Access-a-Ride (AAR) customers, who’ve complained for years of unreliable and slow service, scored a win this week when the Department of Transportation approved a plan to let certain AAR vehicles use the city’s bus lanes – something users and advocates say will speed up trips under the MTA program, which transports riders who have disabilities that prevent them from taking other forms of public transit.
Starting May 30, wheelchair-accessible AAR vans that can seat four or more passengers will able to utilize dedicated bus lanes, allowing them to travel at slightly faster speeds. A report from the Comptroller’s office last year found that the average Select Bus Service route, which uses such bus lanes, travels at almost 9 miles per hour, compared to local buses that average 7.4 miles an hour.
Users and advocates say the rule change will offer some relief to AAR customers, who’ve complained for years of long, meandering rides to reach their destinations. Since most AAR trips are shared, users are often forced to go on detours to pick up and drop off other customers, sometimes resulting in traffic-snarled trips that last hours, several riders told City Limits last year.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Justin Wood, Director of Organizing and Strategic Research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, says of the rule change, which his group and others have been pushing for for more than a year. “To us, it was a very common sense thing that I just don’t think people had paid attention to before.”
More than 150,000 New Yorkers use AAR, according to the city, which is home to more than 120 miles of bus lanes. The rule change comes as the city is making other efforts to speed up sluggish bus service: Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged earlier this year to launch an NYPD tow truck unit to haul away cars blocking dedicated lanes, and DOT is making design changes to two dozen streets with the goal of quicker bus travel there, according to an announcement last month.
The new rule change applies only to AAR-branded vans that can seat four or more passengers, but accessibility advocates hope to see it amended to allow other types of AAR vehicles to travel in bus lanes, including smaller sedans. The MTA is also now using more taxis and for-hire vehicles to transport AAR users, so advocates would like to see those eventually included as well.
“We understand the concern of not wanting to have the taxi industry abusing this,” Wood says, but adds that as technology improves, it will be easier for the city to identify which vehicles are part of AAR, making enforcement easier.
“Our primary goal is for people with disabilities to be treated equally when they’re using public transit,” Wood says, calling AAR a “hugely dysfunctional system with lots of delays and lack of reliability.”
“Any steps that help ease the traffic congestion part of the delays will help both the users and the drivers,” he says.
The DOT says it will continue discussions with the public about the new rule, and that it “may be amended as necessary,” according to a statement.