Adi Talwar / City Limits

Jean Ryan, a member of the advocacy group Disabled in Action, waits for her wheelchair to be harnessed in an Access-A-Ride van.


This story was produced through the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative For Youth (CLARIFY), City Limits’ paid training program for aspiring public-interest journalists.


For Eman Rimawi, a campaign organizer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, getting around can be difficult. The closest subway to where she lives is the Parkchester 6 train station in the Bronx, which has no elevators, so Rimawi—an amputee who uses a walker—often takes Access-A-Ride (AAR), the MTA’s paratransit shared car service.

This past spring, there was an MTA board meeting she wanted to attend, along with the press conference before it. She opted to use AAR to get there. But despite leaving her house around 6:15 a.m., she didn’t arrive at the Manhattan event until around 10 a.m., as her AAR driver took a meandering route to pick up and drop off other passengers along the way.

“I missed the press conference completely,” she recalls, adding that when she complained about the long ride to AAR, she was told she should leave her house earlier to account for potential delays.

“How is that fair? How is that right?” Rimawi says. “What time would you like me to wake up? Because I’m already waking up before the whole neighborhood’s awake, before my boyfriend is even awake, before the lights [are] even out. So I don’t understand what you want me to do.”

Run by the MTA, AAR is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is designed to serve New Yorkers with a disability or medical issue that prevents them from using public transit. Participants must first undergo an application process to determine if they’re eligible, which includes an in-person evaluation. Once approved, they can book rides with AAR one to two days in advance of their trips, and are picked up and driven to their destination by drivers under contract with New York City Transit (NYCT). This 24/7 service is the only option for many disabled or elderly commuters, who pay the full MTA fare of $2.75 each time they use AAR. Users took approximately 609,000 trips with the service in May, the most recent month that ridership numbers are available for.

But customers say the program, which the MTA expects will cost $521 million in 2018, is plagued with issues. These include complaints about drivers who are poorly trained in dealing with disabled passengers, and that the service is slow and inefficient, regularly making users late for work and other engagements. A Yelp page for AAR boasts just one and a half stars, and includes dozens of scathing reviews. Additional criticism—including an 2016 comptroller audit which found drivers were able to self-report their performance data, making it hard to hold them accountable for bad service—has fallen on deaf ears, with the MTA failing to make significant changes to reform AAR, advocates say.

The transportation authority is currently making a concerted effort to improve services for disabled New Yorkers. NYCT President Andy Byford included accessibility as one of the top four priorities in his plan to overhaul city transit, pledging to install elevators at 50 new subway stations in the next five years, among other fixes. And while his plan includes efforts to “make paratransit responsive,” AAR users say they feel their needs have been somewhat overlooked.

“It’s sort of at the bottom of the list,” Rimawi says. “People forget that Access-A-Ride is part of the MTA, and when it comes to accessibility, it’s not just the elevators.”

Stress-A-Ride’

AAR users face challenges before even boarding their rides. For most New Yorkers, a last-minute change of plans just means walking to the nearest subway or bus stop, or hailing a cab. But those who use AAR are required to book the service one to two days in advance, and must provide specific appointment times and addresses for each trip, which makes it difficult to plan on-the-go.

“It’s always asking, ‘Exactly where you are going? How long you going to be there?’ Let’s say you are going to a movie,” says Jean Ryan, the president of Disabled In Action and decades-long AAR user. “I have to know what theater, the address, the cross street, when the movie starts, when the movie gets out. If you are going to eat afterwards, where are we going to eat? And how long I think that would take.”

When users book a ride through AAR, they schedule a specific pick-up time, and must be outside to meet their drivers within five minutes of their scheduled pickup time or the driver will leave. Users, however, are expected to wait for drivers for up to 30 minutes after their pickup time, as the AAR considers drivers to still be “on time” as long as they show up within that 30-minute waiting window.

“You’ve just got to wait, and if it’s winter time, forget about it,” Rimawi says.

Users who don’t make it outside within five minutes of their pickup time are marked as “no-shows,” and those who rack up an “excessive” number of no-shows – any more than 30 percent of rides for users who take AAR at least seven times a month—can have their accounts temporarily suspended, according to the MTA’s website. Users’ accounts can also be suspended if they repeatedly cancel rides less than two hours before their trip, which the MTA considers a late cancellation.

“You never know if they are not going to show up on time,” says Clarita Dailon, a wheelchair user from the Bronx. The chance that she’ll miss her five-minute driver window and get stuck without a ride frequently causes her anxiety. “It’s a lot of stress.”

