How the MTA Can Improve Access-a-Ride Service While Cutting Costs

The per-ride cost of New York's paratransit service far outpaces those of other cities. Image: Citizens Budget Commission of NY
The cost per trip of the MTA’s paratransit service is staggering. Table: Citizens Budget Commission of NY

For customers, the price of a trip on Access-A-Ride, the MTA’s service for New Yorkers with disabilities, is the same as a subway fare. But for the MTA, the cost of providing the service is much higher. At $72.65 per trip (the cost has risen since 2014, when the figures for the above table were compiled), Access-A-Ride is the most expensive paratransit system to operate in the nation. The high costs of the program eat into the MTA’s ability to provide subway and bus service.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The MTA can provide service for passengers with disabilities at much lower cost while improving the customer experience, according to a new report by the Citizens Budget Commission with support from TransitCenter [PDF].

The MTA began operating Access-A-Ride in the early 1990s, taking over a city program created after the Americans with Disabilities Act required “door-to-destination” service for people unable to access fixed-route subway and bus lines. As Access-a-Ride use grew in the first decade of the 2000s, costs more than doubled.

When the recession took out a big chunk of MTA revenues, the agency took steps to rein in Access-A-Ride costs by renegotiating contracts, tightening eligibility requirements, and increasing the use of taxis and livery vehicles instead of large vans. While the program isn’t growing as fast as it was a few years ago, the cost per trip continues to escalate.

The cost of Access-A-Ride has ballooned since its introduction in the early 1990s. Image: Citizens Budget Commission of NY
The cost of Access-A-Ride ballooned in the first decade of the millennium. Image: Citizens Budget Commission of NY

The CBC report, “Access-A-ride: Ways to Do the Right Thing More Efficiently,” lays out strategies to reduce paratransit expenses by 40 percent, in part by building on the success of recent initiatives. The commission’s recommendations fall under three categories: lowering the cost per trip, better managing demand, and shifting the source of revenue away from the MTA and the city.

Lower the Cost Per Trip

In 2015, the cost per Access-A-Ride trip was the highest its ever been. Image: Citizens Budget Commission of NY
The cost per Access-A-Ride trip has been rising again the past few years. Image: Citizens Budget Commission of NY

The biggest opportunity to cut the cost of each trip entails reducing the share of rides provide by dedicated service carriers operating specially-equipped Access-A-Ride vehicles.

More than half of Access-A-Ride trips are “ambulatory” — i.e. for people who are able to walk to, enter, and exit vehicles without assistance. Vehicles with special equipment are not necessary for these trips. CBC estimates the MTA could save $126 million annually by shifting ambulatory trips to its broker car service program, which contracts with livery companies to dispatch vehicles for paratransit riders.

In addition, shifting all trips within the Manhattan “hail zone” (below 110th Street on the west side and below 96th Street on the east side) to yellow cabs, Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand e-hail services could save $28 million annually. That would also improve the customer experience, letting riders reserve sme-day trips, rather than a day in advance as the current system requires. CBC recommends that the MTA work with the Taxi and Limousine Commission to expand the wheelchair-accessible fleet of for-hire vehicles.

An overhaul of the MTA’s contracting system would yield savings of $30 million. By contracting with a single, full-service broker to handle all relationships with vehicle providers, the MTA could streamline management of Access-A-Ride, encourage more competitive bidding, and lower administrative costs.

Better Manage Demand

Since 2002, the number of paratransit trips has grown at five times the rate of subway ridership, according to the report. The MTA projects that number to continue to rise at an annual rate of 6.5 percent.

Instead, the MTA should seek to maintain the 2015 trip volume, the CBC advises. The most effective way to do that would be to increase fares. Agencies are permitted to set the price of a paratransit ride at twice the price of a normal transit ride, but the MTA charges no premium — its $2.75 paratransit fare is much lower than that of other cities. Bringing the MTA’s paratransit fare in line with the fare in other cities could reduce the net cost of the program $86 million annually; maxing out the fare would reduce it by $184 million.

