Home Paratransit MTA extends ‘On-Demand E-Hail’ paratransit pilot as sustainability concerns loom

MTA extends ‘On-Demand E-Hail’ paratransit pilot as sustainability concerns loom

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA Board materials focused last month on new Access-A-Ride vans, and this weekend, the agency announced an expansion of the popular on-demand e-hail program.

One of Andy Byford’s signature initiatives over the past year has been an increased attention on ensuring New York City has an accessible transit system. Last week, I delved into the legal fight over station accessibility and how a recent court case could rightly force the MTA to pursue an aggressive plan to install elevators throughout the subway system. But legal issues aside, Byford has continually recognized the moral imperative pushing the MTA to improve transit accessibility, and his appointment of Alex Elegudin as Transit’s lead accessibility guru last summer was widely applauded.

It was thus a bit jarring last week to read a Daily News report that the MTA planned to end its popular e-hail pilot at the end of April. I didn’t have a chance to cover the launch of the program back in late 2017, but you can still read the MTA’s press release right here. At the start, the program was a pilot for 200 mobility-impaired Access-A-Ride customers to hail yellow or green taxis on demand, and it has been wildly successful. The pilot now covers around 1200 users and allows paratransit customers to book rides up to 24 hours in advance through an app.

In the 15 months since the launch of the on-demand options, Access-A-Ride ridership has spiked while complaints about the service have dipped considerably. For January, the latest month for which data is available, complaints about paratransit were down by over 46% compared with January of 2018, and the MTA attributes the increased usage and relatively more content customers with the use of the e-hail service.

When The News story broke last week, advocates went into overdrive, and the MTA denied it immediately. On Sunday, we learned that rather than ending the pilot, the MTA would in fact be extending the on-demand e-hail pilot through the end of the year while also implementing a new broker service designed to shift more Access-A-Ride trips to taxis and for-hire vehicle services. The news is good in the short-term for paratransit riders, but even in a press release touting the expansion, it’s not hard to read tea leaves. The MTA is worried about costs even as they promise to maintain a $2.75 fare for paratransit trips.

In the press release, the MTA noted that the agency will extend the pilot through the end of 2019 while “continu[ing] to establish how and if it can be made more sustainably permanent and even expandable.” MTA officials echoed these sentiments. “Making taxis and FHVs a growing part of our paratransit service is a win all around, MTA President Pat Foye said. “This service is good for our paratransit customers, good for the MTA, and good for the city’s economy. In recent years we’ve seen an increase in the use of this type of service, and under this program their use will increase even further providing customers better service and increased flexibility. We’d like to see more and more of our paratransit trips delivered by taxis and FHVs in a financially sustainable manner, and we’re beginning by making scheduled taxi trips an increasingly regular feature of our services.”

The key of course are the words on sustainability. A $2.75 fare for paratransit is a significant subsidy, and the MTA’s costs for paratransit service have outpaced projections for some time. The agency is, of course, legally obligated to provide this service, but as with ADA mandates regarding station construction, the requirement is unfunded. In fact, Paratransit Services contracts are the single biggest non-labor line item in New York City Transit’s budget with a cost in excess of $450 million last year. That figure is expected to top $500 million within the next two years, and the MTA draws in only around 40% of that via reimbursements from the city and farebox revenue.

It’s not clear how any of this — the pilot, the funding gap, the need for sustainability — resolves itself. Along with the extension of the on-demand program, the MTA announced a new broker service designed to move more Access-A-Ride trips to taxis which could reduce some of the services contracts, but by maintaining a $2.75 per-ride fare, the MTA will still be in the red by subsidizing taxi trips, albeit by less.

Yet, as Vin Barone detailed in his coverage of the announcement, disabilities advocates are concerned about the program’s future. “The announcement raises more questions than answers,” Joe Rappaport, head of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, said to amNY, citing language on costs. “The MTA is absolutely not committing to keeping the very popular version of on-demand going.”

It is, as always, a question of cost, and as the MTA gears up to study the cost efficiency of the e-hail program, the coming months will give us a roadmap of the MTA’s plans for Access-A-Ride.

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17 comments

Rob March 18, 2019 - 8:34 am

are there distance limits for the $2.75? Or you can go from Far Rockaway to Tottenville or Bx Zoo for for $2.75?

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Phillip Roncoroni March 18, 2019 - 10:22 am

You can go from Far Rockaway to Tottenville, or the Bronx Zoo, on a single fare (and free Staten Island Ferry), so why would there be distance limits?

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Patrick March 18, 2019 - 11:10 pm

The paratransit section of the ADA requires service that’s roughly equivalent to fixed route bus service. Specifically, agencies are only required to provide service between points inside a 3/4 mi buffer of fixed route buses.

The law also permits agencies to deny requests for “excessively long” trips that wouldn’t/couldn’t be made by ordinary fixed route buses. In that vein, Far Rockaway to the Bronx Zoo would likely be reasonable (since you could do that with only two bus legs now), but Far Rockaway to Tottenville not reasonable since that would be a six-leg bus trip.

