The same kinds of technology that made Uber a household word are transforming paratransit to offer safe modes of transportation for people with disabilities. Auto Futures talks with industry innovators, researchers and activists to discover the future of paratransit.
Paratransit in the U.S. is mandated by the American Disabilities Act. It requires public transit agencies that provide fixed-route service to provide ‘complementary paratransit’ service to people with disabilities who cannot use the fixed-route because of a disability. The rules are very complicated and allow for long wait times. For people with disabilities, travelling between transit agencies can be gruelling.
Usually, with paratransit, the rider has to book a ride in advance and can be on the phone for twenty minutes. If the trip is between agencies there may have to be a three-party conference call to connect them and make a route, says Valerie Lefler, Executive Director, Feonix Mobility Rising.
“We assist transit agencies with technology integration. Usually in public transportation and the mobility space paratransit gets left on the side,” says Lefler who is creating a software agnostic system to work with different agencies in the Detroit area.
She says it cuts down the intake and cancellation time incredibly. The riders can book and cancel rides through an app that was tested by Menlo Innovation for compatibility with screen readers for users who are blind. The system can show Google data so that the transit agencies can visualise the data.
Long booking wait times can be very stressful for people with disabilities who have children. In a case where someone’s child had a fever and a broken appendage. The person using the agency had to wait two days to take the child with a fever to the doctor, says Lefler.
So, why don’t people with disabilities use Uber or Lyft rideshare for transportation? “Rideshare is wonderful for some people but it’s not everywhere. It’s usually only in highly populated urban areas, not rural areas. They don’t have the level of support needed,” says Lefler, “I hope that paratransit becomes more like on-demand mobility for all people.”
Lifts in Mobility for Seniors
John Doan, founder of Mobility 4 All, was concerned when his mother was getting older and his brother with a disability needed rides. He drove for Lyft for a while to see how it worked then created the Mobility 4 All service in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis–Saint Paul) Minnesota that provides rides for seniors.
“Mobility 4 All is a platform to match seniors with fully-vetted care drivers who are independent contractors,” says Doan. The drivers receive background checks and are paid per ride with a mileage bonus.
“I look at it as rideshare as the go-to-bar crowd while our company is the go-to-church crowd. Uber and Lyft are curb-to-curb and we are door-to-door. We do a ride service mainly servicing people who are over 65 years old and service that is a flat rate and there is no surge pricing,” says Doan.
Doan says the drivers are assigned to senior living communities and get to know their riders. The drivers use an app while the riders call for ride requests.
Recently, Mobility 4 All partnered with Lyft for supplemental paratransit service. They will provide the drivers for passengers in wheelchairs for augmented optional on-demand services.
Alternative Mobility Options
Some transit agencies have partnered with Uber or Lyft to provide subsidised paratransit rides however there is no consensus of cost savings or viability.
“There will always be a need for paratransit. However the cost of paratransit is very expensive and not sustainable for transit agencies who are currently trying to find alternative mobility options. Transit agencies are partnering with other modes, other transportation providers and Transportation Network Companies (TNC) to provide rides for people with disabilities and older adults,” says Jordana Maisel, Director, Research Activities, University at Buffalo’s (UB) Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA).
Maisel is interviewing transit agencies and paratransit riders to gauge their reactions to the different services. There are different solutions all over the country depending on the community.
“There is no one easy solution for every agency because there is a shortage of wheelchair accessible vehicles. There is no consistency on what transit agencies need,” says Maisel.
Spare Tech Helps Co-Mingle Transport
Technology is providing hope on the road to improved paratransit. Spare is a mobility platform that enables communities to create integrated mobility services and ride-hailing with on-demand responses, says Josh Andrews, co-founder and COO of Spare, who notes that TNCs have changed the way people look at transportation
“To make the best mobility available to everyone, Spare has created an all transportation ecosystem technology platform,” says Andrews.
Often paratransit and cities have extra vehicles that are not being used all the time. There are spare seats that could be used in these vehicles. Spare creates efficiency with software to enable mobility to better predict rides and planning for the cities. Spare helps paratransit services to offer more efficient on-demand services and micro-transit.
Spare expanded into paratransit in the U.S. and is helping in other parts of the world to co-mingle micro-transit, last-mile and paratransit.
Spare technology also opens up alternative opportunities for the transit agencies says, Andrews. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Spare was able to repurpose vehicles where they were most needed. On the Spanish island of Mallorca, Spare provided the necessary platform for the transportation of essential workers to get to hospitals.
Another Spare example is in the city of Oslo, Norway, a service for elderly riders called Pink Busses from Aldersvennlig Transport. The service created a community of people who were enjoying their bus rides. In Dallas, Spare is integrating paratransit with all the other services available and meets the agency’s goals of five to ten-minute windows.
“We enable transit agencies to go from analogue to digital and do the shift with an API providing better service, reviews and productivity,” says Andrews.
On-Demand Technology Success Story
Spare’s transformation of transportation in Lincoln, Nebraska provided much-needed transportation for the blind community in the area.
“Paratransit does not take into consideration people with disabilities with children,” says public policy consultant, Stacy Cervenka. Both Cervenka and her husband are blind. Before going to work, if they need to take their child to childcare using paratransit, they would have to wait 90 minutes before the next ride, therefore, it would take more than an hour and a half to get to work.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, City of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities, StarTran changed their fixed routes and created a flex on-demand service called VANLINK. The service uses accessible vehicles and bookings powered by the Spare platform.
“Everyone in the blind community in Lincoln is amazed and grateful for VANLINK because it’s very reliable,” says Cervenka, ”Riders book rides through an app and vans arrive very quickly. It’s easy to use and it makes sense to use it.”
Cervenka says using rideshare services such as Uber or Lyft are more expensive and are in passenger vehicles. When travelling with a child, blind parents have to carry a child seat with them and install the child seat in the passenger vehicle.
Paratransit is probably the most important audience for autonomous vehicles.
When Lefler heard of Cervenka’s flex ride solution and how it helped with the pain points for people with disabilities to drop children off at childcare, she said, “We have to count our blessings and be grateful for some of the innovation that is happening in the middle of the Covid-turmoil. It’s pushing us as transit agency leaders to know the box is gone. The crisis revealed the true mission of mass transit is public service.”
“In the future, we would like an effective way to get on-demand reasonably-priced transportation that would enable people with disabilities to make a stop for either childcare, schools or to pick up a prescription,” says Cervenka.
“I see the future of paratransit as happening as a combination of mobility-as-service and self-driving cars. Paratransit is probably the most important audience for autonomous vehicles. Tech companies need to do their due diligence with technology with universal design upfront instead of retrofitting the vehicles as an afterthought and think about paratransit at the front end,” says Doan