Separately, the MTA could encourage Access-A-Ride enrollees to use trains and buses. The MTA already provides free Metrocards to Access-A-Ride customers who request them, but this program has not been widely-publicized and is also slated for a roll-back to a mere half-price discount. The CBC argues that a well-publicized yet fraud-proofed version of the program could reduce the number of Access-A-Ride trips by 5 percent, yielding savings of $22 million annually.

Encouraging the use of “feeder service,” which connects users to ADA-accessible train and bus stops, would reduce the number of trips taken while cutting the cost of trips completed. According to the report, feeder service is offered for only 1 percent of trip requests today. Increasing that to 5 percent would save another $20 million.

Shift the Revenue Mix

aar funding edit
The cost of Access-A-Ride to the MTA and the city is projected to rise significantly. Image: Citizens Budget Commission of NY

The vast majority of Access-A-Ride’s funding comes from the MTA and the city of New York — and the MTA expects those costs to increase significantly in the next few years. The report proposes possible savings of $14 million from increasing the state’s Medicaid transit subsidy, which currently only covers the rider’s fare, not the actual cost of providing the trip.

  • dave “paco” abraham

    I’ve ridden in Access A Ride vans before and firsthand seen problems at every end of the system. The most glaring one for me was the amount of work it puts upon the driver in that it makes him or her in charge of both driving the van, scoping out a parking spot for the large van, and operating the wheelchair lift and securing the wheelchair into the floor of the van. It’s more than a five minute procedure to secure a wheelchair when done properly… and longer when there is no nearby curb cut for a wheelchair to even get to the van or the van has to double park because no loading zones are available. Things would be more efficient If the MTA worked better with DOT, and the DOT were more willing to dedicate curbside load zones, and the NYPD would actually enforce them. But those are a lot of ‘ifs’….

  • Larry Littlefield

    The ADA requires transit agencies to provide door to door service for handicapped people, at the expense of general transit service in cities.

    Does it require auto companies to provide door to door service for handicapped people in suburbs, at the expense of drivers?

  • FYI…

    “It is possible that a disability is the cause of a handicap. For example, if a person has a disability that prevents them from being able to move their legs, it may result in a handicap in driving.

    Disabled people do not have to be handicapped, especially if they can find a way around their disability. For example, braille for the visually impaired or wheel chairs for those who cannot walk.”
    http://www.diffen.com/difference/Disability_vs_Handicap

  • JudenChino

    There’s a blind dude who uses my local Bay Ridge Branch stop on the reg during the morning rush. Not sure how he does it (like, he’s got a cane and super good hearing I imagine). But mad respect for him.

  • Vooch

    a couple of months ago, I met a older massively obese women at the UWS trader joes. She was bitching and moaning about her access-a-ride driver. She lived in The Bronx and expected taxpayers to fund her grocery shopping at Trader Joes at 72nd & Broadway UWS

  • Joe R.

    Assuming the ADA lets us, stuff like this is exactly why we need to reject certain types of trips. In fact, it’s probably more cost effective to reject any type of shopping trip on the premise that it costs less for the city to pay for delivery of things like groceries. Nearly everything else can be bought online from places like Amazon (and plenty of able-bodied people do this just to avoid going to a brick and mortar store). Keep the rides for things like medical appointments, education, trips to city agencies if needed, and so forth. Let family members or friends take care of the person’s recreational needs.

    Long term, we need to make more of the city’s mass transit system accessible so the need for paratransit vanishes. If the tab for doing this is only in the single digit billions, why isn’t the MTA pursuing it?

    Another interesting thing is technology will certainly allow severely disabled people more mobility in the future, again lessening the need for paratransit:

    http://www.bostondynamics.com/robot_bigdog.html

    Imagine a “walking” chair for those currently using a wheelchair based on technology like this? That basically obviates the need for special accommodations.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right. That comment and the one above demonstrate the conundrum.

    So you raise fares and cut service to improve access a ride. Subways and buses get worse.

