Same-Day, Real-Time ADA Paratransit Service: Opportunities And Challenges Ahead

By Brian Dwyer | 4/28/2024

Executive Vice President & Chief Operations Officer
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority – Metro

Hello Transit Industry Colleagues,

The public transportation landscape for people with disabilities has undergone significant transformation in recent years. We have improved fixed-route accessibility and incorporated open gangways into our next-generation railcars. Today, our customers may opt-in to programs such as Abilities Ride as an alternative to paratransit service, offering them same-day service. Now we are poised for another major leap, one that will be transformative to the industry: same-day, real-time ADA paratransit service.

As many of you are aware, on September 14, 2023, the Federal Transit Administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter emphasizing the local option for public transit agencies to offer ADA paratransit trips on a real-time basis and/or allow intermediate stops, alongside the traditional day-before scheduling. This shift will represent a significant advance in our industry’s commitment to providing accessible and equitable transportation options for people with disabilities. However, it also presents challenges we all must navigate.

One of the foremost challenges will be managing customer expectations of the service, keeping in mind that even a same-day, real-time service will be in the context of public transportation. The key to addressing this challenge is effective communication with customers. We will need to establish clear lines of communication for feedback and dialogue, allowing customers to voice their concerns and suggestions as we refine and improve the same-day, real-time service. Providing clear information on how the new system works, what constitutes an on-time pick-up, and what to expect regarding on-board time and shared rides will help manage expectations and build trust.

Demand is also likely to increase given the added convenience and flexibility of same-day, real-time service. This may lead to concerns among some customers about the availability of their regular scheduled trips to dialysis or work. How will same-day service be balanced with scheduled trips and the reliability of the existing paratransit service? If their normal pick-up times change, will the routing change, etc. Agencies may want to consider a gradual phased implementation. For example, starting with a two-hour window while maintaining the traditional day-before model to ease the transition for customers.

Another critical challenge is resource allocation, which requires careful consideration of driver and vehicle support, and operational logistics. Agencies should ensure the necessary resources and personnel to meet increased demand for trips while maintaining reliability and efficiency. To overcome this challenge, systems must leverage technology and ridership data to optimize the resource allocation processes. The use of modern scheduling systems with real-time tracking capabilities and machine learning can help anticipate demand patterns and deploy resources more effectively.

Funding will be critical as well, given that many of us are already struggling with limited resources. In addition to the resources highlighted in the September 14 “Dear Colleague” letter, many agencies may need to advocate for increased funding from federal, state, and local sources to support the implementation of same-day, real-time service.

Capacity management is yet another challenge that cannot be overlooked. As the industry transitions to a more responsive day-to-day paratransit model, systems will need built-in resilience to accommodate spontaneous trip requests without compromising quality or safety. Of course, agencies should ensure equity for all customers, including those who need wheelchair-accessible vehicles. This requires careful coordination and collaboration with frontline operators, same-day schedulers, dispatchers, contractor management, and administrative staff.

Investment in training will be necessary to equip team members with the skills and knowledge to adapt to the demands of same-day, real-time service. Additionally, agencies may need to consider establishing or increasing strategic partnerships with taxi companies, transportation network companies, passenger van companies, and other transportation providers to help supplement the capacity of existing dedicated fleets.

Despite the challenges, the transition to same-day, real-time paratransit service presents exciting opportunities. I am confident that with industry-wide collaboration, we all can successfully manage this through effective communication, data-driven resource allocation, capacity management, and a continued commitment to equity and accessibility. Let us embrace this change with our goal to enhance equity, innovation, and service excellence.