City Limits/Jeanmarie Evelly

Jean Ryan of Disabled in Action holds a sign protesting planned changes to a popular Access-a-Ride program at an MTA board meeting. (City Limits/Jeanmarie Evelly)

Access-a-Ride users testified at an MTA board meeting Thursday against the agency’s plan to alter a popular pilot program that allows participants to schedule green and yellow taxi rides on-demand, limiting the number of monthly trips those users are able to take under the initiative. 

The “On-Demand E-Hail” pilot initially launched in 2017, and allowed some users of Access-a-Ride—an MTA-run car service for commuters with disabilities that prevent them from taking public transit—to electronically book taxi rides as needed, for $2.75 a trip. The pilot proved immensely popular, with users hailing it as life-changing because it allows them to schedule rides immediately, as opposed to having to book a day in advance, as is required under traditional Access-a-Ride.  The pilot program serves 1,200 users, up from 200 when it first launched. 

But sometime this month, the MTA plans to make changes to the on-demand service: While it will double its reach to include 2,400 Access-a-Ride users, it will also limit their number of rides to 16 a month, and cap the per-ride subsidy at $15. While the MTA did not immediately respond to a query about how much the pilot program cost last year, it cost the agency $8 million in 2018. The MTA’s entire paratransit budget in 2019 was $614 million, MTA Bus President Craig Cipriano testified during a City Council hearing in December, what he said was a 29 percent increase since 2017.

“This shows no signs of slowing down,” Cipriano said at the hearing, where he also appealed for the city to increase its contribution to the MTA’s Access-a-Ride budget. The city currently covers either a third of the MTA’s paratransit net expenses or 20 percent more than it paid the year prior, whichever is less, he said. “We believe that a 50 percent share of the cost is fair.”

The MTA has not given a specific date for when the changes to the on-demand e-hail program will go into effect, but an MTA spokesman told City Limits that the new usage caps will kick in before the end of March, and that users in the program will be notified ahead of time.

When that happens, the pilot will expand to include another 1,200 users, something MTA Chairman Pat Foye told reporters Thursday will help the agency get a more accurate sense of how the on-demand option would be utilized by Access-a-Ride customers, since its current participants were chosen at least partly on a voluntary basis.

“We doubted the reliability of the data from the first group of 1,200, which to some extent was self-selected,” Foye said. “This [new 1,200 users] will be a group that is picked randomly and is more representative.”

But those who’ve come to rely on the on-demand option say the new rules will render the popular pilot useless, in spite of its growth.

“They can say they’re expanding it left and right, but it’s not an expansion. They’re rationing it, and they’re ultimately gutting and killing the program,” says Eman Rimawi, a campaign organizer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. 

She says the $15 subsidy cap will barely cover the cost of even short taxi trips on congestion-plagued city streets, leaving pilot participants with hefty bills to cover the difference. She says a recent on-demand ride from her office on 43rd Street and 6th Avenue to her pharmacy on 39th Street and 3rd Avenue cost $15.30.

“You can only go so far,” Rimawi says. Once she goes over her allotted number of 16 on-demand trips under the new policy, she’ll be forced to use traditional Access-a-Ride service for the rest of her rides, which requires users to book at least a day in advance. Those rides are also shared with other Access-a-Ride users, meaning trips are often lengthy, with drivers taking circuitous and indirect routes to drop off and pick up other passengers, sometimes for hours at a time.

“Now I feel that I’m just going to be even later for things, or just not show up for things,” Rimawi says. 

Users and accessibility advocates argue that it’s unfair to limit rides under the program, and are calling for the MTA to offer an on-demand booking option to all of Access-a-Ride’s 160,000 users, saying the requirement that rides be scheduled one to two days ahead of time makes the service impractical for meeting actual real-life demands. 

“What are you going to do tomorrow? How long will your meetings last? Well, if you’re on Access-a-Ride you have to book it today: when you want to be there, and when you’re going to leave,” Jean Ryan, of the advocacy group Disabled in Action, testified at the MTA’s board meeting Thursday, where she and other Access-a-Ride users protested the new policy with dinosaur-themed posters and an inflatable Tyrannosaurus Rex—a tongue-in-cheek display meant to urge the MTA to modernize the service. 

“We need on-demand without restrictions. Otherwise we’re just going to be hanging around waiting for a ride all the time, or missing meetings and leaving before they’re done, things like that,” Ryan said. “It really is not really possible to live an active life like that.”

Advocacy groups are also pushing for state lawmakers to act on a bill, sponsored by State Sen. Leroy Comrie, that would require the MTA to continue the on-demand e-hail program through spring of 2022 and expand it to another 1,200 users without placing any usage restrictions on participants. The bill would also require the MTA to produce a report on costs and how the program is used, with the goal of expanding it further.

Justin Wood, an organizer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, says they estimate extending the program as the bill dictates would cost no more than $16 million, what he says would be a “very modest cost” for the city and state in the long-run, and would provide additional data on the pilot program that could be used to expand it.

“It’s just not too much to ask to provide a life-changing service to New Yorkers with disabilities,” he says.