NYC Will Try Out Taxis to Provide Access-A-Ride Service

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The Access-A-Ride program, which serves New Yorkers who can't use subways and buses, has been eating up an increasingly large chunk of the MTA budget. A new pilot program announced today could help bend this curve. Graph: Office of the State Comptroller

In a bid to cut costs and improve transit service for New Yorkers with disabilities, the MTA and the Taxi and Limousine Commission will pilot a program to have yellow cabs provide Access-A-Ride service. The program could benefit everyone who rides subways and buses too — if it proves effective at curbing the cost of Access-A-Ride, the federally-mandated service which has been eating up an increasingly large portion of the MTA’s budget and putting strain on other aspects of the transit system.

Photo: bitchcakesny/Flickr
About 75 percent of Access-A-Ride customers don't need to travel in lift-equipped vans, according to the MTA. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/bitchcakes/4279613101/##bitchcakesny/Flickr##

Instead of scheduling Access-A-Ride vehicles to pick them up and drop them off, the 400 customers in the pilot will be able to go out, hail a cab, and pay the equivalent of a subway fare using a pre-paid debit card. The participating customers don’t need wheelchair lift-equipped Access-A-Ride vans (about 75 percent of Access-a-Ride customers can travel without them), and pick-ups and drop-offs will be limited to Manhattan below 96th Street, where yellow cabs are fairly ubiquitous.

After the first 90 days, the MTA will evaluate whether to continue the pilot and expand it to more customers. If successful, future expansions of the program could incorporate livery cars and black cars, to reach areas of the city where taxis are less available.

The MTA estimates that the taxi program will save $35 per trip, and over the course of one year the 400-passenger pilot could save in the range of $2 million. The total cost of the Access-A-Ride program is now about $450 million annually, and citywide about 150,000 people are enrolled in it.

  • Anon

    Anything to get rid of those disgusting Access-a-Ride vans. How much have the particulate matter that their diesel engines spew canceled out the emissions reductions of the regular Transit bus fleet? It’s amazing that no advocacy group has taken this on like they did with the Dump Dirty Diesel campaign.

  • Anon 2

    I see people getting on these Access-A-Ride vans all the time that look like they don’t need it, which is unfair to some seniors on the subway/bus system who tough it out.

    If you really want to see some shameful stuff, go watching the Access-A-Ride vehicles pick up and drop off people at the COSTCO in Queens. It’s a joke. These people get off the Access-A-Ride then push carts with 50 pounds of groceries around and walk just fine in the store, then load all their groceries into the van and get a nice trip home. Must be nice.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I see people getting on these Access-A-Ride vans all the time that look like they don’t need it, which is unfair to some seniors on the subway/bus system who tough it out.”

    Wait until you see what happens with the cab rides.

    It’s no different from the non-handicapped who park in the handicapped spaces, forcing the actual handicapped to walk farther.

  • Ian Turner

    Hmm, this may not save money after all. Making access-a-ride more convenient will also make it more attractive to potential participants, which means even if you save money on a per-ride basis you may end up spending the same, or more, on a total basis.

  • Allan

    This doesn’t appear to be correct math: 150,000/400*$2M = $750M. So if everyone was enrolled, they’d save 750$Million, more than the current cost of the program. I know there are some assumptions built in, but still

  • wwwhitney

    Why has the cost of the program increased by >100% in the last 5 years and why is it projected to increase by >50% in the next 4 years?

  • Hay, hay, be nice. There might be abuse in the access-a-ride program, but you can not always tell who is disabled by watching them get in or out of a van.

  • Rejinl

    I agree w Chicken Underwear. My Aunt, who is 80+, can walk around just fine but can’t make it up and down the stairs of the 7 Train anymore. I’m sure there are plenty like her, who’s disabilities aren’t obvious to the casual observer.
    It’s just too bad the pilot program is limited to Manhattan.