    Someone “savvy” like that Trader Joe’s woman is chatting with the neighbors. Why are you still stuck in crappy mass transit? Just pay $100 to Dr. So and So (the same guy who does disability pension recommendations for NYC police and fire) and you get something like a limo ride for the same price?

    Word gets around. More cuts to the subway and bus. Worse service. More people feel justified going to ADA. “They’re ripping us off anyway, so let’s fight back.” Etc.

    Meanwhile, other legitimately handicapped people who feel less entitled make do, along with the rest of us.

  • Joe R.

    It may make sense for cities to press the federal government to revisit these ADA requirements (or to at least fund them). The ADA was well-meaning, but it’s had many unintended consequences. It’s easy enough to add things like ramps (which also benefit able-bodied people with carriages or shopping carts) but paratransit and elevators at subway stations are where things get very costly.

    And like you mentioned, the system as it exists is wide open to abuse.

  • Joe R.

    The irony here is there’s a large contingent of people with truly horrible disabilities who have so much pride and independence that they’ll find a way to get around without special accommodations. And then you have people like Vooch mentioned above who milk the system. Maybe we should have some of the proud disabled people in charge of the applications process for Access-A-Ride. They would know better than anyone how to weed out those who really need it versus those who are looking for what amounts to a taxpayer-subsidized taxi service.

  • Andrew

    Assuming the ADA lets us, stuff like this is exactly why we need to reject certain types of trips.

    ADA mandates paratransit service as a substitute for fixed-route transit service for those unable to use fixed-route transit service. It cannot discriminate by purpose any more than a fixed-route transit service can discriminate by purpose.

    I have plenty of concerns with ADA requirements, but this requirement is perfectly reasonable.

  • DollopMolly

    There are always quite a few Access-A-Ride vehicles at the Costco in Astoria.

  • Vooch

    Joe,

    A more pressing issue might be the subject of recurrent driving exams with some teeth. I recently drove about 1/2 hour with my 82 year old Mom. I was terrified. She drove like a drunk.

    it’s not just elderly, it’s a majority of drivers.

    How do we create recurrent driving exams with teeth ?

  • Joe R.

    My mom reached that point by her early 70s. Thankfully she stopped driving not long after. Towards the end she tended to drift all over, as well as not have any sense of direction. She was literally lost on streets in the neighborhood.

    We can thank the AARP for the lack of rigorous retesting of older drivers. It’s frightening to think my mom can still technically drive legally.

  • IMS

    Can someone answer the question As to WHY seniors have to get RE-VAlIDATED when their card expires? It’s not like they are getting younger or their health getting any better. Because of this my Mother let her card expire due to the stupidity of politics.

  • Elizabeth F

    Paratransit is no picnic. You have to arrange rides ONE DAY in advance, and they are often late.

  • neroden

    These are stupid answers.

    Step one: require that all newly purchased taxicabs *and* all newly-licensed rideshare vehicles in the entire city be wheelchair accessible. Ban non-wheelchair-accessible for-hire vehicles — London did this decades ago. Even in LA nearly all the taxis are wheelchair-accessible vans.

    Everyone non-ambulatory who can afford it will switch from Access-A-Ride to taxis because it’s so much more convenient. Access-A-Ride can then responsibly use taxis for dispatch, which they can’t right now because the taxis aren’t accessible.

    Step two: make the damn subway stations accessible when they’re being renovated anyway, *like the ADA law expected them to*. The MTA could have done this with mutiple entire elevated lines in Brooklyn, and they didn’t because they’re scofflaws.

  • neroden

    “Long term, we need to make more of the city’s mass transit system accessible so the need for paratransit vanishes. If the tab for doing this is only in the single digit billions, why isn’t the MTA pursuing it?”

    Because the MTA is run by bigots who would rather soak the taxpayer than help disabled people; it’s really the only explanation.

    NYC is an extreme outlier here. *Every other city in the US* is moving to 100% accessible mass transit, including ancient systems such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and even *Cleveland* which has no money at all.