In May, the most recent month for which performance data is available, about 92.5 percent of AAR pick-ups were “on time,” meaning the driver arrived less than 30 minutes after the pickup time; 81 percent of pickups took place less than 15 minutes after their pickup times, MTA data shows.

“Sometimes they’re on time, sometimes they are early and they are rushing, and sometimes they are very, very late,” Ryan says. “That uncertainty—it’s so frustrating.”

Even more frustrating, riders say, are the long, meandering routes drivers take to get them to their destinations. Since AAR is a shared-ride service, drivers will often pick up multiple customers on the same trip, and users say this can mean being diverted to another part of the city or the opposite end of their borough.

Rimawi says she was once in an AAR vehicle for six hours. After being picked up in Coney Island, her driver took her along to pick up another passenger in Valley Stream, Long Island, and then drop the other passenger off in Queens before taking Rimawi home to the Bronx.

“It was like extreme car-pooling,” she says. The ordeal was made worse by traffic, and her phone battery died along the way, so she had no way to contact anyone. “I got an external battery charger just so that I don’t have my phone die on me again, just in case.”

Shain Anderson, a community organizer with the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), says AAR’s many flaws can have significant, negative consequences for its users.

“You have users that have to wait in some cases for hours to get where they need to go. We have examples where people have missed appointments to see friends. We have examples of people missing funerals,” he says. “The big issue is that AAR is not simply reliable. They call it ‘Stress-A-Ride’ for a reason.”

Other users say they’ve had problems with AAR drivers being poorly trained or driving dangerously. Milagros Franco, a 42-year-old who works at Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled, says she was once in an AAR car where the driver failed to properly secure her wheelchair.

“We were going to my work,” Franco says. “She [the driver] was on the cellphone, and I hit the front seat twice and she looked at me like if I was a kid and I didn’t understand what was going on. I reported her.”

Franco never saw the driver again, and doesn’t know if the she was retrained or disciplined following the incident.

Systemic issues

At a public event in July, the NYCT’s Byford said the MTA is currently looking at “every aspect” of AAR for potential improvements, including drivers using inefficient routes.

“We’re looking at the processes to stop you having to go on this magical mystery tour around the boroughs, to make it direct,” he told the crowd.

Many of the complaints about AAR were highlighted in a 2016 report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, which accused the MTA of failing to adequately monitor the performances of its contracted drivers, and that drivers were largely allowed to “self report” their pickup and dropoff times, as opposed to having those times verified by GPS records.

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Stringer’s office made several recommendations to the MTA, including that the agency should install GPS technology in all AAR vehicles, and take corrective action against contractors who were found to frequently violate AAR policies.

“Since the audit was conducted in 2016 there have been a series of aggressive actions and improvements to paratransit, including the launch of a live online dashboard that reports performance in six different categories to the public,” MTA Spokesman Shams Tarek said in a statement to City Limits.

“NYC Transit is committed to continuing to improve service and that includes strengthening incident and complaint tracking controls, a new e-hail pilot and GPS tracking to streamline booking, the creation of a permanent Paratransit Task Force by Chairman Lhota, and President Byford’s appointment of NYC Transit’s first-ever Senior Advisor for Systemwide Accessibility.”

The aforementioned e-hail pilot was launched last year in an effort to make AAR more flexible. It allows users to book green and yellow cabs through an app on-demand, as opposed to having to book in advance. The pilot was initially open to only 200 volunteers, though it has since expanded to around 1,200 AAR users. The program partners with the Taxi & Limousine Commission, so that all rides taken through the app will be reimbursed by the MTA.

Users who’ve tested the e-hail service say it’s not perfect—green and yellow cabs can be hard to find in some outer borough neighborhoods, and not all of the city’s taxis are wheelchair accessible—but Anderson of CIDNY says the reaction has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“It has allowed a flexibility in travel that has not been seen before with AAR,” he says.

The e-hail pilot ends in October, though users and advocates are pushing the MTA to make it permanent (the agency says it is continuing to evaluate the program.) The MTA says it’s making other strides to improve AAR, noting that the service makes approximately 6 million trips per year, and that only a half-percent of those rides result in a user filing a complaint.

Other undertakings include the development of an AAR-specific app that’s currently being tested, and discussions with the Department of Transportation about allowing AAR vehicles to use the city’s bus lanes to speed up rides.