  • Excellent initiative and thanks for picking this up Ben. The good news is that it works and has been working for decades in well more than one hundred European cities. Great for our older citizens and others with mobility limitations and greet too for the taxi industry, who in many places find up to half of their total income coming from their role in providing these much needed public services. It is rare that we come up with something that everyone learns to love, and since it’s so absolutely the case no reason to wait for laboratory proof to extend it as wide as the city dares.

    IF anyone is interested I will be pleased to put them into contact with the people who know most about the details.

  • A big win all around, in terms of improved service for patrons and savings. And even for cyclists, if we reduce the number of access-a-ride van drivers whose dirty exhaust, extension mirrors and penchant for parking in bike lanes makes them a much bigger problem than the average taxi driver.

  • Larry Littlefield

    We’ll have to wait and see if the savings on and benefits to the legitimately disabled are outweighed by a surge of abusers.

    This isn’t Europe, unfortuantely. The collective good, particularly the collective future, is seen as something to be exploited here in this era. People are beating the system to death.

  • J. Mork

    Making access-a-ride more convenient will also make it more attractive to potential participants, which means even if you save money on a per-ride basis you may end up spending the same, or more, on a total basis.

    Have you been reading about the Jevons paradox, Ian?

    (Me too.)

  • rhubarbpie

    “I see people getting on these Access-A-Ride vans all the time that look like they don’t need it, which is unfair to some seniors on the subway/bus system who tough it out.”

    Really now. Fact is that the MTA’s standards for Access-A-Ride are pretty tough–and have recently been toughened in an attempt to eliminate some riders and save money. \

    I can assure you that very few people, if they had a choice, would want to use Access-A-Ride, which has a notoriously (and legally documented) poor service record and requires making appointments a day or more in advance, leaving a wide window for pick-ups and taking often lengthy rides (because it is a shared service) for short distances. Beyond that, punitive measures are in place if you miss an appointment–often the subject of dispute.

    Unlike the rest of us, who can hop into a cab, ride the subway or pedal off to wherever we want to go whenever we want.

    As another commenter notes, you can’t always tell who is disabled by looking at them. Beyond that, please remember that we all are a second away from a permanent disability if we are hit by a car or over time contract a disease like multiple sclerosis and one day find we can no longer walk easily or at all.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The unfortunate history of benefits like this, in cases where need is impossible to measure objectively, is that in good times the undeserving grab benefits they are not entitled to, while in bad times the actually deserving are cut off.

    In New York, add connections and a sense of entitlement to the mix of who receives and who does not.

    The only thing that more or less works, in my view, is for the service based on need to be worse than the alternatives, so only those who really needed it would use it. That introduces an element of “self selection.” For example, workfare discouraged those who could get jobs, or already had jobs, from receiveing welfare without intrusively inspecting those who really couldn’t get a job. If they could get a job, they wouldn’t choose workfare.

    That is the “advantage” of the access a ride vans — they are less attractive to potential absusers than subways and buses. But as I said, we’ll see.

  • Larry Littlefield

    By the way, if you are interested in being among the few people to ever think about these issues systematically, you might want to read a series of a dozen or so posts I put up in August 2007, starting with “Equity and Eligibility.”

    http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield?page=28

    A series of background posts with data precedes. The main upshot is that most goverment spending in the U.S. does not go to services or benefits that are universal (like the subway or sidewalk), but rather to services and benefits with eligibility restricted based on age (Social Security, Medicare), means (welfare, Medicaid for non-seniors), and need (such as the Access A Ride vans.

    Each of these is analyzed. Then I move on to the actual way public benefits are often distributed, in a series of snarkier posts.

  • J:Lai

    I am personally against this service and consider a significant misallocation of resources.
    It is a luxury to provide this service, and it should be the first thing to get cut before a single bus line or late night train.
    It is a very expensive entitlement provided to a small minority that can be expected to deliver little or no economic benefit (how many people use access a ride to go to work or any productive activity?)
    It’s nice to provide the service to disabled and elderly, but not at the expense of all other transit users. Student metrocards at least have some positive expected return on investment.

    the execrable operation of the current vans is just secondary damage from the program.

