by Ron Brooks
Our society has been thinking about racial equity a lot lately, and that got me thinking about the idea of separate but equal transportation services.
Ever since U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren asserted in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 that “separate is not equal,” our society has been on the path of integration. The journey has been long and rocky, and it has certainly been uneven, but the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act demonstrate our good intentions. And yet, separate transit services for different groups of people persist to this day.
In a 2020 article titled, “Looking at Equity Through a Different Lens,” Paul Skoutelas, the CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a trade association representing more than 1,500 transit agencies, contractors, suppliers and others within that industry, did a masterful job explaining how transit, which contributes amazing economic, environmental and societal value to the communities where it operates, has evolved to serve different communities of people differently. Quoting Skoutelas: “In too many places there are two public transportation systems with different standards for riders who choose to use transit and those who are dependent on it. ‘Suburban’ and ‘choice riders’ are generally White and from a wealthier tax base; ‘urban’ and ‘dependent riders’ are generally Black and lower income. These are separate and unequal systems, whether by design or by default.”
Skoutelas went on to call upon the transit industry to redouble its efforts to address the racial inequities within transit, and under his leadership and with the support of APTA’s Board of Directors and Diversity and Inclusion Council, the association embarked on a long-term strategy to undo the racial inequity within transit.
In the wake of APTA’s call to action, many transit agencies across the country and a host of other transit industry organizations have taken concrete steps to address the myriad sources of inequity among the leaders, employees and communities that the transit industry touches. Many organizations have implemented Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) programs, have increased the emphasis placed on recruitment for diversity, have engaged with their local communities to address systemic bias, and have begun to evaluate their plans, budgets, products, services and business relationships through the lens of equality, and I believe the industry will be better for having done this important work.
But there is another separate (segregated) service operating in virtually every city and town where public transit operates. It is called paratransit, and it is not equal. Here’s why.
How is Paratransit an Unequal Service?
When the requirement for paratransit was written into the ADA back in 1990, it was not designed to be equal to fixed-route service. In fact, the ADA does not require paratransit to be “equal” to fixed-route transit. The law actually uses the word “complementary” when referring to the requirements for where and when paratransit operates and “comparable” when referring to the amount of time a customer can spend riding a vehicle. Moreover, paratransit was not the type of service that people with disabilities wanted. Like the civil rights leaders who preceded them, disability community leaders wanted to be able to use buses, trains and other forms of public transportation, and have access to paratransit in those instances when fixed-route transit could not meet the needs of a given rider. Over time, fixed-route services have become much more accessible, but with some exceptions, paratransit remains a separate and unequal service. What follows is a discussion of four examples of how the ADA permits paratransit to be structurally unequal to other public transit services. From there, the article will close with some potential and promising signs for a more equitable paratransit future.
- Where and when service is available – The ADA requires transit agencies to make paratransit available where and when fixed-route service is available. So far, so good. … But there’s a caveat. The ADA does not require paratransit in areas served by other types of public transit, such as express bus and commuter rail. The ADA does require these services to meet all applicable ADA requirements, but not having paratransit in those areas means that if someone cannot use the services exactly as they have been designed, they do not have paratransit as a fallback.
- Advance Reservations – If you want to catch a bus or train, check your schedule and go. With ADA paratransit, the customer (in most communities) must book at least a day ahead. This means no quick trips to the store, no spontaneous decisions to go out for the evening, no last-minute decisions to go into work early or come home late. Put simply, life on paratransit must be planned a day in advance. (This may have been necessary in 1990, but a host of transportation network companies (TNCs), microtransit providers and even Amazon, who can drop a carton of milk and a gas grill on my front porch in as little as two hours, proves that advance reservations are no longer needed.)
