Home Paratransit Reports urge Access-A-Ride reform to save over $100 million a year

Reports urge Access-A-Ride reform to save over $100 million a year

by Benjamin Kabak
Paratransit costs have started to skyrocket in recent years as New York City's population has grown older. (Source: CBC)

Paratransit costs have started to skyrocket in recent years as New York City’s population has grown older. (Source: CBC)

It’s been a few years since the MTA’s Access-A-Ride costs have made headlines, but two reports published this week have brought the issue back to the forefront of the discussion over transit offerings in New York City. Both the Citizens Budget Commission and the NYU Wagner’s Rudin Center have put forward proposals that could save the MTA over $100 million a year in Access-A-Ride costs, and while each report is worth consideration, they’re silent on the most important fix — investing in the accessibility of the New York City subway system.

Let’s start with the basics: The MTA currently spends around $470 million annually on Access-A-Ride, and trips cost on average $71. The fare is equal to a $2.75 MetroCard swipe so someone — largely subway riders and drivers along with a mix of tax dollars — supports this expensive program. Meanwhile, with out population rapidly aging, the MTA expects to spend over $620 million on paratransit in 2020 with the per-ride cost reaching nearly $80. With the MTA’s razor-thin budget margins, significant savings on paratransit can improve the program’s efficiency while averting future MTA budget crises.

The CBC’s report [pdf] is a straightforward presentation of fairly obvious policy solutions. The MTA, the CBC notes, uses wheelchair-accessible vehicles even in situations where the paratransit riders are ambulatory. The agency should better improve dispatching and refine its services offerings to align needs with vehicles while reducing costs. Better contracting practices, a common refrain for anything MTA, is part of the solution while the CBC also recommends “discourag[ing] excess use of paratransit by charging a higher fare” and calls for a better funding mix.

The Rudin Center’s report [pdf] leans on technology and ride-hailing apps in particular to improve service offerings. Both reports call upon transit agencies to work with Uber, Lyft and other web-based car hailing services to shift some paratransit trips to lower cost providers (though these companies’ fleets are far from sufficiently accessible for many riders). Both reports are sympathetic to the unfunded nature of the ADA mandate that transit agencies provide paratransit services. And both reports recognize how costs are going to begin to climb as the Baby Boomer generation starts to age.

Yet, I wanted to hear more about a potential other solution: Transit agencies, and the MTA in particular, should make more of an effort to ensure their systems are fully accessible. The MTA is working to fulfill a pledge to make 100 Key Stations accessible by the end of 2020, but our transit agency has seemingly interpreted the ADA in a way that doesn’t require them to retrofit old stations if the cost is prohibitively out of proportion. Thus, despite extensive renovations to, say, Smith-9th Sts., the station is far from accessible with no plans to rectify this accessibility gap in the future. (New build stations will, of course, be fully ADA compliant.)

Meanwhile, the MTA has shied away from reopening subway station entrances and exits that were closed shortly before the ADA become law because the agency is concerned doing so will trigger ADA compliancy obligations. Thus, all riders are paying the costs in high and increasing paratransit services and in inconvenient station design that leads to crowding and frustration.

What I would like to understand is another element of cost-shifting. The MTA has spent billions of dollars over the years on paratransit while barely complying with the ADA. How much money could it save on paratransit by investing upfront in a more aggressive plan to make more of the subway system accessible? These reports do not reach this question, but I think it’s key. If paratransit costs are going to increase by 33 percent over the next four years, is there another way to slow spending otherwise?

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this city sucks September 22, 2016 - 12:53 am

everyone should just move out of the living hell hole that is NYC. the city is about to fall back to the 80s again. No one can afford it and the subways are the most depressing painful experience for everyone… crammed into hot subway stations… how miserable. I prefer living in Denver now where I can drive in the comfort of my vehicle in a beautiful and affordable city.

BoerumHillScott September 22, 2016 - 8:29 am

Why don’t you enlighten us on how Denver handles providing transportation for its aging and disabled population.