  • neroden

    Handicapped parking spaces do not generally get abused much if (a) they’re enforced, and (b) they’re not free. Handicapped people need spaces close to the door, they don’t need free parking.

    If you make the handicapped spaces free when other spaces aren’t (as they do in California), the scammers *swarm* the handicapped parking spaces.

    The big problem for paratransit in NYC is that the taxis aren’t accessible. London (UK) made their taxis accessible in the EARLY 1990s, and even though the Tube is mostly still inaccessible, you don’t hear a lot of paratransit demands, because people in wheelchairs *can call a taxi*.

    NYC had to be sued *four times* before they agreed to even make *half* of the taxis accessible and they haven’t done it yet.

  • neroden

    Nobody uses paratransit if they can possibly avoid it. It has to be scheduled a day in advance, it’s usually late, it eats your entire day.

    The long-term solution is to make the subway accessible.

    The short-term solution is to make the taxis accessible.

    NYC has been kicking and screaming trying to do neither. It’s *disgusting*. It’s discrimation. It’s bigotry.

    London (UK) taxis were 100% accessible in *1989*. New York City is a DISGRACE.

    http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2012/08/in-londons-taxi-of-tomorrow-wheelchair-users-can-ride-too-000000

  • Joe R.

    Seeing the MTA’s attitude with other projects, it’s probably no surprise they’re dragging their feet here. In general they either have a “can’t do” or “it’ll take decades” mentality with every single big project. In the meantime, the taxpayer is being soaked for half a billion a year to provide service which amounts to a joke. You have to call the day before. I’ve heard the vans usually arrive hours after they’re scheduled to. A trip of a few miles ends up being an all day affair. Besides that, the Access-A-Ride vans have among the worst exhaust fumes I’ve ever smelled, plus the drivers are incompetent. I doubt the service would even pass muster in a third world country but it’s considered acceptable in NYC.

  • Larry Littlefield

    One thing to remember — even if the subway was fully accessible, paratransit would not go away. People would still have the right to transit from their origin/destination to the transit stop.

  • Miles Bader

    OTOH, London had the advantage of starting out with a standard taxi design that could easily accomodate a family of five, all their friends, all their luggage, their pets, their living room furniture, and probably their car all in the back at the same time. And there’d still be enough empty legroom left to get in a game of golf.

    A mere wheelchair is child’s play for a black cab….

    NYC night have gone somewhat in that direction, but those involved were apparently more interested in getting kickbacks from Nissan.

  • The Mouse

    I just heard on Howard Stern that High Pitched Erik (who is just obese) has this type of program (which made me look it up, as I never heard of it). So even young “disabled” able bodied fatsos get this free service at taxpayer expense. SMH. I don’t mind helping out the elderly, as very few people have respect for them these days (I am right-leaning politically, but not cruel), but for young, able bodied lazy-ass tools? I don’t think so!!! That is why this program (as most social services do) needs accountability and tighter stringent guidelines as to what qualifies as “disabled”. Being fat is self-inflicting…. being old is not. We shouldn’t have to subsidize obesity. Take some self-responsibility and go on a friggin’ diet or start walking to your destination.

  • It is not possible to retrofit existing stations for accessibility. Of course they all should have been built with the needs of disabled passengers in mind; but in fact they were not, as society’s awareness of this issue was not as advanced at the time when our subway was built.

    All new construction (including the Second Avenue subway) is fully ADA-compliant.

  • All disabled people should be able to use public transit (which inherently means taxpsyer-subsidised transit) for whatever purpose they wish, even for frivolous purposes — just as any non-disabled person can do.

    But it would make more sense and cost a lot less to simply allow disabled people to have subsidised cab rides with ordinary taxis or livery services (many of which have vans that can accommodate wheelchairs), instead of relegating this class of passengers to the terribly user-unfriendly netherworld of Access-a-Ride.

    (Incidentally, from the point of view of a bicyclist, Access-a-Ride drivers are the absolute worst — more clueless than the average idiot car driver, more reckless than cabbies, and pushier than truck drivers. Getting rid of this “service” would help not only disabled people but the entire population.)

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