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Overview of the Americans With Disabilities Act Part I: Paratransit

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Overview of the Effect That the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 Has on Transit in the United States: Part I - Paratransit

Along with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act , the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 has the most impact on the operations of transit systems, with the exception of regulations associated with statistical requirements.

To put it simply, the ADA requires that providers of public accommodations, including public transit systems, provide reasonably accommodations to persons with disabilities so that they can make the same use of, for example transit systems, that able-bodied people can. In terms of public transit, the ADA affects three broad areas of transit: the service transit provides, the vehicles that the service is provided in, and the stops and stations from which people access transit. This section deals with the provision of paratransit service for passengers who cannot utilize regular fixed-route services. Part II deals with the effect that the ADA has on transit vehicles and Part III deals with the effect that the ADA has on stops and stations.

Paratransit consists of origin-to-destination service provided by lift-equipped taxis and vans for passengers who cannot take advantage of regular fixed route transit service. The concept of origin-to-destination service (as opposed to curb-to-curb) is important because it means that paratransit operators must make sure that the passenger can travel between the drop-off point (usually the curb) and the destination; i.e. by assisting passengers down a snow-covered sidewalk. Note that the responsibility for the paratransit operator ends at the door (drivers are not required to enter a building) and they are not required to do anything unsafe.

Paratransit passengers must meet one of the following eligibility requirements and be accepted before they can schedule a trip:

As a result of disability or health-related condition a passenger is:

  1. unable to travel to or from transit stops or stations within the service area
  2. unable to independently board, ride or exist an accessible fixed-route vehicle
  3. unable to independently "navigate the system" even if they could otherwise get to a stop and get on and off the bus

In some areas, the local transit provider may provide additional paratransit options beyond the federally required one; these paratransit providers may have less stringent eligibility requirements than referenced above.

After their eligibility is confirmed, passengers call a transit system call center to schedule their trip. The call center must schedule all trips that the passenger wishes to take on the day after the call (some paratransit providers may be able to schedule same day trips) or future dates and cannot schedule a pickup that is more than 60 minutes before or 60 minutes after the desired time. In order to avoid federal charges that the transit system is unlawfully limiting capacity of its paratransit operations, call centers should aim to answer 95% of all calls in three minutes and 98% in five minutes. No busy signals should ever be encountered.

The following are essential federal requirements of the paratransit service:

  1. Transit systems must accept paratransit trip origin and destinations anywhere within 3/4 of a mile of a fixed route. These origin and destinations need only be served when the fixed-route service is operating; in other words, a paratransit provider need not pick up someone at 9 PM whose origin is within 3/4 of a mile of a bus route that ends service at 7 PM. Many transit systems allow origin and destinations that are farther than 3/4 of a mile away from the nearest bus route.
  2. Transit systems are allowed to charge paratransit riders a maximum of twice the normal fixed-route fare. Considering that paratransit trips can easily cost $25 per passenger, paratransit operation is a significant drain on the resources of the transit system. Some systems offer discounted fares in excess of federal requirements, for example free rides for wheelchair users, in an attempt to divert more passengers to the fixed-route service. Systems that operate paratransit services in excess of what is federally required are allowed to charge additional fares for any such "premium" service.
  3. Complementary paratransit services must be provided by all entities operating fixed-route service, whether the service is operated by a public or private agency. However, agencies that only provide on-demand or dial-a-ride services available to the general public do not need to provide a separate paratransit service.

As mentioned above, federal law requires that paratransit operations have sufficient resources to avoid capacity constraints. In addition to call center hold times, paratransit systems must limit the number of pickups and drop-offs that occur before or after the 1 hour time window; trips that cannot be scheduled because no vehicle is available; trips missed by the transit agency due to vehicle breakdown or other reason; and trips with excessive lengths, i.e. passengers being taken out of their way in order to facilitate the pickups and drop-offs of other passengers. Excessive amounts of the above will invite complaints and unwanted Federal Transit Administration scrutiny.

One aspect of paratransit operations that often generates controversy is what to do with passengers who fail to show up for their trip. The FTA allows providers to create and enforce "no show" policies for passengers who repeatedly fail to take scheduled trips. These policies allow for the suspension or paratransit privileges for a reasonable period, which should be measured in days, not months and especially years, of time of people who engage in a pattern of "no shows". Although most transit agencies suspend riding privileges for passengers who miss a set amount of trips per month, the FTA has indicated that suspension needs to be enforced only after an analysis of the pattern of the passenger's paratransit trip record; in other words, the suspension should be applied qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Paratransit providers may allow passengers the option of paying a fine instead of receiving a suspension, but cannot force passengers to do so. "No shows" can only be charged to the passenger if missing the trip was within the passenger's control. "No shows" that are caused by the transit system - i.e. if the vehicle goes to the wrong location - can never be charged to the passenger.

This summary is but a brief overview of paratransit operations. For more information, refer to the FTA's section on the American With Disabilities Act . In the next section we will examine how transit vehicles have to meet ADA requirements.

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