Get on the Bus! Balancing fixed-route and paratransit services

By Mary Ebeling
Transit agencies typically struggle, logistically and financially, to provide service to those unable to ride fixed-route buses. These riders need access to transportation, but the additional costs of paratransit can drain agency coffers and result in reductions to the operating budgets for fixed-route service. Without a plan to manage these costs, the entire system can be put at risk. Fixed-route bus transit typically carries more people than paratransit or on-demand service; at the same time, transit providers are keenly aware of the social equity needs met by paratransit.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), fixed-route transit providers must offer ADA-complementary paratransit within a ¾ mile zone around a transit agency’s fixed-route service. Paratransit service need not be restricted to the ADA service area, and is more broadly defined as an on-demand, door-to-door service for individuals unable to ride a fixed-route bus either due to disability or to residing outside the transit service area. Not surprisingly, complementary service costs significantly more than traditional fixed-route service.
In this era of increasing transit use paired with constrained budgets, many agencies are investigating how to reduce paratransit costs while minimizing rider impacts. DART First State, the transit agency in Wilmington, Delaware, has tasked itself with finding the elusive middle ground of providing equitable paratransit service while not crippling the ability of the agency to grow in response to increasing ridership. DART currently offers paratransit service to any location in the state, and to developments too dispersed to support fixed-route services. This service model far exceeds federal requirements, and is in fact something of an exceptional case. Nationally, transit systems spend an average of 10.9 percent of their budget on paratransit. In Delaware, 45.4 percent of DART’s budget is spent on paratransit. Currently, a paratransit rider pays $4 for a round trip that the state estimates costs an average $92. This service model is recognized as unsustainable, ultimately jeopardizing transit service for all customers statewide
Revisions to DTC’s model break trips into two categories, or zones. The first zone includes only those trips within ¾ of a mile of local fixed-route services, as required by the ADA. The second would apply to Delawareans traveling outside this zone. Changes to services outside the ADA zone include proposed increases starting March 2, 2014, and increasing the fare to $7 a trip in 2015. Implementing shared ride taxi programs is also under consideration. Agencies may also want to consider contracting regional shuttle services to connect riders living outside the fixed-route zone to regular bus service.
Lessons learned as DART completes the restructuring of its paratransit service will provide a useful test case for other agencies struggling to provide cost-effective paratransit service.
Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.