Additional reporting by Jose Martinez
As the MTA board on Wednesday detailed the financial hurdles facing the troubled transit agency as it tries to adjust to pandemic-era realities, disability-rights advocates sought to not be forgotten among shifting priorities.
Paratransit users both inside and outside MTA headquarters in Lower Manhattan pushed for the expansion of a popular e-hailing on-demand pilot program, as well as boosting Access-a-Ride service in general — along with putting more emphasis on emergency preparedness for New Yorkers with mobility issues.
The meeting — which included the MTA revealing a wish list for the next 20-year-plan — came a day after the 32nd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and just weeks after MTA’s commitment to make 95% of all 472 subway stations accessible by 2055, in response to a lawsuit. But paratransit users say Access-a-Ride service is still subpar.
THE CITY has reported extensively on Access-a-Ride’s woes, which included an increase in driver no-shows and service reliability dropping to the lowest point in years, even as paratransit ridership returned at a much faster rate than on the buses or in the subway.
Growing service problems yielded the pilot program that allows customers to hail green and yellow wheelchair accessible taxis on-demand with their phones. It works like Uber and Lyft apps except rides cost just $2.75, the same price as an Access-a-Ride van trip.
“It has been so much more comfortable,” Elizabeth Valdez, a systems advocate at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, said at the meeting. “I don’t have to sit there, even though it’s still got its glitches, it’s better than waiting one or two days having to make a reservation.”
But the pilot is still tiny: Valdez is among just 1,200 participants in the e-hail program. Access-a-Ride had 548,729 total trips in May — and just 35,000 e-hail trips. The number of e-hail rides is steadily increasing, however, up from 24,000 reported trips in January, according to Access-a-Ride’s ridership dashboard.
‘Open It Up’
Dozens of New Yorkers with disabilities, along with some elected officials and other advocates, rallied in front of the MTA’s headquarters before the board meeting to lobby for the e-hail pilot program’s expansion.
“Unfortunately, only 1,200 of us have been allowed to use it for the last few years, and we’re calling on them to open it up to everybody,” said Eman Rimawi-Doster, the Access-A-Ride coordinator and organizer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “Everyone deserves a chance to use on-demand — it opens up so much of your life.”
After a pandemic delay, the pilot is now scheduled to double in size — to 2,400 users — by early 2023, the MTA told THE CITY on Wednesday, but advocates expressed concern the agency’s looming “fiscal cliff” could short-circuit that goal.
“They’re saying it’s too expensive for us to improve it, to expand on-demand,” said Rimawi-Doster, a double amputee. “But if the service is already so horrible, what do you expect us to do? I still have to go to work.”
The program started in 2017 and there were fears that it would be canceled by 2019. Gothamist noted in November 2020 that costs had become too high for the transit agency due to its popularity. The average “e-hail” ride in 2019 had a fare of $37, with the passenger paying $2.75. The MTA is then responsible for paying the difference to the cabbie.
Bridge and tunnel tolls are another point of contention. Some commuters at the meeting said on-demand drivers avoid faster routes because they don’t get paid back for tolls during trips. THE CITY reported last December that the MTA was looking at fixes that included paying for driver tolls. The MTA didn’t comment on those plans Wednesday.
“Drivers don’t want to go to Rockaway because they think they’ll be losing money on the toll,” Michael Ring, a member of the group Disabled in Action, told the board.
Another issue highlighted by Access-a-Ride users on Staten Island and in the Rockaways is the potential for evacuation disasters given drivers’ general lack of knowledge of the areas and how easily they can flood.
“Access delayed is access denied. What is the plan to evacuate people with disabilities from subways?” asked Jean Ryan, president of Disabled in Action at the MTA meeting.
THE CITY recently reported on these concerns and how they are impacting some disabled Staten Islanders’ plans to get off the island in case of a flooding emergency.
In May, on-time performance fell slightly beneath Access-a-Ride’s goal of a 94% on-time rate for trips with a window of 30 minutes or less to arrive to pick up passengers. For rides set at a window of 15 minutes or less, on-time performance was even lower— at 80% for primary Access-a-Ride drivers and 76% percent for contracted brokers.
“Sometimes they’ll just never show up. That’s really a tragedy,” Valdez said. “Sometimes you wanna just go out, and enjoy life, and feel human. That’s it.”
‘Be About It’
Subway ridership on Tuesday was around 58% of pre-pandemic levels, and buses are at 59%. But paratransit usage has been climbing.
The MTA said 24,990 Access-a-Ride trips were taken Tuesday — or about 86.3% of a similar, pre-pandemic day.
MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber said that it was “incredibly important” to hear from those who rely on public transportation.
“We thank you for taking the time to get here and participate,” he said.
Rimawi-Doster acknowledged improvements to subway station accessibility and to Access-a-Ride service there is still more work to be done in order to truly create an accessible transit system.
“I don’t want anybody to be ignored,” she said. “I want everyone’s access needs to be met, not only because it’s the law, but it’s also the right thing to do.
“And if the MTA keeps touting, ‘Oh we’re all about accessibility,’ then truly be about it.”