- Travel Times, Stops and Predictability – Using any form of shared-ride transit, and especially when it operates in a congested urban area, is going to come with a degree of uncertainty. However, if your travel time to work (walk time, plus ride time, plus time waiting and making transfers) is scheduled to be one hour, your travel time will almost always be within five or 10 minutes of that mark. Paratransit is different. The rider is normally given a 30-minute pick-up window during which to expect the vehicle. Then, the vehicle may or may not pick up and/or drop off riders along the way. Thus, on Monday, you might get picked up early in your pick-up window, have no one on the vehicle with you and arrive 30 minutes early. In contrast, Tuesday’s ride might include a vehicle arriving at the tail end of your pick-up window, and it might make three or four stops en route, causing you to get to work considerably late. The implications of this unpredictability are that paratransit riders must budget more time for their travel than virtually all other commuters. Add to this the fact that paratransit normally does not allow for stops on the way, and most systems require an hour or more between trips (even though the bus routes in the area might operate on a 15- or 30-minute headway), and it’s clear that using paratransit takes longer, is less flexible and more onerous than using virtually any other form of public transportation. It’s all perfectly legal. But it’s not equal.
- Fares – By law, transit agencies can charge twice as much for paratransit as for fixed-route service. Factor in the federally guaranteed 50% fare discount available to seniors and people with disabilities who use fixed-route transit, and the cost of paratransit is four times as much as the same trip on the bus for the same person. And keep in mind that the disability community (the very people for whom paratransit was created) experience higher rates of unemployment and poverty than their non-disabled counterparts.
These inequities are not caused by malice or through a lack of caring, and, as bad as it may sound, most would agree that the availability and accessibility of transportation are better today than at any time in the past. Nevertheless, these inequities are placing limits on the lives of people with disabilities. A number of disability community surveys identify the access to reliable transportation as the single most critical barrier to employment. A recent survey conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind put the number at 68%, which is surprisingly close to the estimated 70% unemployment rate among people who are blind or visually impaired. But there is hope.
A More Promising Future
The new mobility paradigm, which includes everything from customer-directed transit to electric bikes, TNCs, microtransit, integrated trip-planning and fare payment apps, and autonomous vehicles, has begun to reshape the public transit industry, and although change is coming more slowly to paratransit, good things are beginning to happen.
- Since 2016, a number of transit agencies, including the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority in Boston, Mass., the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Kansas City Area Transit Authority in Kansas City, Mo., the Nashville MTA in Tennessee, the GRTC in Richmond, Va., the Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus, Ohio, Valley Metro in Phoenix, Ariz. and others, have begun offering on-demand paratransit for growing numbers of traditional paratransit customers. These programs, which often deliver service at a lower per-trip cost than traditional paratransit, are expanding travel options and flexibility for riders, and they are helping identify the opportunities and challenges that these emerging service approaches may pose for the future.
- Several transit systems, most notably Access Services in Los Angeles, Calif., are pilot testing paratransit service models that allow customers to make an interim stop while en route to work, school or to other destinations. This service approach could make paratransit much more viable for parents who need to transport children to school or daycare on the way to or from work or school, or for just about any of us who just need to run a quick errand on the way home.
- A number of transit systems are working on projects to integrate information about, and the ability to schedule and pay for, multiple services on a single technology platform. These integrations will make it much easier for people to plan complex trips that involve multiple transit modes (train, bus, paratransit and even walking), and that will allow greater mobility for many.
- Finally, several transit agencies are actively researching the options for converting their traditional advance reservations, shared-ride paratransit services with ADA paratransit as an on-demand service. And while these initial efforts will take time to implement, the on-demand approach will almost certainly fuel the next revolution in how we deliver ADA paratransit in this country.
The Critical Role for Advocates
Change is coming, but even good changes come slowly to a $3 billion industry. That’s why the work of ACB and other advocacy organizations is critical. For example, it took continuous advocacy to get the Disability Access to Transit Act introduced, and it will take even more work to get it included in a larger transportation spending bill or implemented on its own.
Although the journey to achieve better transportation access has been a long one, I believe we are farther along on that journey than we have ever been, so this is not the time to back off. Rather, it is a time when we need to collaborate more in order to gain clarity on the transportation future we really want and need. Then, we need to fully commit ourselves and ACB to the work that still needs to be done — work that will take us from “separate and unequal” to “integrated and equitable.”