  • BicyclesOnly

    J:Lai,

    If I’m not mistaken, the MTA is required under federal antidiscrimination law to provide people with disabilities with a reasonable alternative to mass transit. So Access-a-Ride reflects our societal commitment to treat disabled people equally and fairly, not special political deal cut by a minority with outsized influence.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I believe Access A Ride was considered a substitute for a fully handicapped accessible transit system, which NYC was not in a position to provide, to move to compliance with providing services to the handicapped.

    The MTA does provide 100 percent accessible buses, but will not be able to do so for trains for centuries at this rate.

    (The MTA recently elected to start actually painting the stations rather than wait to do any work until it could provide elevators. Why didn’t they think of that before? Laws that required any stations being upgraded to be made handicapped accessible. Lead paint also meant no work could be done until massive money was available).

    Of course the MTA could argue that the handicapped had the option of getting around by bus. Except that the bus system is being cut (and will be cut further due to debts, pensions, Access A Ride), and the bus from Downtown Brooklyn to Manhattan was eliminated.

    Car services would be a solution if the legitimately handicapped were the only ones to use it. But that could turn out to be a problem.

  • rhubarbpie

    BicyclesOnly is correct; this is a federal requirement that I believe is part of the Americans With Disabilities Act. We really should be able to supply adequate transit service to those who need Access-A-Ride AND adequate bus and subway service. Really is a question of how we want to spend our money.

    Access-A-Ride would exist even if every subway station were accessible, which of course they are not, because the law requires transit systems to offer transit services to people who cannot ride subways or buses because their disability prevents them from doing so. (By the way, some people have conditional eligibility for Access-A-Ride based on certain conditions, like whether the temperature is 90 degrees or over or under a certain temperature; I mention this because, by enforcing this standard, the MTA is hoping to reduce or at least stem the growth of Access-A-Ride use.)

    That doesn’t mean that more accessible stations (and it’s not just the stations that are the problem, it’s the trains themselves–ever tried to bridge the gap between the platform and the train itself in a wheelchair?) and a more complete bus service wouldn’t help.

    Beyond that, every yellow taxi should be ADA-compliant — only a couple hundred are now — a move the Bloomberg administration has resisted fiercely. (Even Giuliani’s TLC commissioner supported a fully accessible taxi fleet, though she was thwarted by the industry.)

  • BicyclesOnly

    Interesting to see how quickly “able-ism” crops up here among supporters of active transportation.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Interesting to see how quickly “able-ism” crops up here among supporters of active transportation.”

    Would you consider it “ableism” if I were to say that door to door service is premium service if provided by taxi/car service, and there ought to be a (but means tested) premium price attached to it?

    Otherwise, you are setting up a situation in which every senior who finds it more difficult to walk (how much more difficult, who is to say?) is entitled to unlimited taxi rides for the cost of a crowded subway ride. Not too many would choose the subway ride. Somehow seniors got by without this before.

    Any gatekeeper to such a service would face an impossible task, and be pressured by the political system to let the connected in and (in turn in years like this) slam the door shut on those who are actually more handicapped.

  • rhubarbpie

    “Would you consider it “ableism” if I were to say that door to door service is premium service if provided by taxi/car service, and there ought to be a (but means tested) premium price attached to it?”

    Yes.

    Why? Because in fact this service is really what some people — those who are genuinely qualify, and there are a pretty fair number of them in New York, especially as our population ages — need for basic mobility. That’s why the federal government required the service, not just in New York City but across the land.

    Those of us who can walk easily have many more options than Access-A-Ride users, including (for many Manhattan residents) walking a few feet and hailing a cab) and for most others, calling a car service and having it come to our doors.

    (That’s not to say that some Access-A-Ride users couldn’t be diverted to the bus system, say, given better training and standard features like benches at each stop, for instance.)

    I’m not sure it’s clear: the reason this pilot is going forward is that it may result in major savings for the City of New York and the MTA, since taxis and car services are a private transportation system already in place rather than one managed by the MTA and subsidized by the City of New York and the MTA, as is Access-A-Ride. The potential savings are major. We should hope the pilot works (there are major questions about its design).

