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New Option Soon for New York City’s Paratransit Users



Host Intro: New Yorkers with mobility issues might soon have a new option for getting around. Uber says in a few months, it could have as many as 1000 wheelchair accessible vehicles on the road — enough for everyone who needs one.

This could be a big deal — and not just because it would be the first decent press for Uber in a long time. Right now, it is not easy to get from point A to point B if you’re one of the one percent of New Yorkers who needs paratransit. Access-A-Ride, the MTA’s car service for people who need help with mobility, is saddled with problems. Camila Kerwin reports.

KERWIN 01: For many New Yorkers, this is what public transit sounds like:

AAR Automated Recording:  Thank you for calling Access-A-Ride. Access-A-Ride now offers an automated phone system to assist you.

KERWIN 02: To assist you, that is, with scheduling a pick up vehicle for the next day. Access-A-Ride users have to book their ride 24 hours in advance. For many, that’s a nuisance. There’s also an online reservations platform, but the option getting a lot of use is this one:

AAR Automated Recording: To give a commendation or make a complaint, please press 8.

KERWIN 03: And not for the commendation. Access-A-Ride was federally mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. But it’s come under fire regularly since then. A report the Comptroller’s office found that in 2015, drivers often arrived late, or not at all. Over thirty thousand riders waited for pick-ups that never came. And it’s not like there are a lot of other options for those who need mobility assistance–only one in five subways has elevator access. That’s on a good day, when none are out of order.

Nat sound: car door

Serena Castillo uses Access-A-Ride because she has a mobility condition that makes it hard for her to walk, and unable to work. She remembers one bad experience with a driver.

Serena Castillo: I had the right address and on their paper they had the wrong address. They kicked me out the car.

KERWIN 04: She’s in an Access-A-Ride car right now. Maybe you’ve seen them around the city — they’re white, with blue block letters that say Access-A-Ride. She’s on her way to the gym.

Serena Castillo: I mean I count on these people and then they do whatever they choose to do? I don’t think that’s right.

KERWIN 05: For passengers like Castillo, Access-A-Ride can be a constant headache. And even when the program running smoothly, it’s expensive for New York State.

Jamison Dague: It costs the MTA about half a billion dollars per year.

KERWIN 06: Jamison Dague is the director of the Citizens’ Budget Commission, which analyzes the way New York City and state government spend money. He says Access-A-Ride falls short. It’s the most expensive paratransit program in the country, and not just because New York City is so big. It costs way more per trip–about double the amount of per-trip rides in Boston and San Francisco.

That means the pressure to cut costs in on. One approach? Reduce the amount of wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Jamison Dague: And really it’s only about 40% of the trips that really require that intensive service.

KERWIN 08: Most riders who use the service are able to walk. In other words, Access-A-Ride has more wheelchair accessible cars than it needs. But the proposal to rollback on accessibility has not sat well with disabilities advocates.

Sarah Kaufman: It’s seen as controversial because it’s seen as leaving a segment of the population behind.

KERWIN 09: That’s Sarah Kaufman. She’s an expert on paratransit at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation. She says the controversy is valid. But she also thinks cutting back on extra wheelchair vehicles will leave more cash to improve the ones that riders need. Not to mention other improvements.

Sarah Kaufman: There are so many parts of this that people just don’t do in 2017. Not only arranging things the day before but using a telephone, which (laughs). I don’t talk on the phone very much at all.

KERWIN 11: Which is why Kaufman proposes partnering up with services like Uber and Lyft, and developing an app so users can schedule pickups right away. She says this kind of partnership would also be cheaper. This is especially important because New York’s older population — which makes up a majority of AAR users — is expected to grow by up to 30 percent by 2030.

Sarah Kaufman: We are going to have a large generation of seniors and you know, they don’t just want to get to doctors’ appointments as is assumed by people who look at paratransit.

KERWIN 13: Kaufman says they want to go out with their friends, see a show, visit relatives, just like other New Yorkers. But she says the most important thing isn’t just modernizing Access-A-Ride. It’s improving accessibility at Subway stations too — which means, more elevators, that work more often. The MTA didn’t respond to a request for comment. But its most recent financial plan includes strategies to improve paratransit throughout the city.

Camila Kerwin, Columbia Radio News.


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