Imagine the plight of the urban grandmother—yours, maybe, or mine. If she had a car, she surrendered the keys long ago. The grocery store and a bus stop are just down the block, but her knees are bothering her, so she can’t walk that far. The doctor’s office is a few miles away. So is the senior center.
Cities have something for her, through the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you’re not older, or disabled, you’ve probably had little contact with it. It’s called paratransit. It’s like the bus or subway, but more personalized (home pickups!), more cumbersome (make reservations days in advance!), and much more expensive. The Brookings Institution estimates American agencies spent $5.2 billion on paratransit in 2013—12.2 percent of all money spent on transit that year. Meanwhile, cities face a silver-haired transportation crisis. The number of Americans ages 65 or older will jump to 15 to 20 percent of the population by 2030. How will they all get around?
All is not gloom and doom. A report from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation outlines new approaches that could save cities more hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The best news? The solutions already exist. Cities just need to embrace them.
One solution namedrops a familiar friend: ridesharing. Private mobility companies like Uber, Lyft, and Bridj already have started working with transit agencies to fill gaps in service. Teaming up with these companies to cut the cost of paratransit services (which often are contracted to private companies) seems like an obvious answer. Back-of-the-napkin calculations by Brookings peg the nationwide savings at $1.1 to $2.2 billion.
Of course, there are some complications. Most rideshare services are not wheelchair-friendly. (It might be part of the business model.) Paratransit riders are more likely to be low-income, and may not have access to smartphones or the Internet. And as the Amalgamated Transit Union notes, paratransit drivers often receive specialized training to deal with specific disabilities, wheelchair models, vehicles, and dispatch systems.
Sarah Kaufman is the assistant director for technology programming at the Rudin Center, and says she believes every rideshare driver permitted to carry paratransit customers should be trained to deal with disabilities. There’s an app for that: One private Bay Area company can push riders’ relevant medical details to drivers before they arrive at a pick-up. That’s not a hard thing to implement, says Kaufman.
Meanwhile, rideshare services have scrambled to provide accessibility services (even while insisting they’re exempt from federal ADA regulations). Uber offers UberWAV, a wheelchair-friendly service, and UberASSIST, which gives drivers disability- and senior-friendly training, in many American cities, though some users complain about a scarcity of vehicles. (An Uber spokesperson told CNN is it “working hard” on the issue.) Lyft touts partnerships with senior care companies to provide more mobility options for those populations.
Companies have a way around the smartphone problem, too. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Bay Area Transportation Authority announced a pilot partnership with Uber and Lyft, allowing paratransit riders to book on-demand trips starting at just $2 a pop. The city picks up the next $13, and the rider pays whatever remains. Those without smartphones can book through Lyft’s telephone service. It’s enough to make Boston the most interesting paratransit proving ground in the country, says Kaufman.
Putting the ‘Ol’ in ‘Technology’
Even if your grandma would never dream of calling Lyft (“Getting into a stranger’s car?,” my grandmother says. “In this day and age?“), other easy fixes exist. If transportation agencies could distribute real-time information to drivers on subway station elevator outages, bus schedules, and which sidewalks remain snowbound, they could save that time burned circling the block. Systems could hop on the route optimization train, routing trips through navigation apps like Waze. In city like New York, this might save between $9 to $20 million a year, the Rudin Center reports.
Big city data initiatives have primed the pump for tech-happy experiments like this. For nearly a decade, forward-thinking cities have collected—and released—reams of information on traffic patterns, transit schedules, weather, even potholes. Putting this info to work in paratransit will save dough. And it will make life much easier better for your city grandma. Now give her a call, will you?