A better way to help the disabled get to work
People with disabilities use transit seven times as much as the general population. Unfortunately, existing transit service does a poor job of connecting them to work. Vehicles often arrive late and without the proper equipment. Riders are sometimes stranded for hours at a time.
While people with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to be highly educated compared with the general population, they are far more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. This vexing problem led the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to explore an alternative to traditional paratransit.
In an effort to increase customer satisfaction and decrease cost, the MBTA created a trial program using ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft. Four percent of all MBTA paratransit customers are involved in the trial, and they give it high marks. Uber and Lyft receive a customer satisfaction score of +85, while the MBTA receives an overall score of -11.
The trial program, however, has been disappointing from a cost-saving perspective. The transit agency had hoped for savings of 10% to 20% over traditional paratransit. In reality, with a subsidy of $40 per trip, the savings have been only about 1%.
Minor changes to the program are needed to improve quality and reduce cost. For instance, riders should be encouraged or given incentives to use carpools; important trips, such as visits to the doctor, should be prioritized; and providers that deliver better service should be allowed to charge more.
Still, MBTA’s pilot program can and should serve as a model for transit agencies throughout Wisconsin. The Badger State, in fact, has a golden opportunity to take the Massachusetts experiment, improve it and make it a permanent approach to paratransit.
For Wisconsin’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, the paratransit program would operate much like the Boston-area trial, which utilizes both traditional paratransit and the new on-demand model. In those two metro areas, the program would be permanent, and Uber and Lyft would provide all paratransit service.
In 12 smaller regions in Wisconsin, existing fixed-route bus service could be replaced with service for the elderly and disabled through a partnership between the transit agencies and ride-sharing services. Those areas are Appleton, Beloit, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Janesville, Kenosha, La Crosse, Oshkosh, Racine, Sheboygan and Superior.
There, demand-responsive service would be available to all transit users, not just the elderly and disabled. Transit agencies would evolve into mobility managers, whose goal is to help customers travel as cheaply and easily as possible. While Uber and Lyft would be the primary transit agencies, other private-sector transit services including business shuttles could offer service as well.