The 1990 U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all public transit operators receiving federal funds to provide special demand responsive, or paratransit, services for people with disabilities who can’t use or travel to accessible transit buses. These services are not designed for seniors per se but many systems find that a large share of their ADA riders are older than 75. All five of the major transit authorities in the Texas Triangle megaregion have seen their costs soar an average of 21% over the last five years. The unweighted average operating cost of a one-way paratransit trip for these five transit systems was almost $43 in 2018; taking one person to and from the grocery store or doctor or church, for example, cost $88 (not including capital costs).
This Research Brief assesses the 2013 – 2018 operating costs and ridership patterns of the ADA paratransit services in the five major cities in the Texas Triangle—the megaregion at the heart of the state: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. Our findings are both informative and sobering. ADA service costs in all five systems are high and rising rapidly, substantially ahead of increases in ridership; most systems are spending many times more for the average ADA paratransit rider than for any of their other riders.
Public transit systems thus have powerful incentives to impose the strictest rider eligibility requirements allowed by law, refusing to allow anyone but the most disabled seniors to qualify and reducing services to the minimum areas required by law. Transit systems even have incentives to reduce regular bus services in low density areas to avoid the obligation to provide these increasingly costly ADA paratransit services that must parallel those buses. Many Texas seniors now and in the future will likely be negatively affected by such policies.
Planners and policymakers must come to grips with the escalating costs of these services as the Texas population of seniors likely to need and deserve them increases rapidly. We must generate substantial funding to expand ADA paratransit services, as well as to improve the pedestrian network, augment traditional transit services, and encourage innovative or non-traditional transit services that allow seniors to safely use more cost-effective transit options.
ADA Paratransit and Seniors
ADA paratransit services are not actually designed for seniors; the ADA protects people of any age who have disabilities so serious that they cannot get to or ride accessible buses. In 2014 only 41.6% of those over 65 (and 54% of those over 75) had a self-reported “severe disability.” Having minor issues or being unable to drive, for example, do not qualify a senior for such services. Most transit systems, as a result, will not consider seniors without substantial disabilities to be eligible for ADA services. Operators can also restrict service geographically: the ADA only requires transit operators to provide paratransit services within ¾ of a mile of an existing bus route. Operators don’t have to provide paratransit services along rail routes or in any parts of the community lacking regular bus services.
Many U.S. transit operators in the last two decades have considerably tightened their eligibility requirements and reduced paratransit service areas to the minimums required by law due to rapidly rising costs. Some operators in the US have, in fact, refused to extend regular bus services to avoid the extremely costly ADA mandates that accompany those services; some systems have been accused of actually cutting regular bus services in suburban areas to do so. The riders most affected by such policies are often seniors.
Transit System ADA Paratransit Services in the Texas Triangle
The five Texas Triangle transit operators provide most or all ADA mandated paratransit services in one or both of two ways. The most common approach is to provide demand responsive (DR) services in dedicated, generally lift-equipped, vans and buses with salaried drivers. These vehicles do not provide any other services than those to people with disabilities; they may be dispatched and operated by the transit system itself or by a private company under contract to the transit operator. The second method used by transit operators is to contract with taxi operators (and just recently with TNCs like Lyft and Uber) to serve eligible riders who do not require lift-equipped vehicles, such as the visually impaired. Some systems also or only contract with taxis for trips too long to productively provide in a heavily used accessible van or as a back-up, particularly when demand exceeds system capacity (the ADA generally forbids refusing service to an eligible rider based on so-called capacity constraints).
Taxi services are often cheaper than DR services because the driver/company can use the vehicles for regular riders when not serving ADA passengers. ADA riders who can use a taxi are also cheaper to transport because they, as a rule, require less total time and assistance to board and disembark. In 2018, three of the five Texas Triangle transit systems used both DR and taxi operators. San Antonio’s VIA system used taxis in 2018 for the first time while Austin’s Capital Metro, which used taxis to augment DR services in two of the five years between 2013 and 2018, stopped doing in 2017. The distribution of trips between these two modes varied widely however—almost 60% of Dallas’ ADA riders were carried in taxis while less than 1% of San Antonio’s ADA riders were. The differences between cities and in the same city over time may reflect the fact that not all local taxi operators are interested or capable of serving ADA passengers at any given time. Transit systems may also find it difficult to ensure that taxi drivers not specifically trained to serve ADA riders do so appropriately. None of the five systems used TNCs (eg Lyft and Uber) for ADA services in 2018 although several later began talks or services with these kinds of providers.
