Can Taxis and Uber/Lyft replace Paratransit Vans? There’s Money in it …

The Boston Globe has a story about the region's transit agency, the MBTA, launching a pilot program with local taxis to provide paratransit service.  This is worth watching because of the potential to unlock resources for fixed route transit services.

Paratransit, in the strictest sense, is door-to-door service for people with disabilities who cannot use fixed route transit.  In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities mandates that transit agencies provide paratransit wherever and whenever they run fixed route service, and charge no more than double the fixed route fare.  

In the agency budget, this mandated service competes with the services that everyone else uses.  It's common for over 30% of a transit agency's operating budget to be paratransit.  

Subsidizing taxis has always been an option to meet the paratransit requirement, but in big cities the routine solution has been paratransit van services.  These vans can theoretically serve multiple people at once, but the sparseness of paratransit demand means they often carry just one person, or zero between runs.  So paratransit operating cost is often over $30/passenger trip, as compared to more like $5 for an effective fixed route service.

MBTA is now testing using taxis — or in the future, taxi competitors like Uber and Lyft — in the same way that small towns often do.  It will encourage some customers to use taxis instead of paratransit vans — which is not hard to do, since taxi service is much more flexible.  (Paratransit vans must be booked 24 hours in advance, but these taxis can be called spontaneously.)  The customer will pay a reasonable transit fare, $2, and MBTA will add an average of $13/trip to round out a typical average taxi fare of $15.  

That's $13 per ride for the transit agency instead of (usually) over $30.  For service that is more useful to the paratransit customer.  

Remember, paratransit expenditures by US transit agencies often exceed 30% of the operating budget.  Cut that in half, and you can expand fixed route service dramatically.  

16 Responses to Can Taxis and Uber/Lyft replace Paratransit Vans? There’s Money in it …

  1. Peter November 16, 2015 at 10:57 am #

    This is extremely common practice in Canada at least. In fact I believe Montreal & Calgary use taxis for the majority of the paratransit service, with Vancouver recently increasingly moving in that direction.

  2. JJJJ November 16, 2015 at 11:43 am #

    I know some cities give people taxi voucher coupons they can use for this type of service. Many times its not just for ADA but also for elderly people.

  3. Joe Clark November 16, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

    This posting needs a serious copy-edit from start to finish.

  4. Rob November 16, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    Paratransit often has to accommodate accessibility challenges and social service issues that are hard to accommodate in a regular car. I’m curious whether Uber or taxis will accommodate these folks, or whether they’ll skim off the more profitable rides leaving the public sector still to maintain a fleet of attended, accessible vans with even fewer riders. Will that save money in the long run? Even in a future with automated cars there will be a strategy and expense needed to serve people who require assistance of one sort or another.

  5. R A Fontes November 17, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    This should be one area where shared autonomous vehicles shine, at least for those who do not need assistance from a vehicle driver to safely use the service.

  6. Neil November 17, 2015 at 10:53 am #

    I’ll be surprised if those savings materialize. The inconvenience of using para-transit is likely keeping the number of rides down. If it becomes as easy as calling a cab, for the same price as transit, then demand will likely skyrocket, and it remains to be seen whether there will be any real savings.
    My city runs para-transit mostly using taxi-like vehicles at bus fares, but still requiring the awkward and inconvenient booking system. At the same time they subsidize taxis to be able to provide accessible service at the same price as regular taxi service, which doesn’t the city very much, and steers those that can afford it away from the higher subsidy option.
    I tried to get a breakdown about how well this works out from their budget, but they don’t seem to separate accessible services (at least for public consumption). Intuitively, though, it seems like a better balance.

  7. AvgeekJoe November 17, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

    I’ve sent this story to Island Transit contacts on Whidbey Island. Currently the board has had some initial discussions about paratransit reform as the sheer cost for a small transit agency to run a full size paratransit fan or truck for ONE unfortunate soul is very disproportionate.

    • Victoria Holic June 13, 2016 at 3:05 pm #

      Did Island have any budget to subsidize Lyft or Uber rides for people who are disabled and need transportation assistance on South Whidbey?

  8. Andy Chow November 17, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

    I am fine with taxis accepting paratransit rides, but I am concerned about TNCs. The fact is that nobody really rides U*er or L*ft because they don’t own any vehicles nor hire any drivers. People only use U*er or L*ft to book rides on some stranger’s car. With traditional taxis, transit agencies can impose training requirements (and compensate drivers according for the training) to meet the service standards. How could TNCs ever fulfill that given that they accept almost any driver off the street, and a compensation structure that results in high turnovers?
    Part of the obligation for accepting public subsidy is to treat and compensate drivers fairly. Unless and until the TNCs change the way they treat and compensate drivers, giving rides to them essentially is a slap on the face to all other transportation professionals. I don’t want to see a day where transit agencies is cutting service and laying off drivers, replace transit with TNC subsidy, and tell transit drivers who got laid off to get a loan for a new car and drive for TNC.
    There’s no question that hailing a vehicle from a smartphone is a very desirable feature for everybody. But transit agencies really don’t need the other side of the TNC business (rides on some random stranger’s car). Transit agencies are fully capable of owning a fleet, hire drivers, or contract with companies that do. I am all for improving technology to increase transit, paratransit, and taxi productivity.

  9. eric darwin November 17, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    Ottawa, Ontario, dealt with this issue quite well. There is still a fleet of para transpo vans with wheelchair lifts, but the city shifted a number of users who prefer to pay regular taxi fares over to the taxi fleet by increasing the number of taxi medallions / licences provided the new vehicle was a wheelchair accessible van. Most load through a rear ramp into a well in the back deck, so the taxi van can still carry a second passenger in the front seat. Regular taxi fares prevail. This is a neat, low paperwork situation for callers, additional taxi drivers got licenses, and the para transpo fleet still operates. Service is as fast as calling a taxi. We use it for my mother and can take her to a number of new destinations previously hard to access, such as restaurants, backyard dinner parties, etc. Taxis also accept bookings for the return trip (no extra charge) and always show up on time. Win win.

  10. hU0N November 18, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

    I wonder how well taxi subsidies could work for welfare transit services as well as paratransit. That is, people without access to a car who could catch regular fixed route transit, but wish to do so at times and places where there are not enough other riders to make a fixed route service cost effective. Would taxi subsidies be an option do you think?

  11. Dexter Wong November 19, 2015 at 3:01 am #

    In Honolulu, taxi drivers with TheCab Co. can become para-transit drivers, supplementing the City’s own Handi-vans. They get paid something like $13 a trip in this service, but they’d better get the reservation right or its back to regular cabbing for them.

  12. Nathanael November 22, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

    The major problem with this is the near-total absence of wheelchair-accessible taxis in the US.
    London (UK) has had a 100% accessible taxi fleet since the 1990s.

  13. Andy Harrison January 25, 2016 at 3:18 pm #

    I’m sure that with enough funding and intuition, they could start this up in any large city. I too have noticed that there isn’t much of this in the US. There are plenty of people out there who are confined to a wheelchair or have another disability where a normal taxi won’t cut it.

  14. Jennifer G. February 16, 2016 at 11:57 am #

    This is a very well-written article. However, it seems like unfortunately things like this (see the article below) are happening with private rides, and people are wanting to be safer.

    Do you think that with stories like the one I have attached, people will want to ride in mass so that there are less incidents? As a female, I certainly like knowing someone is there to save me if things get sticky. Just my take on things, though.

  15. Louis February 12, 2018 at 3:23 am #

    This practice is becoming more and more popular in Brasil