By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Access-A-Ride, the method of public transportation relied upon by many disabled New Yorkers, will finally be brought up to speed, thanks to a new app.
Representatives from Paratransit, the branch of the MTA that operates “demand-response” service for customers with disabilities, have announced that the agency will be launching a unified app by next June to improve transparency and provide flexibility in scheduling rides.
Paratransit said this will allow passengers to reserve trips in advance to areas of the city covered by the subway, even if it’s just one hour in advance. The current system, meanwhile, forces users to reserve rides at least 24 hours in advance and with little recourse if rides are delayed or don’t show at all.
Steven LoPiano, vice president of Paratransit, was at a forum hosted by State Senator Liz Krueger last Thursday at Mount Sinai Union Square to offer information on the improvements and answer questions about the changes.
The pilot program through the new app launched in October and started for 200 customers who were selected on November 29. LoPiano said Paratransit expects to make it available to all users by June 2018. For the pilot, a hundred customers were given access to the app directly and the remaining users participating in the pilot who don’t use smartphones were given a phone number to connect with a representative who would then schedule the trip through the app on their end.
The current system requires riders to book their trip 24 hours in advance, but the app will allow users to log into the system and book a trip one hour in advance, LoPiano said.
Prior to launching the pilot program, Access-A-Ride introduced “e-hail” through its website. Paratransit uses three different modes of transportation, with most rides provided by specific Access-A-Ride vehicles, but users can also reserve rides with black cars and New York City taxis through the system paying the same flat fare, but previously were required to pay the regular taxi fare up front and request a reimbursement. Booking through e-hail allows customers to pay the usual $2.75 fare at the time of booking rather than paying a taxi fare up-front and dealing with the reimbursement process.
All drivers providing Access-A-Ride trips also have GPS in their vehicles now, allowing riders to see the location of the vehicle both before and after pick-up.
The Access-A-Ride program currently has 148,000 participants, 70 percent of whom are seniors and 14 percent of whom are wheelchair users.
At the forum, disability advocates and Access-A-Ride users seemed optimistic about the proposed changes.
“Access-A-Ride allows people with disabilities to be independent but although we have a wonderful service, it’s very unreliable,” said Access-A-Ride user and Center For Independence of the Disabled New York (CIDNY) member Monica Bartley. “There are late pick-ups and ‘scenic tours.’ When I have an important appointment, my anxiety level rises both the day of and the day before. All of what I’ve heard tonight was very encouraging.”
Bartley’s mention of “scenic tours” referred to convoluted routes drivers occasionally take, causing rides to be much longer than anticipated, others at the meeting explained when talking about their Access-A-Ride experiences, and Bartley’s comment prompted laughter from attendees. Access-A-Ride user Eman Rimawi recounted that she once spent five hours on an Access-A-Ride trip and was frustrated that she would then be penalized for canceling another trip.
“You shouldn’t have to ask me why I’m canceling a trip when you can see I was just on a ride that took five hours,” Rimawi said, responding to Access-A-Ride’s request for feedback after a canceled ride.
Rimawi and others at the meeting recounted numerous instances of waiting for more than an hour for a scheduled ride, some that never showed, and without any procedure for getting follow-up information on where the vehicle is.
“Since I’ve been using Access-A-Ride, this has been better,” Rimawi said of being one of the customers chosen for the pilot. “Other things do need improvement but it’s great not being on a trip for five hours.”