Expansion of Denver paratransit service includes groceries and on-demand rides


The Regional Transportation District has experimented with solving transportation problems for people with disabilities.

Forty-four years ago, Denver’s only public transit provider didn’t have a single bus that was accessible to people with physical disabilities. Tired of disrespect and neglect by the Regional Transportation District (RTD), a Coloradans “gang of 19” gathered to protest. Their sit-in in the middle of an intersection near the state capitol sparked a revolution that remains at the forefront of the minds of policymakers and advocates as the region strives to improve access to transportation for people with disabilities.

Before the pandemic, Denver’s Access-a-Ride paratransit service transported more than 17,000 people a week. When most people think of paratransit service, they envision a large minibus with an oversized wheelchair lift, but Access-a-Ride provides transportation for Denver residents who are deaf, blind, or have other disabilities. mental, emotional or learning. “About 60 percent of people who use RTD paratransit service do not have physical mobility issues,” said Jaime Lewis, transit advisor for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition.

During COVID, demand dropped and 100 drivers were laid off. Now that traffic is back, RTD is struggling with reliability. “Routes are disrupted due to a lack of drivers, and it’s really difficult for us and our customers,” said Paul Hamilton, Senior Director of Paratransit Services at RTD. He says it has been a “challenge” to meet their on-time targets during peak demand (7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.).

These logistical challenges quickly translate into huge quality of life issues for the disability community. While some current issues have been caused by the pandemic, Denver residents with disabilities have long felt they can’t rely on RTD’s paratransit service if they want to live their lives to the fullest, according to Lewis. “If you were to use Access-a-Ride to get to work, you probably won’t have that job for long because they won’t get you there in time and you probably won’t get home until 7 p.m. their current service,” he said.

RTD has experimented with ways to provide better service. The agency implemented a free food delivery service in March 2020, to help customers avoid grocery store challenges with social distancing protocols. To date, the program has provided over 2,000 deliveries. By reducing the number of round trips to get people to the store, the program also saves Access-a-Ride resources and staff time.

RTD also launched a pilot program with Uber and Metro Taxi last November – under the Access On Demand brand – to offer up to four subsidized rides per day. What started with a zip code in southeast Denver quickly grew to seven, then to the entire metro area starting Jan. 1, 2022.

While Access-a-Ride requires people to book a trip more than 24 hours in advance, eligible passengers can now call a car on demand, just like anyone else who uses a taxi or a carpooling. Access On Demand is proving so popular with Denver paratransit riders that RTD is looking to strike a deal with Lyft in the coming months to expand the number of drivers in the program beyond Metro Taxi and Uber. However, defenders warn that for the serve to be successful, RTD will need to be alert to potential speed bumps.

“Uber drivers are not trained to deal with people with disabilities,” Lewis warned. “They are subcontractors, so RTD has no control over them.” To help alleviate these concerns, Lewis and CCDC want to add rules that require drivers to receive some type of disability sensitivity training.

According to RTD, the agency has taxi drivers under contract to cover peak hours who receive the same training as paratransit bus drivers. Regarding the on-demand service, RTD wrote in a statement to Next City: “Customers who opt to use a taxi or Uber under this service choose this alternative instead of transport adapted. As such, they participate in the same commercial on-demand service as the general public. Uber is already experimenting in a few markets with drivers receiving both additional training and certification, and how [to] provide door-to-door service rather than curb-to-curb. We can request such a solution when we extend the post-pilot service, while leaving the entire on-demand solution open. This would ensure that we maximize the number of drivers available to our customers. »

Another obstacle to Access On Demand’s success could be its own popularity. A similar pilot program run by the New York MTA became so restrictive in order to handle growing demand that people with disabilities did not even have enough trips per month to go to work five days a week, let alone access other purchases, medical and social. Needs.

“When these on-demand systems are super convenient, people want to use them all the time, and they don’t scale well,” said Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative. “Up to a quarter of people don’t know how to drive, which means these solutions need to evolve. Some people with physical disabilities need door-to-door assistance, but what really works for the rest of us is having frequent, fixed-route public transit service with sidewalks, benches and shelters.

RTD doesn’t seem concerned about scaling. They hope to launch an advertising campaign to promote the new service to users.

But whether people with disabilities travel using traditional paratransit service, on-demand services, or classic fixed-route transit, the biggest challenge to improving mobility for Denver’s disability community is funding. .

“The sales tax for RTD was set 30 years ago and has never increased,” Lewis explained. “It’s like taking a job and never getting a raise or a bonus, but still trying to live on that same salary from 30 years ago. You could never survive.

Wyatt Gordon was born and raised in Richmond with a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s degree in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. He currently covers transportation, housing and land use for the Virginia Mercury. He also works as the policy and campaign manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Wyatt is a proud Northsider who you can find walking, biking, and busing all over town.


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