Table 1 shows the 2018 ADA service and operating cost patterns of the five major transit operators in the Texas Triangle using data from the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) National Transit Database (NTD)*. The NTD data are supplied to the FTA by the individual transit systems; 2018 is the latest year for which these data are available. Table 1 makes clear how very expensive ADA mandated paratransit services are. The average cost per one-way trip** for dedicated demand responsive (DR) service ranged from a high of $60.46 in Austin to a low of $29.43 in Houston.
There was also a wide range of taxi costs in 2018. Dallas spent over $38 for each one-way taxi trip for an ADA passenger while Houston paid only $14.61 for such trips. Still the cost of an individual ADA trip in a taxi was generally substantially cheaper than a DR trip in all three cities. Houston’s MTA paid roughly half the cost of a DR trip for each ADA rider accommodated in a taxi.
The data do not indicate why there is such a wide range of costs among the five systems. Individual systems may face significant differences in the type of passengers carried, geographic constraints, the number and kind and willingness of local DR or taxi operators to contract with the transit system, and other significant operating characteristics.***
Table I also makes clear how very expensive the total operating costs of ADA services are. Austin’s Capital Metro spent almost 50 million dollars in 2018 for roughly 676,000 annual one-way ADA trips—or fewer than 940 roundtrips a day. Houston Metro carried substantially more one-way ADA trips than any other system in the Texas Triangle, almost 1.9 million, but spent 55.6 million dollars to do so.
Table II illustrates trends between 2013 and 2018 for total combined ADA paratransit ridership (that is, DR services plus taxis where relevant) and ADA combined costs. These numbers are even more striking. ADA paratransit ridership went up for four of the five systems, ranging from 15.6% for Houston to 1% for San Antonio. ADA ridership went down 8% for Fort Worth’s Trinity Transit (although costs still rose substantially). Total annual operating costs, however, increased for all five systems by an unweighted average of almost 21%—that is costs rose substantially faster than ridership in just five years. Houston Metro came closest to parity in the growth of ridership and operating costs; its ADA paratransit ridership increased 15.6% while operating costs increased “only” 21% over the five year period. San Antonio’s VIA Metro Transit had the biggest gap between the percent changes in ridership and costs; the system’s total ADA paratransit ridership increased only 1% while operating costs increased 22%, or a gap of 23 percentage points.
Figure I compares the 2018 annual operating costs and the ridership patterns of all ADA paratransit services (DR plus taxis [where relevant] combined), to the total system operating costs and ridership totals for all five transit systems.** It is clear that the five transit systems spend a significant share of their total operating costs on a relatively small share of their total riders. The top, darker orange line indicates what percent of total transit system ridership the combined ADA paratransit services accounted for in 2018. The bottom, darker grey line, shows what percent of total system operating costs that the combined paratransit services accounted for. The disparities are stunning—in no case did ADA paratransit ridership account for more than 6.3% of total system ridership while costing as much as 26% of the total system operating budget. Dallas’ DART had the smallest gap between the share of ADA costs and ridership—the system spent 7% of its total operating budget to provide services to 1.3% of its total ridership.
Ridership rose fairly consistently over the five year period for four of the five systems but total and unit ADA costs varied slightly for all five systems. Figure II shows the five-year one-way trip cost patterns, making clear that unit costs were largely increasing but there were some annual variations. The NTD data give no way to understand why costs (or ridership) might rise or fall from one year to another or again why they vary so much between systems. Variable unit costs in the same system may result from changes in eligibility screening, contract providers, or dispatching programs, and/or by moving some riders to taxi services from DR services or vice versa.