This is an issue that all parts of the country are having to face.

anon_coward September 22, 2016 - 8:49 am

they drive or at some point people sell their homes and buy a condo in a senior community

Nathanael September 23, 2016 - 9:54 pm

It ain’t great but Denver does have a 100% accessible urban rail system. (Sections of it are high-floor with stairs and “high blocks”, but are being designed to be converted to low-floor when the next order of light rail vehicles is made.)

LLQBTT September 22, 2016 - 9:04 am

Unlikely that NYC will go back to the late ’70s/early ’80s as their is just too much economic interest in the city at this point. Plus other trends point to a more urban lifestyle.

Bolwerk September 22, 2016 - 12:08 pm

It’s like hyperinflation, economic collapse, deficits, blah blah. Big crime wave, coming any day now! Only been waiting since 1993! Gotta happen eventually!

These things are distractions that correspond almost perfectly with real issues that get ignored: anemic economic growth, actual persistent joblessness, decaying infrastructure, state violence.

Nick September 23, 2016 - 1:48 pm

And climate change

John September 23, 2016 - 8:43 am

Trust, we’re all much better off without selfish people like you.

Larry Littlefield September 22, 2016 - 7:13 am

Note what happened after NYCT stopped offering door to door service, which everyone was seeking an excuse to use handicapped or not, and started only offering service to accessible subway and bus stations. The cost stopped going up, and ridership leveled off.

It may be that in order to preserve their market, the Access A Ride companies are in fact soliciting business and billing NYCT. The way NY hospitals provide Medicaid-funded services to people from other states.

Larry Littlefield September 22, 2016 - 7:17 am

“Both reports recognize how costs are going to begin to climb as the Baby Boomer generation starts to age.”

The Baby Boomers, the poor aside (and the poor are less entitled and so cost less), is overwhelmingly suburban.

The MTA faces a greater threat from aging suburbanites demanding the equivalent of limo rides than from anything that might happen in the city. After all, the auto sector which put those older people in inaccessible locations, isn’t going to pay for it. Watch out for that funding shift, and hope that self driving Ubers might work there..

Ralfff September 22, 2016 - 7:59 pm


Also, I’ve been banging this drum for a while now, but the Rudin Center is an embarrassment that does not merit being taken seriously. They cannot summarize their ideas in a sentence without “apps” appearing in it. It’s no surprise that their suggestion here is turning it all over to Uber as that’s their solution for everything.

eo September 22, 2016 - 7:30 am

Is there a compiled statistic somewhere how many stations have been made accessible each year starting from the time ADA was approved?
While I am sympathetic with the MTA claims that certain stations will be very expensive to be made fully accessible, I would think that a simple program making 2 more stations accessible every year would have gone a long way towards cutting down on the Access-A-Ride costs while not breaking the bank. Yes, not all of these improved stations would have been “key stations”, but some stations are clearly nightmares to modify (Times Square and Penn come to mind).

tacony September 22, 2016 - 9:55 am

Most of the Times Square and Penn Station subway stations are actually already classified as accessible. The kicker is that you can’t make the key transfers: the 42nd St shuttle isn’t accessible and that long passageway between the Port Authority/A/C/E and TS isn’t accessible. But you can take the 1/2/3, 7, or N/Q/R to Times Square and use the 1 single, awful, urine-soaked, slow elevator to get to the street at 7th and 42nd, if it’s actually working.

At Penn too there are elevators that stink of urine to both the 1/2/3 and A/C/E platforms and they’re considered to be accessible.

My beef with the MTA’s ADA compliance is that they clearly seek to do the bare minimum to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the law by making stations a total PITA to use if you’re disabled. And forget the disabled, how about just anyone dragging large luggage?

I still can’t believe that it’s been stated on record in a couple places that the super-expensive, ridiculous, delay-causing horizontal elevator at Hudson Yard was intentionally designed to run slowly to prevent too many people from using it. What planet do we live on where so many people apparently reasoned that it would be acceptable to intentionally make the accessibility functions of the stations inconvenient? The reasoning is that if you can’t manage the escalators, your time doesn’t matter. It’s insulting to anyone with a disability.

Hudson Yards was at a brand new station built from scratch with a massive budget. Can you imagine how these people reason we should be outfitting 100-year old stations under cost constraints? It’s shameful. The subway system is bursting at the seams and real accessibility improvements would benefit everyone by making it easier to get in and out of stations.

