As a result of DIA’s activism in documenting and publicizing the woes of Access-a-Ride (AAR), the City Council hearings, the NY Daily News articles by Greg Smith, and the activism and persistence of many AAR riders, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) assessed the policies and practices of Access-a-Ride, and issued a report in October 2004. The entire report is available on DIA’s website at www.disabledinaction.org.
On the whole, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) found Access-a-Ride (AAR) to be a well-run system, but they picked up on some problems which riders have been complaining about for years, and ongoing reports and negotiations between the FTA and AAR have been and will continue to occur until the issues have been resolved. It is important to note that this report was an assessment, a snapshot at one time, not a deep investigation.
The main body of the report is long, 150 pages, with a list of 17 attachments that were not included in the publicly issued body of the report. The assessment was done on-site in September, 2003 by an independent consultant for the Office of Civil Rights of the FTA, but data was also collected for the six months previous to the onsite visit. The MTA is continuing to give the FTA information in regular reports.
The information obtained might seem to be too old to be relevant now, but the FTA looked at policies and practices of AAR, too, and those affect our AAR experiences even now. Some of the findings have been corrected and some are still waiting for a resolution.
Late cancellation and suspension policies
Perhaps the largest FTA recommendation is that AAR change their late cancellation policy to allow cancellations without penalty up to several hours of the ride. The FTA also recommends that the public should have input on this policy change. The Bay Area (near San Francisco) paratransit system and Chicago paratransit allow cancellations without penalty up to 2 hours before the ride. Changing the cancellation policy would reduce a lot of stress amongst all riders and would still make AAR an efficient service. How many times have we taken an AAR ride when we really did not feel well but we did not want to get penalized for a late cancellation? Too many times to count. And AAR, like all transit agencies, counts on late cancellations to help them keep their schedules.
The FTA also recommended that AAR revise its policy for service suspensions, taking into account the frequency of use of service and the percentage of no-show or late cancellations. Again, the FTA says AAR should obtain public input on this policy revision. It seems that AAR is recommending that the period of time that six no-shows or late cancellations would be allowed would be shortened from 6 months to 3 months, but it still does not take into account how many times a person rides during that time.
The assessment uncovered an eligibility problem with AAR contractors who were often giving eligibility for a PCA (personal care attendant) only if an applicant could not travel alone. They failed to give eligibility to a PCA if an applicant needed a PCA at the point of origin or destination. The contractors have been instructed to be more inclusive. Several other issues with eligibility, such as stopping the clock during the application process and some unrealistic eligibility categories have been corrected.
AAR provides service throughout New York City, but AAR does not provide service to portions of Nassau or Westchester Counties that are within ¾ mile of NYCT local bus routes as the ADA requires. Thus, AAR customers have to call both paratransit systems, arrange 2 rides, and pay 2 fares. The FTA recommended changing this policy and including areas which fall within ¾ mile of the bus routes which are outside NYC limits. Some MTA buses go well into Nassau County but AAR does not do that. So far, AAR has been resistant to doing this. Perhaps the answer would be to integrate all the paratransit systems in NYC and the surrounding suburban, metropolitan counties. Getting rides from one paratransit jurisdiction to another is a persistent, difficult, stressful, and often time-consuming undertaking for paratransit riders.
The reservationists appeared to be well-trained and phone answering times were satisfactory. A problem that has recurred especially since the FTA assessment has happened when the reservationists apparently don’t complete the reservation process properly and we are told we did not make a reservation for the ride we are expecting. This happens even when we go through the confirmation process over the phone. Perhaps an adjustment to the software could be made to greatly minimize this problem because it is disruptive to our lives, it creates undue stress, and it ends up being a form of denial. Anytime we are offered a ride but actually don’t get one, it is a denial.
The FTA found that limiting the times riders can book return trips by making them wait an hour or an hour and a half does not provide service that is comparable to fixed route service. The FTA suggests that AAR shorten the turn-around time more than AAR has. Now it is one hour for another borough or the same borough. It used to be 2 ½ hours for another borough and 1 ½ hours for the same borough. Activists are pushing for 15 to 30 minutes turnaround time.
Reservationists only offer one pick-up time and do not negotiate times as the ADA intends. The FTA also does not approve of making customers call back to get a different pick-up time.
Dispatch and Command Center
Customers were rerouted from one person to another and told to call back instead of being able to have one person handle their problem. For example, it took one call to cancel and another call to rebook a trip. The FTA suggests that it be more of a one-call service.
The FTA consultant noticed that command center personnel wasted their own and the carrier dispatcher’s time by calling during the window to see what the status of the ride was. This caused too much inefficiency. Riders would disagree with this.
Some dispatchers called customers and told them the vehicle was outside. This implied that they better get out there and board early. The FTA says that customers need to be told they need not board early. We know from experience that drivers often do the same thing and sometimes want to leave if you don’t get on the van immediately.
Command center personnel will not let riders call more than an hour before their scheduled pick-up time to say they will be late and will need a later pick-up. The FTA thinks that AAR should allow riders to cancel their ride early and ask for a different pick-up time.
Dispatchers at MV were not on top of things and did not poll drivers often enough.
MV had too many vehicles out of service on some days.
Taxi Authorizations and black car vouchers -- Black car vouchers and/or taxi authorizations are offered, but only 20% are used. The FTA said,
"This appears to indicate that the vouchers have limited effectiveness in reducing the number of missed and late trips."
Late pick-ups – The FTA wants AAR to reduce late pick-ups and pick passengers up sooner. This is a continuing problem as the day progresses.
"performance issues" with MV on the weekend. The MTA removed MV from weekend service after a long delay of bad service.
AAR does not have a performance standard for drop-offs with an appointment time and the FTA would like them to have one.
The FTA would like AAR to have a better system of back-up or rescue vans so riders do not get stranded for a very long time. The percentage might be small, but a large number of people are affected each day, and it can be traumatic. Editor’s note – This is a long-standing problem for Access-a-Ride and the riders. There is no excuse to make a person wait more than 30 minutes. It is just too difficult.
Long trips – Some trips are too long. What can AAR do to prevent this from happening?
The FTA suggests that dispatchers call all customers who are going to be no-showed before the van leaves.
The FTA found that complaints are not responded to within 60 business days. Editor’s note – Many riders never have their complaints responded to. Some are responded to 9 months later.
The FTA advised AAR to analyze the computer system to identify and eliminate slowdowns or to allow other functions to be performed on the system while run times are being updated.
No Fault No Shows -- (p. 30)
"It appears that more than 50% of the trips categorized as No Fault No Shows, or 0.2% of scheduled trips may be missed trips." This is common anecdotal complaint for riders.
Oversight - AAR needs to monitor the adequacy of the driver work force for each carrier and provide assistance, as appropriate, in driver recruitment.
Manifests – Not all drivers understand the difference between estimated time and negotiated pick-up times on the manifest. They need training.
No-shows -- Some drivers leave without talking to their dispatcher first when a customer is a no-show.
Disabled In Action hopes that these kinks can be worked out with the least fuss possible so that Access-a-Ride will be a more reliable, user-friendly service. AAR has improved from where it was five years ago, but it still needs more improvement.