The real demand for such services resolutely increases, however, as the number of seniors grows in the Texas Triangle where almost two thirds of the state’s total population lives. Texas now has the third largest population of seniors in the US, only slightly behind California and Florida—and those numbers grow yearly.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Many seniors, and their adult children, expect that they will be able to use ADA paratransit services when they can no longer drive, are unable to get a ride from friends or family, or can’t afford a taxi or a TNC service like Lyft or Uber. Transit systems, however, are not required by the ADA to provide paratransit services to seniors in those situations; few do so now and most will be even less likely to do so in the future as both costs and demand mount. Many systems will continue to cut ADA paratransit services to the minimum service area allowable and may even reduce regular bus service to lower their ADA obligations.
Simple calculations suggest that in 10 -15 years the costs of serving just the growing number of seniors who do have significant disabilities will overwhelm all these transit systems. Still unserved will be the growing number of suburban seniors, some with significant disabilities, who lack ADA services, don’t have or can’t get to any public transit options, and don’t want to or shouldn’t drive. There will be very limited incentives for public transit operators to extend any services to areas that currently lack them. (Adding to these difficulties is the Federal requirement that transit systems must give all seniors, regardless of income or disability, half-fares on regular transit services, still further reducing their likelihood of extending such services to meet senior transportation needs).
These realities pose a serious challenge to Texas public transit systems and to all the riders who depend on them. Planners, policymakers, gerontologists, and senior advocates have to act now to address these issues. Among the potential solutions;
- Add, improve, and maintain sidewalks and intersections and make all bus stops fully accessible to create walkable neighborhoods with better pedestrian access to public transit;
- Expand the service area of both traditional public transit and ADA paratransit services;
- Increase and improve transit travel training programs; and,
- Experiment with multiple ways to make regular public transit options more useful and accessible to seniors with and without serious disabilities.
Improving pedestrian infrastructure would make it easier for all seniors to walk in their communities and to public transit. Doing so would also reduce ADA paratransit service demand since some riders qualify for ADA paratransit service simply because, lacking adequate pedestrian facilities, they are unable to get to/from accessible bus stops in their neighborhoods or at their destinations.
Expanding both conventional public transit and ADA paratransit services in the suburban and low density places in which most Texas seniors are aging would create more mobility options for everyone including seniors. Increasing and improving existing travel training programs which show seniors how to use buses and trains would enhance the use of conventional transit while reducing paratransit demand. Many suburban residents haven’t used public transit in decades and need help to navigate what is for them often unfamiliar territory.
We also need to modify the services provided by conventional public transit, making these services more accessible for seniors with and without serious disabilities, There is substantial discussion of using, for example, micro-transit and other last mile options (including TNCs) to connect riders to accessible transit vehicles at stops too far to walk. It’s important to experiment with many potentially useful transit services and give them adequate time to convince seniors to make the kinds of changes that would allow them to make better use of public transit. Transit systems often try very short term experiments which they swiftly cancel if they don’t immediately see large ridership gains. But short term services are unlikely to induce anyone to make major changes in their lives (selling their car for example or moving home to more transit rich neighborhoods). Quickly canceling or reducing any service only convinces potential riders that public transit is unreliable and unable to consistently meet their needs.
These are all costly solutions and require a change in public will. The trends in the cost and ridership patterns of the ADA paratransit services provided by the five Texas Triangle transit systems described here should serve as the canary in the mine to anyone concerned about senior mobility in Texas, and indeed the viability of public transit operations, as the growing number of Texas seniors continues to age in low density and suburban neighborhoods. Failure to develop and fund realistic transportation solutions now will force many seniors to drive when they shouldn’t or don’t want to, dooming those seniors who increasingly cannot drive to isolation, depression, increased illness, and premature death while robbing Texas communities of the important services that seniors with mobility can provide as workers, grandparents, and volunteers.
*All transit systems receiving federal funding must report a specific set of cost and service data to the Federal Transit Administration; these data are then entered into the National Transit Database (NTD)—on which this research brief is based. In 2012 a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that the ADA paratransit system data reported to the NTD by some transit operators may not be accurate. The report commented “In analyzing [system data], we found data discrepancies, such as incomplete data, that understate or overstate the number of ADA trips and amount of expenses. Specifically we found that about one-third of transit agencies did not report these data in the years we analyzed…some misunderstand the definition of ADA paratransit services and make reporting errors as a result” (p 23). They also noted that some transit systems provide non-ADA paratransit services which they have lumped in with ADA ridership and cost data.
