Except to those in the transit or medical sectors, or those who have had personal or family experience with using paratransit services, the mention of the word paratransit in a conversation is likely met with a blank look. But for those who depend on this complementary transport option to get to medical appointments, to do their weekly shopping, or even to go to school and back, paratransit operations can be a lifeline.Here are a few lesser-known facts about paratransit:
Paratransit is public transportation, with a twist. Paratransit services are meant to provide a transportation option for those individuals who are unable to use the fixed-route bus or rail system serving their location, and these services are flexible in their scheduling and routing, allowing them to accommodate the specific needs of their riders.
Paratransit is only mandated in municipalities where there is a public transit system. Although in a perfect world, paratransit services would be available even if there wasn't a public bus or train system, the services are designed to complement public transport options, not as a standalone system, hence the prefix "para-" which means "alongside of." Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this complementary paratransit service must be provided within 3/4 of a mile of an existing bus or rail route, and during the same hours and days that those are offered. Non-profits and community organizations may also run paratransit-like services in other locations without public transit options.
All paratransit is demand-responsive, but not all demand-responsive transportation is paratransit. Although the Uberization of transportation has led to describing ride-sharing services such as being demand-responsive, these microtransit options are more like taxis than anything else, whereas most demand-responsive transport (DRT) services typically carry multiple passengers and are not limited to those who qualify for ADA paratransit services.
Paratransit is more costly to operate than public transport, but is limited by regulations to charging fares that are no more than twice the amount of that for a transit agency’s fixed-route system. Although providing the service is required under the ADA, this is an unfunded mandate, which means that there is no designated source of federal funding to underwrite the service.
Contractors operate the majority of paratransit services (75%), but the paratransit vehicles operated by these contractors are mostly (80%) owned by local transit agencies. Paratransit service contractors often include everything from call centers, reservations and scheduling, and dispatch services, and may also offer fleet maintenance options.
Paratransit operations are often described as dial-a-ride, on-demand, curb-to-curb, or door-to-door services, but are more accurately termed “origin-to-destination” services, according to the Department of Transportation’s ADA regulations, in order to "ensure that eligible passengers are actually able to use paratransit service to get from their point of origin to their point of destination."
Eligibility for using paratransit services is not determined through a national system, but by the local transit agency itself. There are several eligibility categories, some of which are conditional, as outlined below by the National Rural Transit Assistance Program:
Eligibility Categories (personal eligibility):
- A person with a disability who cannot navigate the transit system without assistance.
- A person with a disability who requires an accessible vehicle when one is not available.
- A person with a disability who is unable to reach the transit stop.
Eligibility Types (trip eligibility):
- Unconditional eligibility (all trips) – this rider is unable to use the fixed route service under any conditions.
- Conditional eligibility (some trips) – this rider can use the fixed route service in specific situations, such as a fixed route with a close and accessible stop. However, if a stop is too far or is inaccessible, this rider may qualify for paratransit. It is important that the conditions of his/her eligibility be clearly defined and understood by both the rider and the reservationists/schedulers and dispatchers.
- Temporary eligibility (defined period of time) – this rider only requires paratransit for a limited period of time.
Demand for paratransit services is growing, perhaps in part because of an aging population, but the specifics of how widespread actual compliance is with the ADA act are vague, leading the US GAO to find that, "Little is known about the extent of transit agencies' compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) paratransit service requirements."