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Jessica Murray March 18, 2019 - 9:28 am

The 1,200 person pilot is a same-day, on-demand service booked through an app. There is a concurrent “e-hail pilot” that any of the 150,000+ AAR passengers were eligible for and let them request a taxi when booking their trips 24-48 hours in advance. Unfortunately, MTA does not distinguish ridership between the two pilot programs on its dashboard and virtually every news story I have read confuses ridership numbers or other details of the two programs. The reason e-hail coincided with a reduction in complaints is that the service is direct rather than shared. People could plan with more confidence and had more on-time pickups and drop-offs. While the 1,200 person on-demand pilot is extended until the end of the year, the MTA’s press release also hints at changes to come in the next few weeks. The e-hail pilot for everyone else has essentially ended with the new “enhanced broker service.” While they are trying to ramp up the number of taxis and FHV’s available, people will no longer be able to request a taxi, but will get a taxi, livery car, or AAR van depending on what’s available.

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Phillip Roncoroni March 18, 2019 - 10:27 am

If every subway station were wheelchair accessible (since buses already have lifts), would the MTA need to provide Paratransit services?

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sonicboy678 March 18, 2019 - 11:34 am

In all likelihood, yes, albeit on a more limited basis.

As things currently stand, though, certain stations will never be wheelchair accessible (inherent hindrances in design), and changes to simply make them eligible for accessibility improvements may not even be worth the costs. (This isn’t something that I like saying, but I can’t turn away from that issue. After all, I’d rather not have to worry about people getting stuck in gaps, nor would I want people trying to force installation of something in a place that lacks the space for it.)

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Larry Littlefield March 19, 2019 - 10:09 am

All the more reason to identify the opposite — the easiest stations to install handicapped access — and do those first.

Take Prospect Park 15th Street. An island platform that in some places is under a sidewalk, not a street. So put in a single elevator down to the middle of the platform.

There would be a camera in the elevator, and the door would not open at the platform level until an MTA employee observed a swipe for everyone in there. So it would have its own fare control.

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sonicboy678 March 19, 2019 - 10:43 am

That’s a terrible idea.

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Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:57 pm

Based on your bare, unsupported assertion.

sonicboy678 March 21, 2019 - 2:16 pm

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where that plan fails.

Alon Levy March 20, 2019 - 2:59 pm

Yes, the ADA mandates paratransit either way. The only mode of transportation that the ADA does not mandate paratransit for is commuter rail.

The official justification is that while the subway may be accessible (say, in Boston), the streets leading to it may not be, and since the cities that own these streets are run by Aktion T4 fans who won’t spend a cent on street accessibility…

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Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:56 pm

Yes, this is the other reason for paratransit in cities with accessible subways — if the sidewalks aren’t accessible so you can’t *get* to the subway station, people can get paratransit. Many cities are now addressing the sidewalk problem. Both Chicago and Boston are working on it.

It’s a big problem, made worse by having no formal tracking of the state of sidewalks in most cities (i.e. they don’t know the scope of the problem).

Of course, NYC isn’t working on it, because there is some sort of cultural hate going on in NYC corridors of power against people with disabilities.

Other cities have also aggressively made their taxicabs wheelchair-accessible, and have sued Uber and Lyft to force them to be wheelchair-accessible too. New York City hasn’t.

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Nathanael March 20, 2019 - 10:52 pm

There’s a small number of people who can’t ride the subway because of *mental* disabilities. Paratransit is still necessary for them. It’s the primary source of paratransit costs in cities which aren’t New York. Many are taken off of paratransit with something called “transit training”, to familiarize them with how to use the subway.

It is a LOT smaller than the number of people who can’t use the subway due to physical disabilities.

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Andres L March 19, 2019 - 11:13 am

I was just at recently opened vessel at Hudson Yards, and I couldn’t help but observe how they managed to install an elevator in such a tight space. Not only that, but the elevator sees frequent use, not unlike a train station would. Granted, this elevator design would be impractical in high use stations such as Times Sq or Grand Central but I don’t see why something similar couldn’t be implemented at all the elevated stations around the system. The entirety of the vessel cost $200 million, the elevator couldn’t have cost more than 20% of that figure, standardizing the design and implementing it at a large scale should lower the cost as well. This seems like a could be part of a solution to the MTA’s accessibility problem.

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Larry Littlefield March 21, 2019 - 9:22 am

If a contractor had installed a defective, overpriced elevator at The Vessel, neither the Related Companies nor other developers who are friends of Steven Roth would ever have given them business again.

Whereas is a contractor fails to install a defective, overpriced elevator on a government job, they might get kicked out of the New York Building Congress.

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dannyb March 23, 2019 - 1:11 pm

With my cynic hat on, I’ve got to wonder if the vulture capitalists who bought up those auctioned last-gasp yellow taxi/green cab medallions for (bear with me a sec) huge reductions off the two-years-ago price, but still way higher than what I’d have paid…
I’ve got to wonder if they made campaign contributions and/or had advance knowledge of this program, which will certainly increase the demand/value of these pieces of paper/metal.

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Pedro Valdez-Rivera March 23, 2019 - 4:32 pm

Despite an increase in ridership thanks to this, Access a ride is still unreliable and inconvenient of course.

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