Duke September 22, 2016 - 11:12 pm

It’s not just Hudson Yards, all MTA elevators are noticeably slow.

The MTA didn’t work with elevators much prior to ADA. I’m sure in their minds being forced to start installing them was unsolicited and unwanted meddling of outsiders in their affairs, and so they’re deliberately trying to come as close to non-compliance with the requirement as they can get away with purely for the sake of throwing an institutional temper tantrum about it. This is how government entities in NY operate.

Nathanael September 23, 2016 - 9:59 pm

That sounds about right. A bunch of MTA officials should go to prison for this temper tantrum behavior.

For contrast, Boston:

Boston, with an older system than New York, has completely met the “key stations” requirement and is now working on a plan for 100% wheelchair accessibility everywhere, with the possible exception of one lightly used station at the bottom of a huge flight of stairs in a ravine.

Boston only has four subway stations left to do, and all but one is designed. They’re working on the *center median streetcar* stations which are a pain in the neck (require complete redesign of the street), and they’re starting to work through the commuter rail stations.

Boston is adding extra redundant elevators to deal with elevator outages and converting “accessible” stations which are only sort-of-accessible to full-high-platform stations.

Nathanael September 23, 2016 - 10:12 pm

For further contrast, Chicago:

Chicago has also met the “key stations” requirement. Chicago is also working on a program of 100% wheelchair accessibility everywhere. Chicago is actually going to publish a plan and schedule for this for the L.

Like Phildaelphia, reconstructions of elevated lines in Chicago made every station on that section of line accessible as a matter of course. The same was done with reconstructions of freeway-median stations. The underground subway stations are taking longer but are being done, one at a time. (The only Chicago L station which received significant construction funding without becoming accessible was 100% privately funded by Apple, which is probably legal… and it’s still on the schedule for full accessbility.)

Nathanael September 23, 2016 - 10:05 pm

For further contrast, Philadelphia:

Philadelphia has met the ADA key stations requirement. Philadelphia is now in a program of making all stations ADA-compliant.

Philadelphia is now in the midst of a massive project to work on the single most complicated subway-station ADA compliance project in the country, City Hall / 15th Street, which is made very complicated by the presence of the heaviest masonry-structure building in the world right on top of the station (making safe construction a lot more tricky than under a normal steel-frame skyscraper). This is solely for wheelchair access and they’re just spending the money on it.

Stations receiving other renovations became ADA-complaint as a matter of course in Philadelphia. This included seven stations at once on the Market Street Elevated when its structure was reconditioned, and 8 or 9 stations at once on the Frankford Elevated when its structure was reconditioned. (Providing ADA compliance during such major renovations is an absolute legal requirement, and the corrupt lawbreaking scumbags at the NY MTA violated the law when they did their Brooklyn viaduct reconstructions without providing ADA accessibility.)

Nathanael September 23, 2016 - 10:20 pm

I’m sure you see a pattern here. These systems are of the same vintage as New York, but only New York has its transit agency run by jerks who discriminate against the disabled.

PATCO in Philadelphia / New Jersey met its key stations requirement long ago and is now putting in elevators at *all* stations.

Even Cleveland, which has no money at all, is working to make its remaining non-accessible stations fully wheelchair accessible.

Pittsburgh has less than no money and is currently just trying to keep the track repaired, but PAT is also making a good-faith attempt.

Heck, Amtrak dragged its feet over accessibility and has been noncompliant for 6 years (all Amtrak stations were supposed to be accessible in 2010), but even Amtrak is taking it seriously now.

*Only New York* has this bad attitude. At some point it’s going to become incredibly obvious. Congress will then pass a law requiring New York to make everything accessible by a date certain. They should get started now.

For further comparison, Ontario DID pass a law requiring Toronto to make everything accessible by a date certain. They’re scrambling.

pete September 23, 2016 - 12:24 am

Hudson Yards station seems to have the room, but platform to lower mezzanine escalators were never installed. Plain stairs were instead. Also the northern entrance was never opened/never finished. Its doorway in the lower mezzanine is beige plywood, and blue plywood in Hudson Yards Park.