    As for charging a means-based fare, that’s likely not legal under ADA, aside from the other questions of how you would design a fair program and why you want to add that task to an already over-burdened MTA.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “That’s why the federal government required the service, not just in New York City but across the land.”

    Is it actually the case that everyone in the country who can find someone to certify them as disabled is automatically entitled to a door to door ride for the cost of a transit trip?

    How about in places where there is no transit agency, only private motor vehicles? Are the auto and oil companies required to pay for a cab?

    None was offered to my grandmother when she moved “up the line” to northern Westchester County for a few years before she died, after selling her house in Yonkers. She paid more for a cab ride to the doctor than for the doctor himself.

  • J. Mork

    http://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm#12142

    It shall be considered discrimination for purposes of section 12132 of this title and section 794 of title 29 for a public entity which operates a fixed route system (other than a system which provides solely commuter bus service) to fail to provide with respect to the operations of its fixed route system, in accordance with this section, paratransit and other special transportation services to individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs that are sufficient to provide to such individuals a level of service”

    (1) which is comparable to the level of designated public transportation services provided to individuals without disabilities using such system; or

    (2) in the case of response time, which is comparable, to the extent practicable, to the level of designated public transportation services provided to individuals without disabilities using such system.

    […]

    (2) Service area

    The regulations issued under this section shall require the provision of paratransit and special transportation services required under this section in the service area of each public entity which operates a fixed route system, other than any portion of the service area in which the public entity solely provides commuter bus service.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “(4) Undue financial burden limitation

    The regulations issued under this section shall provide that, if the public entity is able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary that the provision of paratransit and other special transportation services otherwise required under this section would impose an undue financial burden on the public entity, the public entity, notwithstanding any other provision of this section (other than paragraph (5)), shall only be required to provide such services to the extent that providing such services would not impose such a burden.”

    Well, that’s an interesting provision. The 2014 estimate according to the latest budget is $658 million for paratransit out of $5.3 billion for all of New York City transit. It is currently $381 million out of $4.6 billion.

    Providing such services will certainly become an undue burden at this rate. Will providing cabs make it better or worse? I guess we’ll find out.

  • Let me add this to my earlier comment of the 16th about how this idea of using taxis for at least 3/4 of all trips by people with some form of mobility impairment – bearing in mind that this is not the first time that these guys over here have gone around this partial block. Two things:

    a. The smaller the target group to be served, the higher the costs. Therefore make sure that your service population is as large as possible. This means using the same vehicles, etc, technology, for all users. No problem there for this project I would guess.

    b. And here the second key, and of this I know nothing about in the context of your project. The services should to the extent possible be shared. I.e., bringing in both able and disabled riders in the same vehicle (within the limits of practicality, comfort and decency of course). Sharing taxis in 2010 is no huge trick. One obvious key is grouping the riders via mobile telephones, But there are others as you will surely know well.

    There is still a place for the dedicated paratransit services such as your apparently more or less awful Access-A-Ride. But they too can benefit from a combination of more entrepreneurship and a good housekeeping in terms of organizing and the technologies used.

    That anyway is how it is handled in many parts of the Old World.

    Eric Britton
    World Streets – http://www.WorldStreets.org

  • BicyclesOnly

    Riffing off Eric’s well-taken point that efficiency is improved by maximizing the number of paratransit clients shifted from access-a-ride to taxicabs, the shift would bring benefits for all road users, including cyclists.

    In my opinion, despite some “bad apples,” most taxicab drivers are better and safer drivers than the average run-of-the mill motorist. Their livelihood depends on their license and they can’t afford crashes and tickets. A large plurality of them, perhaps a majority, keep with the 30 MPH limit and drive defensively. Yes, they can be maddening in their fare-cruising habits and failure to signal, but if you keep an eye on the pedestrian behavior, the cabbie behavior in response to it is pretty predictable. As for the cabbies who drive aggressively, it has always been a bit easier to hold them accountable because there is often an automatic witness–the passenger–and the license number is shorter and easier to memorize, and more prominently displayed. And now that the cabbies are under the microscope of GPS surveillance, there is the prospect of obtaining electronic data regarding speed, direction and perhaps even positioning at the time of crash that would become available as evidence in a lawsuit. I say this as a cyclist who has had five collisions with motor vehicles, and three times it was cabs.