Despite its flaws, Rimawi says she’s glad AAR is an option, since it gives her the ability to get where she needs to—which is why it’s so important to her that the MTA improve the service.

“Access-a-Ride gives me freedom to just be a person,” she says.

20 thoughts on “Access-A-Ride or ‘Stress-A-Ride?’ MTA Service Needs Overhaul, Users Say

  1. On the trip in the photograph, the Access-A-Ride van did not have the required securement for my wheelchair, so the on-site supervisor had to try to get them from other vans at our location.

    Of course complaint percentages are low. Why should we keep on wasting our time to complain when nothing changes? Our problems happen with the trip and we’re on our own then.

  2. If they are very late, you can get approval to take a cab home and send the receipt to AAR. But… even though you had to wait sometimes more than an hour, they refund you the cab fare minus their fare! How do drivers who don’t or barely speak English get drivers licenses! They have the GPS set to their language and if you tell them they’re taking the long way, they don’t answer you.

  3. On Friday September 14, on three attempts I finally was able to get someone who new how to sign my son and I up for a group trip. On Friday evening I received a call confirming trip. Trip included myself: Dolores Biggs- 15972, and Kenneth Greene-159869. There were two aides, and two wheel chairs. So Saturday morning two vans arrived. puzzled we boarded van seperately. when we arrived at destination, i exited van and waited for son to exit. So what happened Lift malfunctioned, trapping back wheel. So had to wait for people to come get him off. when they got him down the neck part of chair that supports his neck was broken. This is a brand new power chair. coming home they sent two vans. both vans had my name. Since already loaded I stayed on van, we picked up someone else, and I wound up in City Island. My deepest concern now is having his wheel chair repaired

  4. I’ve only been using Access-A-Ride for a few months now, but I must admit the service is horrible. I’ve read other people’s complaints and they’re legit.
    For me, and my wife (who is my Personal Care Attendant) it’s been difficult. We live way out on Staten Island near the Outer Bridge Crossing, in Charleston, and one ride to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was over 3 hours. We were first to get picked up and last to get dropped off. We picked up one customer on the North Shore of S.I., then another person in South Beach. Both customers were taken to parts of South Brooklyn, one near Ocean Parkway, and the other close to Marine Park! Then finally, we were driven to Central Park East. That’s just crazy. But that’s not all. What was worse was our last experience in October.
    We got picked up at home in Charleston Staten Island, headed for East 41st street between 1st and 2nd Ave. Manhattan. The driver was instructed to pick up another customer at Howard Ave. and Ralph Ave. Brooklyn, then take us to Manhattan, probably prepared to drop them off first on East 17th street their destination. We were frustrated. I asked the driver to leave us on Flabush Ave. amd Atlantic Ave. by the Barclay Center near the Subway Station. It was better for us to just get out of the Bus and take the train which left us a couple of blocks away from our destination.
    I mean, I wouldn’t expect someone who got picked up on Howard Ave. in Brooklyn, to have to take a ride to Charleston Staten Island before being dropped off in Manhattan. So why is it being done to us the other way around?
    You want to know why? Horrible Logistics, and terrible dispatching. That’s the problem. Just deplorable arrangements by whoever is setting up the bookings.
    I’ve only used Access-A-Ride a half a dozen times maybe, and the other occasions were less than admirable, and those were local 2 mile trips.
    In order for things to shape up for us a new method of arranging rides needs to be implemented with excellent dispatchers who focus on their zones or neighborhoods. Fixing and arranging rides for their customers in their zones/ neighborhoods. The dispatchers need to coordinate with each other when buses/drivers overlap into their zone. Finally, a half dozen or more “Editor Dispatchers,” need to Oversee the work of all of the Zone Dispatchers in order to make any necessary corrections before a problem arises. That’s it.
    I know this is Challenging, and will take time and patience, but I drove trucks and had a CDL License for 33 years. I also did some dispatching, and Route distribution coordinating for a major Milk Company. Things need to improve. The service is deplorable. Please make it happen. We are disabled, and Handicapped and we’re counting on this service to function properly. Thank you.

  5. I could have written this article verbatim. I am currently in an AAR and I have literally gone from one river to the other and it takes 20 minutes for me to get to work. If I went to work and didn’t do my job, I would be fired. So how does the MTA chairman and his colleagues maintain their jobs when an organization is run so poorly? While I know I am privileged to ride AAR, as I would not be able to work without it due to my Rhuematoid Arthritis, it is entirely too stressful and disorganized. Something needs to be done.

