The MTA is reforming its oft-criticized service for disabled riders so more of its trips are taken in taxis and for-hire vehicles. But users and advocates say the change, launched earlier this month, is off to a rocky start so far, with some told there weren’t enough drivers to meet their booking requests.
Access-a-Ride (AAR) is the MTA’s car service for New Yorkers with disabilities who aren’t able to access public transportation. Users must book rides a day or two in advance, and are then picked up and brought to their destinations in AAR vans or cars for the cost of $2.75 a trip. For years, the service—which took users on 647,000 trips in January alone, according to MTA statistics—has been riddled with problems, with riders complaining it’s inefficient and unreliable. Since AAR rides are shared, users say they’re often subjected to long, meandering car trips so drivers can pick-up and drop off other customers along the way, making them late for work and other engagements.
In an effort to improve the program, the MTA began offering e-hail services to AAR users in 2016, allowing them to reserve trips in taxis or for-hire vehicles instead of the traditional blue and white AAR cars. Many users prefer this option, saying it offers more flexibility and shorter rides since they’re taken directly to their destination without having to stop and pick up other customers. Taxi/FHV trips are also cheaper, with brokered rides costing the MTA an estimated average of $35.91 each trip compared to $68.71 in AAR cars, according to the Wall Street Journal.. A third of all AAR rides in 2017 were completed by taxis or FHVs, a number the MTA is hoping to grow in the coming years so that a majority of trips in the system are made by cabs, according to a press release from the agency.
Now the MTA is shifting from this initial “advanced reservation e-hail” pilot program to an approach called “enhanced broker service.” The new service was launched at the start of March but announced publicly just last week. The agency says it will provide swifter and more flexible service than its traditional AAR vehicles, and it offers benefits over the earlier pilot, like online booking and the ability for users to track their rides.
Its rollout, however, has been less than smooth. Some users have been unable to book next-day rides through the feature in recent weeks, having been told there were no more taxis and FHVs available to transport them. Under the enhanced broker service, drivers are required to undergo specialized training as well as drug and alcohol testing—and at times, there haven’t been enough on the road who meet those requirements to meet the demand for rides, users and accessibility advocates say.
AAR user Valerie Bruno says she’d been using the advanced e-hail option to book next-day taxi/FHV rides to doctor’s appointments, preferring them because they allow her to request specific pickup times, while time slots for rides in AAR vans are often less flexible.
“It was really good,” she says, echoing other users and advocates who say the taxi option is more reliable and convenient than taking shared rides in AAR vehicles. But since the start of March, Bruno says she’s been turned away twice when trying to book a taxi or FHV ride for the next day, and was told that the system had run out of “vouchers” for the advanced e-hails, so she had to book a regular AAR vehicle instead.
“I wasn’t around in the ’40s, but when people say they got vouchers to wait on line to get meat for the week—it’s like rationing the e-hails,” she says. “To us with disabilities, it’s a rationing, and it’s really disgraceful and disgusting.”
In a statement, an MTA spokesman said more taxi and FHV drivers are being trained so they can participate in the enhanced broker service, which offers AAR users a number of benefits and cost the same—$2.75 per ride—as trips in AAR-branded cars and vans.
“We’re working closely with the industry as we transition to making service in taxis and for-hire vehicles an integral part of our paratransit program, with enhanced features like online booking and vehicle tracking. Thousands of accessible taxis and FHVs are on the street now, and more and more taxi and FHV drivers are being trained to provide paratransit service each day,” spokesman Shams Tarek said. “This is an exciting new development in our ongoing efforts to reform and improve paratransit and we’re committed to delivering the best service possible in a sustainable, reliable manner for all of our customers.”
Joseph Rappaport, director at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled—one of several advocacy groups that make up a coalition that’s pushing to reform AAR —says the MTA launched the enhanced broker service without notifying users ahead of time, which made the transition more jarring for riders who were unable to book their advanced e-hails due to lack of availability.
“There was no advance notice to people that the program was about to change,” he says. “It’s good that they’re moving forward with advanced e-hail, but again, you’ve got to tell people what’s going on, and you should be able to supply close to, if not at least the same, level of service.”
At Wednesday’s MTA board meeting, Acting Chairman Fernando Ferrer told attendees that the agency is taking paratransit users’ complaints seriously, and in an effort to be more transparent, plans to soon release a “full and comprehensive report” on AAR costs.
Changes to advanced e-hail come as the MTA is reforming other parts of AAR, including extending another, separate pilot program called “On-Demand E-hail” through the end of the year. The pilot—offered to just 1,200 AAR customers—lets users hail taxis and FHV rides for the same day as opposed to having to book the day before, and proved immensely popular and costly. Users and advocates are pushing for the MTA to make the on-demand option permanent, and to extend it to all AAR customers.
“That can be a game-changer for people with disabilities in this city,” says Susan Dooha, executive director at the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, who says the on-demand option is far superior to standard AAR rides, in which users “have to wait hours often for a vehicle, and then may be given a tour of the borough before they reach their destination—if the vehicle shows.”
“If the MTA is surprised that there is higher utilization, than they haven’t accurately understood the problem. There is of course pent up demand, and that is only to be expected,” she says, noting that some New Yorkers with disabilities have few travel options outside AAR, since much of the subway system is still inaccessible due to lack of elevators.
“If they want to reduce costs overall of a paratransit program, they have a solution ready at hand—and that is to make the subways 100 percent accessible,” she says.
The MTA has pledged to add elevators to 50 new subway stations in the next five years, and Ferrer says the agency is still intending to make that happen.
“We are not backing away at all from our commitment,” he said at Wednesday’s board meeting. “Our goal in the next five years is for no customer to be more than two stations away from an accessible station. That’s what we’re planning for and that’s what we’re fighting for.”