Brooklynite September 26, 2016 - 6:34 pm

Heck, while we’re on the topic:

Why haven’t the dozens of stations that have gotten a top-down redo over the last decade or so been made ADA accessible? I’m not even talking about Smith-9th St (the highest station in the world not getting ADA? Disgraceful) but places like the Brighton, West End, Rockaway, Pelham, Van Cortlandt, Culver, Sea Beach, and New Lots lines. Over half of the network’s elevated stations have been rebuilt since ADA went into effect, with little to show for it besides one or two stations on each line.

Nathanael September 27, 2016 - 11:02 pm

This, right here, is the criminal behavior by the MTA.

The rule is: if you don’t renovate, you don’t have to comply with the ADA (except for “key stations”).

If you do renovate, you’re supposed to make the station wheelchair-accessible as a matter of course.

This is how Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston ended up with so many accessible stations: they did them while they were doing other renovations.

The MTA simply broke the law.

eo September 22, 2016 - 7:35 am

Can someone educate me how Access-A-Ride works. For example, say the closest two stations to me are A and B. A is slightly closer than B, but B is already accessible while A is not. A and B may or may not be on the same line. I am going to accessible station C. Do I qualify or not for a ride?

John September 23, 2016 - 8:53 am

When I was working with the elderly population, I would assist some of them on obtaining eligibility for AAR. AAR eligibility isn’t dependent on how close you are to an ADA subway station or dependent on a per-trip basis, but rather how close you are to local buses in the area, which are as you know all accessible.

I remember escorting one of my clients to an MTA office in Long Island City, where there were fake bus steps that mimicked a real one. She had to demonstrate that she was unable to board the bus, as well as fill out several other forms relating to medical and mental health diagnoses.

Once you qualify for AAR, you are qualified indefinitely and can request a ride pretty much anywhere you need to go.

AMM September 22, 2016 - 10:07 am

The problem with the ADA adaptations in the NYC subway (and in Metro-North) is that they rely heavily on elevators, but there is never more than one elevator, so there is no backup when the elevator doesn’t work, which happens on a regular but unpredictable basis.

I use the elevators to avoid aggravating my knee problems, but I can use the stairs if I really have to. Someone who is wheelchair-bound would simply be stuck if they had, say, arrived on a platform and the only elevator off the platform were out of order. Hopefully, they could somehow contact someone who would bring in an emergency crew to carry them up or downstairs, but I don’t think you can expect someone to go through this more than once or twice before giving up entirely.

Bottom line: the “ADA” accommodations that the MTA is instituting will not actually make the subway system accessible for people who can’t climb stairs.

There’s another population that can’t use the subways: mobility-limited people. None of the ADA accommodations change the fact that using the subways can involve an awful lot of walking. Someone who can’t walk very far without needing to rest is not going to be able to take the subway. (How many benches are there, say, in the 7th-8th Avenue passage at Times Square / Port Authority?)

Busses are

pete September 23, 2016 - 12:30 am

Moving sidewalks are common in Europe, the only one in NYCT I think is on private property (21 Ely Ave). 42nd street shuttle should be replaced by moving sidewalks from river to river and 5th ave station on 7 closed to improve running times. 14th and 34th street also should use moving sidewalks and get rid of the useless cross town buses that are the slowest in all of NYCT bus. The moving sidewalks should be in fare control tho, so even if you are traveling from Ave C to 1st Avenue, you still would pay.

SEAN September 23, 2016 - 8:05 pm

FYI The moving sidewalk you speak of at 23rd/ Ely is one way. There is a pair of moving walkways at Jamaica station between the street/ subway elevators & the AirTrain access.

AMH September 26, 2016 - 10:00 am

5 Av-Bryant Pk cannot be closed. It is a major destination and transfer point and its loss would increase overall journey times far more than any negligible improvement in running time would save.

Nathanael September 23, 2016 - 10:24 pm

My fiancee has arthritis in her knees and can only walk fairly short distances. But she really can’t handle a flight of stairs (one or two are tolerable).

She can (and does) take the urban trains in Boston, Phildelphia, DC, Chicago, LA, San Diego, Minneapolis / St Paul, Kansas City, etc. etc. etc.

New York, and *only* New York, is practically impossible due to the stairs.


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