    The benefits and possibilities (at least in Manhattan south of 96th Street) of a material increase in the yellow cab fleet are apparent:

    (1) The portion of the cabbies who are slow and cautious are themselves relatively calm traffic, and have a calming effect on the traffic behind them.

    (2) If Commissioner Yassky selects a new design of NYC cab with sliding doors, an increase in the fleet will reduce the chance of getting doored.

    (3) The mere replacement of the current access-a-ride fleet with its extension mirrors and (in my experience) unprofessional and bike-lane-parking drivers would be a big safety improvement (yes, cabs block bike lanes, too, but they won’t sit there for half an hour waiting to make a rendezvous with a passenger like access-a-ride vans.)

    (4) Because the fleet is under strict regulation the city can force a transition to hybrid and electric fleets, reducing the amount of toxic exhaust cyclists breathe. In my experience, access-a-ride vans often have dirtier exhaust than cabs.

    (5) One conceivable safety feature that could be introduced–and certainly a controversial one, though still worth considering–would be equipping the fleet with constantly running video cameras trained on the surrounding traffic. This would result in a record of the circumstances of most crashes in areas with cabs. The insurance companies would embrace this as it would reduce uncertainty regarding fault and make it easier to limit liability to only those cases in which their insured was at fault, hence facilitating settlements and reducing litigation costs. And of course NYPD and the terror hawks would love all the surveillance, far beyond what they hoped to get from the congestion pricing camera cordon.

    (6) If the fleet is equipped for wheelchair transport, then it will be able to accomodate bikes as cargo as well, adding an option for cyclists in extreme breakdown and one-way travel scenarios.

    (7) An increased fleet also means it’s easier for non-disabled people to get cabs, and they’ll spend less time standing in the middle of the street with their outstretched arms in cyclists’ right-of-way.

    (8) If a system for disabled people to summon yellow cabs wirelessly by radio to specific locations is added, you may find more cabs outside Manhattan below 96th, spreading these benefits to the rest of the city.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is the history lesson to keep in mind.

    In the early 1990s, the Dinkins Administration found that for less money that it cost to keep people in homeless shelters and hotels (the equivalent of Para-Transit), all the homeless could be given apartments (the equivalent of near free taxi rides). And it attempted to implement the policy.

    Immediately, everyone who had been making due without assistance in less than ideal housing circumstances (the equivalent of seniors having increasing difficulty walking who nonetheless used the subway or bus) realized that if they declared themselves homeless, they would get free apartments.

    People stopped doubling up, living with relatives, living with parents etc and moved to the shelters, demanding free apartments. Some people started moving to New York from other places to get free housing.

    Eventually, to get enough free apartments, the city started outbidding poor and working class New Yorkers (the equivalent of non-disabled subway and bus riders), who landlords evicted to get higher rents for the suddenly surging number of “homeless.” The policy was considered a failure and abandoned.

    All the same factors are at play. Scarce resources. A legitimately needed population. A less needy population encouraged to make do on their own by the low quality of service provided to the legitimately needy. The realization that a real sweet deal could be provided to the legitimately needy at a lower cost, assuming the number of beneficiaries would remain static.

    And if this is combined with tough enforcement on eligibility, I guarantee you politically connected people will get unlimited free taxi rides as if they had their own limo drivers, while the legitimately needy are turned away.

  • RSR

    The introduction of taxi cabs will not alleviate the need for Access-A-Ride vans. The AAR vans are in use to transport passengers who utilize wheelchairs in addition to the ambulatory. This program will not eliminate the need for vans but rather the need for sedans (which use unleaded fuel, not diesel) due to the fact that the sedans cannot transport those who use wheelchairs.

  • I didn’t pay attention to this when it was written but now I’m an excess a ride client. Y

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