Paratransit services are a vital element of modern mobility for many people, who rely on them to get to work, to school, or to medical appointments and more. However, like other areas in public transit today, the paratransit sector is also facing a number of challenges that will need to be met with creative and effective responses in order to remain useful and relevant in 2018 and beyond.
1. Rising demand for services
With a population that is increasingly full of seniors and the elderly, coupled with longer lifespans and better medical care, plus more opportunities for those with disabilities to go to school or to a job, the demand for transportation options that cater to those who need a little help to get around looks to continue to rise. With this increased demand for paratransit services, providers and the agencies which use them will need to be able to scale up frequency of service, add routes or coverage areas, deploy more vehicles and drivers as required during peak periods, and respond quickly and efficiently to higher call volumes and service requests. The solutions may come from a wide variety of options, including upgrading call center and dispatching software and systems, like Ecolane, providing more training for current employees and new hires, bringing in a seasoned manager to handle increased volumes, having some personnel available on an on-call basis, partnering with other fleet operators, among other things.
2. Rising costs
According to Mass Transit Mag, "the total per passenger cost to provide ADA service is topping $45 per trip, well over 10 times the cost to provide an individual fixed route bus trip, and although paratransit service can be just 1-2% of the overall ridership, it's responsible for "at least 9 percent of operating cost." As with virtually every other aspect of modern business, costs are expected to continue to rise, especially those fixed costs set by the market. Whereas a company or agency can manage and optimize its own internal costs fairly easily, certain operating and maintenance costs are most likely going to grow, especially when it comes to fuel and parts and labor. Some companies are looking to future-proof their fleet operating costs by investing in electric vehicles, which have less expensive "fuel" costs and a much lower cost of ownership overall.
3. Rising competition
With more and more cities and urban areas seeing better coverage from ride-share companies, which can often send a driver immediately, without having to schedule a trip in advance, paratransit providers may suffer from the increased competition, as getting an on-demand ride may trump a scheduled one for some riders. However, for those riders who have other needs, such as wheelchair access, there aren't many options as of yet from ride-sharing services, but it's most likely only a matter of time before more Lyft or Uber drivers start having handicapped-accessible vehicles available. And although some agencies are beginning to work with taxi companies and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft to handle some of their rides and coverage areas, the jury is still out on whether or not that helps or hurts the local mobility scene. The lack of wheelchair-compatible vehicles from private drivers means that many paratransit riders can't use them anyway.
Paratransit providers can meet these challenges through a number of approaches, including scaling up services and adjusting routes and schedules to meet demand, keeping a close eye on controllable costs and making the necessary changes to stay under budget. Transit agencies are also already exploring collaborations with ride-sharing companies and should learn from their operations.
Although the nature of these challenges aren't that different from those facing other businesses, one potentially new hurdle for paratransit providers in the longer-term future is most likely going to come from autonomous vehicles, which would be welcome news to riders, but which could very well disrupt the entire transportation sector.