being left behind by the current system, particularly those with disabilities.

While, more than a third of the country simply hails a car through a transportation network company (TNC) such as Uber or Lyft with the push of a button to travel quickly and at minimal cost, many members of the disability community are stuck in the position of having to schedule rides days or even weeks in advance with little to no assurance of punctuality and a high cost if they require para-transit services.

While we need to continue to move forward by finding innovative solutions that address transportation disparities, we shouldn’t settle for solutions that are leaving people behind. As it stands, the vehicles of a transportation network company and accommodating vehicles are not available and para-transit is expensive and hard to plan for. Partnerships with TNCs are probably not ideal long term answer but the technology and existing systems can be used in development of more sustainable answers.

State, counties and municipalities basically have two viable options in providing ride share services to individuals with disabilities that meet accessibility regulations and are available via smart phone.

The first choice is simply to develop regulations that mandate a certain percentage of a TNCs vehicle fleet meet federal accessibility standards. The second is for the state to leverage technologies similar to those used by Uber and Lyft to provide a comparable option.

While TNCs and taxi companies differ in business structure, they both provide the same type of on-demand service from point A to point B. Many taxi companies have even rolled out GPS tracking to keep up with competition from companies like Lyft. Their vehicles are also much more likely to be accessible.

Noah McCourt

This kind of competition also provides an opportunity for state and local government agencies to benefit off of the technology developed and deployed by TNCs to provide service to people with disabilities.

It is the 21st century and now is the optimal time for public agencies to implement a smartphone app tracking and payment system coupled with on-demand service. The technology is already developed, and it is abundantly evident that there is a need for the service.

Agencies could roll out the service in pieces, beginning with the ability to track your ride online, which would eliminate the long wait times associated with para-transit services

Naturally, developing and providing this type of service will come at a cost.

Most TNCs subsidize their trips to keep rides cheap enough to balance the need to maintain a solid customer base, while paying drivers enough to maintain a large fleet. These subsidies come straight out of the pockets of private companies.

Each ride on public transit agency para-transit is subsidized by tax dollars, adding cost to the population as a whole. Even with the public subsidies, para-transit rides cost more than the typical bus fare.

Public agencies would be able to fill more vehicles to higher capacity with carpooling models. By utilizing the existing fleet more efficiently they can provide faster service, thus improving service quality.

Extra seats in vehicles could also be used to pick up carpool customers who do not require accessible vehicles, but who are traveling along similar routes.

We live in an era of innovation where we have the potential to change systems and find real solutions to transportation disparities but before we move forward, we need to stop and contemplate how we are going to use modern day technology to improve access to transportation options.

TNCs are a very plausible option with real-time information and mobile ride hailing and payment options, and that there is a demand for them. But effective policy is inclusive of everyone and it’s time to include the disability community be given a seat at the table in the development of such policies

Noah McCourt is an autistic self-advocate and the founder and executive director of the Minnesota Disability Justice Network. He has served in various policymaking roles, including the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and the Board of the Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities at the University of Cincinnati.

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