**Here a one-way trip is actually what the transit industry calls an unlinked trip or every time someone enters any transit or paratransit vehicle. A paratransit passenger who goes from her home to a doctor’s office in an ADA paratransit vehicle, 90 minutes later leaves the MD office and enters another ADA paratransit vehicle to go to a pharmacy, and then 30 minutes later leaves the pharmacy and enters another paratransit vehicle to return home, creates three unlinked trips.
***The operating expenses that transit systems report for directly providing ADA paratransit services in system vehicles do not include major capital costs. Their DR contractors however, do amortize their capital costs into the charges for which they bill the transit operator, which in turn the transit system categorizes as operating costs. So operating cost totals are not entirely comparable between transit operators that do and do not contract for any aspect of ADA services because some reported operating expenses actually include capital costs while others do not.
REFERENCES AND RELEVANT STUDIES
Babka, R. J., Cooper, J. F., and Ragland, D.R. (2010). Removing Barriers for Seniors at Transit Stops and Stations and the Potential for Transit Ridership Growth. In PATH Research Report. Richmond, CA: California PATH Program, Institute of Transportation Studies. Retrieved from: https://merritt.cdlib.org/d/ark%3A%2F13030%Fm57s9sr8/1/producer%2FUCB-ITS-PRR-2010-31.pdf
Florida Atlantic University. (2010). Attracting Senior Drivers to Public Transportation: Issues and Concerns. Miami, FL: Florida Atlantic University, Retrieved from: www.fta.dot.gov/documents/TRANSPO_Attracing_Seniors_Public_Transportation_Final_Report.pdf
Goodman, J. (2009). The Costliest Ride. Governing. 22(10), 50-52.
Menninger, H. and Werly, V. (2014). Americans with Disabilities Act cost savings and increased fixed-route ridership through transit agency travel training; Case study of Riverside Transit Agency, California. Transportation Research Record. 2469, 89 – 99.
Mid-Atlantic Universities Transportation Ceneter. (2016). Integration of Multimodal Transportation Services. Retrieved from: www.mautc,psu.edu/docs/MAUTC-2013-pdf
National Center for Transit Research. (2009). Impacts of More Rigorous ADA Eligibility Assessments on Riders with Disabilities. Tampa, FL: NCTR. Retrieved from: www.nctr.usf.edu/pdf/77721.pdf
National Disability and Aging Center. (2014). Determining ADA Eligibility: An Approach, Recommendations, and Training Materials. Retrieved from: www.nadtc.org/wp-content/uploads/NADTC-Determining-ADA-Paratransit-Eligibility.pdf
Ranahan, M.E., Maisel, J. L., and Lenker, J.A. (2018). How transit agencies implement best practice strategies in complementary paratransit eligibility. Journal of Public Transportation. 21(2), 73-85. DOI 10.5038/2375-0901.21.2.5
Transit Cooperative Research Program. (2013). Strategy Guide to Enable and Promote the Use of Fixed-Route Transit by People with Disabilities. TCRP Report 163. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board.
“Travel Training Options Help Take the Pressure Off Paratransit Services.” (2011). Metro Magazine. 107(6), 50 – 54. Retrieved from: http://metromag.epubxpress.com/
U.S. Census Bureau. (2018). Americans with Disabilities: 2014. Current Population Reports. P70-152. Retrieved from: www.census.gov/content/da/Census/library/publications/2018/demo/p70-152.pdf
U.S. Federal Transit Administration, National Transit Database. (nd). Retrieved from: www.transit.dot.gov/ntd/transit-agency-profiles
All 2013 through 2018 data in the tables and figures were calculated from the data in the individual annual profiles of the five Texas Triangle transit operators.
U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2012). ADA Paratransit Services; Demand Has Increased, but Little is Known about Compliance. Report GAO-13-A. Retrieved from: www.gao.gov/assests/660/650079.pdf