Moving Transportation and Technology Away from Ableism

While one-third of the U.S. population (and counting) has grown accustomed to hailing an Uber or a Lyft to get around quickly and safely at a low cost, many members of the disability community are still forced to schedule rides days in advance with low arrival time reliability and medium to high cost when they require paratransit services.

Many agencies require individuals to apply in-person for access to paratransit services. Sometimes these locations are not easily accessible – especially without access to said paratransit service – and pose any number of other obstacles, such as broken sidewalks, freight elevators, or minimal operating hours. And, in addition to the difficulties of applying for paratransit service, people with disabilities who use underground or elevated train systems encounter smelly, dirty, and unreliable elevators on both ends of their public transit trips.

While local governments and public agencies need to move forward with new technologies, they must not do so at the expense of leaving some citizens behind without equal transportation options. As it stands, people who use mobility aids such as motorized wheelchairs are rarely able to access transportation options like transportation network company (TNC) services, because the vehicles are not accommodating and accommodating vehicles are not available.

Paratransit is expensive and logistically difficult to plan for, and simply setting up partnerships between public transit agencies and the financially unsustainable TNCs is probably not the optimal solution. However, agencies should begin harnessing the existing technology of on-demand ride hailing capabilities using smart phones with real-time tracking and automated payments to provide equal service to all people – including those whose mobility aids limit the vehicles they can ride in.

Governments have two options to provide equal on-demand services that are accessible by smartphone to people with disabilities who require modified vehicles. They can either (a) establish policies requiring TNCs to maintain a certain number or percent of accessible vehicles operating in their on-road fleet at all times, or (b) leverage technologies similar to those used by TNCs to provide comparable services. Better yet, they could even do both.

While TNCs and private taxi companies differ in business structure, they provide essentially the same transportation service: moving people on-demand from point-to-point with the ability to track vehicles in real-time. Many taxi companies have even rolled out GPS tracking and hailing apps to keep up with TNC competition, and also have much larger proportions of their fleet composed of accessible vehicles. The confluence of these trends means that governments can extend the benefits of the technology developed and deployed by TNCs to provide service to people with disabilities by requiring a certain percentage the of the on-road fleet and geographic distribution to accommodate people with mobility aids.

Now is the time for public transit agencies to implement a smartphone app tracking and payment system coupled with on-demand service. The technology is already developed, many paratransit fleets are already equipped with GPS capabilities, and it is clear that there is demand for the service. Agencies could roll out the service in pieces, beginning with the ability to track your ride online or through an app. This means that users don’t have to wait outside for long periods of time – especially in the heat, rain, or other unpleasant conditions – for a scheduled paratransit vehicle that is often at least a quarter hour late (although, since standard windows are 30 minutes, this would not be considered “late”).

Providing additional service to all people will of course come at a cost. Most TNCs subsidize trips to give passengers very cheap rides and maintain a customer base –while also paying drivers enough to maintain a large fleet of available drivers and speedy service. These subsidies come straight out of the pockets of private companies such as Uber and Lyft. These billionaire companies should be willing to subsidize transportation for all users, including those with disabilities, not just the able-bodied population.

Meanwhile, each ride on public transit agency paratransit is subsidized by tax dollars, adding cost to the population as a whole. Even with the public subsidies, paratransit rides almost always cost more than a standard bus or train fare for the users. Agencies would be able to fill more vehicles to higher capacity with carpooling models (similar to UberPOOL and Lyft Line) by utilizing the existing fleet more efficiently while providing on-demand services, as more people would use paratransit if it provided trackable and on-demand service – thereby improving the quality of service. Empty space in those vehicles could also be used to pick up carpool customers who do not require specialized vehicles, but who are traveling along similar routes. This would increase the occupancy of each vehicle and therefore increase the cost recovery for the agency for each individual ride.

Currently, many public agencies are experimenting with public-private partnerships (P3s). Transit agencies across the country are partnering with TNCs to provide additional connectivity within their network. While P3s are often an effective method for harnessing private sector investment and technological innovation to enhance public sector operations, the lack of a clear profit model for improving paratransit suggests that it is a poor candidate for a P3 structure.

New technologies have the potential to revolutionize transportation systems and increase efficiency. But before jumping ahead, we need to reevaluate where we are now and use existing technologies to address long-existing challenges in mobility equity and accessibility.

TNCs have proven the viability of providing on-demand transportation services with real-time information and mobile ride hailing and payment options, and that there is a demand for them. But mobility should not be guided by ableism – it’s time for all people to have access to innovative transportation options.

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