The Challenge of Paratransit in New York City

Accessibility Consultant

Access-A-Ride Curb logo

With 948,208 people with disabilities living in in the five boroughs of New York City as of 2014, the availability of accessible transit options is of immense importance in order for us to remain active, engaged members of our community and take advantage of everything the city has to offer. Although I’ve been living in NYC for over 10 years and have had my disability my entire life, I only began exploring the accessible transportation options a few years ago. The most recent service I have been testing out is Access-A-Ride (AAR), a door-to-door taxi-like paratransit service that can take riders anywhere within the five boroughs for the same price as the subway fare. What I have found shocking in the time I have been using AAR is how vastly different my experience has been between different aspects of the program. Particularly, the E-hail taxi service that MTA (who run AAR as well as the subway and bus system) began piloting some months ago has been more reliable and positive than the broker service.

The more I dig to try and understand the distinctions between the two main paratransit services that comprise Access-A-Ride, the more confused I become. On my most recent call to the customer service line, a representative told me that the Broker service is most similar to a black car service that utilizes private cab companies that the MTA contracts with, while E-hail relies primarily on the green and yellow cabs of the Taxi & Limousine Commission. Another supposed benefit of the E-hail program is the ability to book a ride with the mobile app, Curb, however, I have never been able to figure out how to do that, and representatives I have spoken to on the phone often haven’t been up-front or even knowledgeable about this feature. Adding to my confusion, on at least one occasion when I requested an E-hail ride, I was sent a private car. When I called to ask about this, I was told that when I call to reserve my trip, I have to specify not only that I want an E-hail, but that I want a green or yellow cab.

Riding New York City’s public transportation can often be a stressful experience. Although I have a physical disability, it is somewhat invisible, especially to people who have never met me before. Due to poor balance, I am most comfortable sitting down on public transit, but there have been numerous occasions when I have either taken a seat or asked for a seat and been met with dirty looks, blank stares, and even verbal harassment. As I get older, these experiences have become increasingly uncomfortable, so I decided to explore other options that are available to me.

Access-A-Ride was established shortly after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 in order to meet the paratransit requirement of the law. Once deemed eligible following an in-person interview, users must reserve their rides 24 to 48 hours in advance. We can request a pickup time (the time we want to be picked up at our location) or an appointment time (the time we would like to arrive at our destination), but both of these represent ideals as drivers are allowed to pick up and drop off other passengers along the way and often take riders on circuitous routes to the destination.

AAR’s faults and flaws are well-documented by its riders and I will add to this list of frustrations by sharing my own below. Although I have been a customer for over a year, I have yet to receive my AAR ID card that I am supposed to show drivers when I get in the car. Thankfully, I haven’t had a driver specifically request this from me. At most, they’ll request my ID number, which I’ve memorized. Once again, I’ve contacted customer service about this numerous times. Representatives’ responses have ranged from “They’re missing a photo” to “I’ll request a new [ID] to be sent.” When I went to the office for my initial eligibility interview, I remember a photo being taken of me, so I await the day when I’m denied a ride by a driver due to my lack of proper identification.

There are three rides I’ve had that stick out as particularly head-scratching situations. On one occasion, I was picked up only to be asked, “since I picked you up early, do you mind if we stop at my auto body shop?” I recall questioning the driver on this because I really did mind, but ultimately acquiesced because I felt pressured. Another instance was when I was picked up and the driver informed me that another passenger would be joining us. We drove to the pickup location and arrived about 30 minutes early for this person’s scheduled pick-up time after I had also been picked up early. Even though drivers are allowed to pick up passengers up to 30 minutes after the scheduled pickup time before they are considered late, drivers only have to wait for 5 minutes after the scheduled pickup time. Additionally, while drivers are encouraged to call passengers to tell them they’re outside, this is considered a courtesy and not a requirement. Passengers are expected to wait outside for their ride regardless of weather, even though more often than not, drivers arrive early or late. In this case, the passenger we were waiting for never showed up, ultimately causing me to be late. This experience speaks to another well-documented flaw of the system, that the logistics and routing of these shared journeys often don’t make any sense and cause trips to be significantly longer than they have to be. My last example happened most recently. I had booked a return trip to take me and my sister from a family member’s house in the Bronx back to my apartment in Brooklyn. It was getting close to the scheduled pickup time when I realized I still hadn’t received the usual confirmation call indicating that someone would be picking us up. My sister urged me to give customer service a call to find out what was happening and when I called I was told the ride was canceled. This was probably the most infuriating experience of them all. No one from AAR bothered to inform me ahead of time that the trip was canceled and I certainly didn’t cancel it. It took them another hour or so and at least two more phone calls from me to find a new ride. When I called the next day to file a complaint, the representative was pretty explicit about the fact that they wouldn’t actually do anything with the complaint.

In my time using Access-A-Ride, my varied experiences have shown me that the service is far from perfect. E-hail tends to be more prompt and reliable than brokered cars, with generally friendlier drivers, but even this isn’t 100% consistent. I’ve found it most useful for longer journeys, when the only other public transit alternative is a bus, and to get places where trains and buses simply don’t go. For some people with disabilities living in the city, AAR is their only viable option. I, for one, am grateful it’s not my only option, but just as grateful to have it available to me.

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