  6. I am currently in an acess a ride contracted taxi. My mother and I reached the 59st bridge back to Queens tohave dispatch send the driver to our starting point in Washington heights. The company is so money hungry that they have extended a 45 minute car ride to 2 hours. I called the access a ride complaint line. The representatives refused to take my complaint. I was told to call the taxi company directly.

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  8. I am an 80 year old acess a ride for a few years now,its not perfect but better then trying to make it on and off the bus with my painful arthritis, I am now using the same day curve service the new program, it’s the best thing for people with my condition, because if I have two medical appointments the same I can do them,sometimes I dont remember to make the appointments two days in advance. The reaular acess a ride can’t acomadate us like the same day service.i can’t Express the many positive benefits ,the same day service help people like myself ,and many others.please jeep the same day service,

  9. The ehale program has been dismantled thanks to mta ? Ehale gave moderate amount of relief to the dismiss on time performance of access a ride vehicles now its back to just access a ride only pickups returning back to the days of numerous complaints – ehale was definitely the way to go in the right direction for arriving on time and being picked up on time in. My experiences but. Now. Its. Gone. And. Return back to days of. Numerous latenessess endless hours spent in old buses and missed appointments.

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  11. On 4/12/19 my AAR return home pickup never came I waited an hour and was terribly stressed. I called and was told they were dispatching a green car. It also did not arrive. A friend ordered me a Uber, which she paid for, and said to cancel my reservation. I was told there was no reservation for me, which was a lie. I’m 84 and don’t need this stress!!!

  12. Access a ride is a cash cow for the carriers and I think the MTA should take the service over. This service is needed but it is a burden on tax payers. The MTA can take over entirely and cut cost at least 30%. MTA has the drivers and dispatchers already in place. The transition would at first be difficult but once they get rolling it would be smooth. The poor drivers put up with bad pay and benefits and deserve to be MTA employees and that would create consistency with better drivers and more professionalism. If any MTA job would require a test – it would be access a ride drivers, considering they go all five boroughs, parts of Long Island and westchester. The MTA can also create revenue by charging a test fee. There’s some type of corruption going on between the carriers and some of these top officials in the MTA and it needs to stop.

  13. Even though I’m not an Access A Ride user I’m glad the fair did not go up for AAR passengers. The MTA did the right thing this time because it’s not the passengers fault that the overall transit system is not ADA compliant. The MTA is in hot mess -not because of Access A Ride; it is becuase of bad management on overtime and corruption. Corruption is a disease in New York and has to stop.

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  15. I’m a driver and I can say for a fact that this system is terribly broken i took this job because I thought it was a noble profession however to my dismay or is just a cash cow for the owners , the manifest are terrible making people ride sometimes for hours at a time it makes,then always late for appointments and as drivers we are treated like slaves by the owners,I have be praised by my passengers ,yet one very disturbed lady made a complaint and mta took me off the road and made me take a drug test even thou i have over four commendations from them.so now I sit in limbo waiting for a decision to see if I still have a job.

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  17. I believe having a system for the handicapped is great thing. I am disturbed by people who know the costs to the taxpayers and abuse this system. Wealthy are using it when the costs to the taxpayer are outrageous, what a waste of money. Great idea, poor execution and abuse of taxpayer money as though it is a bottomless pit

  18. I know that some of the AAR can be trying, but at least I can board without having my walker broken if a cab driver shoves or forces it in the trunk of the car. It doesn’t help me physically since I have difficulty boarding a vehicle without seriously injuring myself. The cab drivers that have taken over AAR are rude and lack the proper training in assisting passengers in and out of the vehicles. Bring back the vans with the lift, at least I know when I get to my destination, it would stress me when a cab driving is looking at me like I’m wasting his or her time.

  19. Access a ride has gotten worst over the years. They are never on time, they send drivers who does’nt speak or understand English. They come 20 minutes before schedule pick-up time then when to leave if the client is not outside. I really think mta should take over access-a-ride, cause at lease they will screen who is qualified to drive their buses. And i think the drivers should be able to understand english which is new yorks preferred language. I also think drivers should be trained to have patients seeing that the majority of people who uses mta aar are seniors or people with disabilities.

  20. I am a present client 827329 registered for Ehale pilot program on Feb 15th 2018 an was given confirmation# and never received a reply. Clients that apply after I did received the service. Its more than 2 yrs. I feel I deserve an explanation why I was passed over. Thank you

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