Access-A-Ride customers and advocates told stories of missing safety straps, lengthy trips, service delays and sagging lifts to members of the council’s committees on transportation, aging and disability services.
Thomas Charles, vice president of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s paratransit division, defended the service, citing high ridership rates, a zero denial ride policy, increased use of taxi vouchers and technological innovations to improve vehicle tracking.
Access-A-Ride is a federally mandated service under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which requires all transit providers to offer “comparable” transportation service to people who are “functionally unable” to use mass transit and live within three-quarters of a mile of a bus or train stop. The April 27th hearing focused on whether Access-A-Ride’s more than 124,000 customers receive the service they are entitled to.
Edith Prentiss (pictured), an Access-A-Ride customer and president of the 504 Democratic Club representing people with disabilities, cited 11 areas for improvement. Her recommendations included greater adherence to existing service policies for zone-based trip planning to reduce roundabout rides, and service for all eligible requests to meet the federal requirement for zero denials.
Prentiss also requested an emergency pick-up service for customers who use power wheelchairs when they run out of power during a commute on mass transit. Access-A-Ride requires reservations one day in advance.
Charles announced efforts to improve the monitoring and coordination of Access-A-Ride vehicles. He said half of the Access-A-Ride fleet, or about 1,000 vehicles, have been outfitted with Automatic Vehicle Location and Monitoring Systems to provide dispatchers with more accurate information about the location of vehicles, which sometimes have trouble connecting with customers. The vehicles also have mobile data terminals with route maps for drivers. Access-A-Ride plans to install the devices in all vehicles by the end of the year.
Jean Ryan, vice president for public affairs for the activist organization Disabled in Action, advised the Metropolitan Transit Authority to consolidate the paratransit service that is currently provided by 17 contractors and provide service directly. Access-A-Ride is planning a pilot project to offer direct service with a fleet of 230 in-house vehicles beginning this fall, Charles said.
Ryan, who uses Access-A-Ride regularly, said the service should provide quicker resolutions to daily problems and more accurate information to customers waiting for late pick-ups, as the new technology is intended to do. “I want to stick out my hand and say, ‘Taxi!’ or call my local car service and be able to get an accessible car in 10 minutes like everyone else,” Ryan said in her testimony.
Charles said Access-A-Ride has also increased its use of supplemental “floater” vehicles that provide service to customers who missed their rides or were not picked up as scheduled. Access-A-Ride established a response unit that addresses 97% of stranded customer calls within one hour, Charles said.
The paratransit service has expanded its use of taxi vouchers, allowing riders to receive reimbursement for cab rides that now comprise about 10.7 percent of Access-A-Ride trips, Charles said. However, the vast majority of taxis are inaccessible to wheelchair users.
Lawrence Carter-Long, executive director of the Disabilities Network of New York City pressed for integration between people with and without disabilities, turning the theme of the hearing around to ask, “Are [people with disabilities] receiving service with people who don’t use Access-A-Ride?”
Carter-Long (on left with Bobbie Sackman) used his two-minute allotted speaking time to remind the council that people with disabilities need transportation for education, employment, political activities, social events and religious participation, in addition to medical appointments, as he worked to dispel notions of a dichotomy between people with and without disabilities.
“The difference between a disabled person and a non-disabled person is five seconds," Carter-Long told the council emphatically. “Any one of us could step off the curb wrong outside of City Hall and - BAM -you’re part of the club.”
There were less than a dozen public speakers - far less than at prior Access-A-Ride hearings. This was the first City Council hearing about Access-A-Ride in two years.
In an unusual move for city officials, Charles remained at the hearing for its duration, sitting in the front row during the public testimony and speaking to advocates. At most City Council hearings, city officials provide the initial testimony and answer questions from council members but leave before public speakers get the floor.
Speaking with this reporter after the hearing, Charles cited an advancement in oversight for Access-A-Ride’s eligibility system. Charles said that Access-A-Ride certifiers are now making more frequent site visits to assessment centers where paratransit applicants go for in-person eligibility screenings, smoothing over rough edges in the controversial process that became mandatory two years ago.
“Instead of having the assessment center personnel feel that it was all on their shoulders, we’re giving them some guidance and support and learning for ourselves what situations they face,” Charles said about the eligibility system. Prior to the change, Access-A-Ride assessed half of its applicants in-person and the other half by mail.