scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Long a sore spot for riders with disabilities, service on the RIDE has gotten worse because of staffing shortages

Service on the RIDE is getting worse
WATCH: Correspondent Daniel Kool reports on the T’s service for people with disabilities and how the RIDE has been plagued with long delays and missed rides.

Jim Wice’s afternoon lunch was about to become an all-day affair.

The South Boston resident, who uses a powered wheelchair to get around, had requested a noon pickup from the MBTA’s paratransit service, the RIDE, for a 1 p.m. lunch with a friend. The night before, a RIDE dispatcher called to tell Wice he could expect the van outside his apartment at 11:45 a.m.

But the van arrived early, sometime before 11:25 a.m, forcing Wice to cut preparations short and greet his driver for fear of being labeled a no-show. His journey back would also come with its share of time-warping trouble.


Using the RIDE, Wice says, means forgoing control over his routine. “You can’t be as spontaneous,” he said, while waiting for another RIDE passenger to board.

The RIDE provides transit service for Boston-area residents with disabilities who may be unable to use fixed-route service, such as buses and subways. Long a sore spot, service has gotten worse for some users as the acute labor shortage that has hit so many parts of the economy has left the RIDE well short of drivers and staffers for its call center.

There is no app or real-time GPS tracking; the limited call and text alerts are unreliable. Seasoned RIDE users have become chary of taking the “arriving shortly” messages at face value. If their car doesn’t show, commuters have to call a hot line and wait on average more than five minutes for a dispatcher to provide an update. Meanwhile, drivers only have to wait five minutes before they can request to leave.

If for some reason riders miss their pickup, no matter how long they’ve waited, they risk being labeled a no-show. Earn enough no-shows and they could get temporarily suspended from the service.

The MBTA says on its website that “travel times are comparable to the same trip taken on fixed-route transit (bus, subway, or trolley), plus an additional 20 minutes.” But RIDE users say that’s not always true, and issues with the service, which costs $3.35 or $5.60 per trip, go deeper than delays.


Wice has taken the RIDE to get around greater Boston for decades. But in that time, he said, the quality of service has worsened, with drivers often arriving late or canceling altogether, the rides themselves long and bumpy, and information not very clear or accessible.

Current MBTA paratransit ridership trails pre-pandemic levels, down to 111,000 in January from 157,000 in January 2020. Those figures mostly consist of traditional RIDE pickups, scheduled in advance and typically fulfilled by MBTA-branded vehicles, but they also count “on-demand” pickups, which are fulfilled by ride-hailing companies, including Uber and Lyft, and have grown to include about a third of all ridership.

But even with fewer trips, the RIDE’s on-time performance has worsened since 2020: now at around 90 percent, from 95 percent of trips, bottoming out at less than 88 percent in April. And complaints continue to pour in as consistently as ever, according to data provided by the MBTA.

It can be just as frustrating when a car shows up earlier than planned. In 2023, around 10 percent of pickups — such as Wice’s — arrived more than 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. While the RIDE does not require users to board an early pickup right away, many say they still feel compelled to hustle when the vehicle is sitting outside.


In January 2020, fewer than 1 percent of pickups were delayed by more than 30 minutes. This year, it’s been between 2 and 3 percent, and each month, thousands of riders wait on the curb for at least 45 minutes.

In periods of extreme cold or heat, riders say, that can feel like forever.

The T’s chief of paratransit services, Michele Stiehler, said the decline in on-time arrivals stems from an industrywide worker shortage, which is creating a domino effect throughout the RIDE’s operation.

“We are struggling quite a bit with the staffing,” Stiehler said in an interview in July. “Which means we are scheduling trips less efficiently because we have less drivers. That has a direct impact on on-time performance, and when on-time performance is impacted, it increases call volume. Our call center is also understaffed.”

Stiehler said the service had 21 percent fewer drivers than are needed, and its call and dispatching center, called The Ride Access Center, or TRAC, is also “close to 20 percent understaffed.”

Having calls answered quickly and representatives accessible are crucial parts of providing quality service and being transparent with riders, according to Ken Shiotani, a senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network.

“If they don’t pick up the phone right away for an appointment the next day, it’s not as urgent as if you’re waiting there on the street, and the vehicle’s not there,” Shiotani said. “That call should be picked up within a minute.”


In May, the last month for which data is available, wait times to schedule a RIDE were up to 9.87 minutes, compared to just 36 seconds in 2020, according to data provided by the MBTA. Checking on the status of a scheduled pickup required a 5.55-minute wait in May, versus just 21 seconds three years ago.

Shiotani said the RIDE’s on-time arrivals were “a little low,” but said the wait times for the call centers were “long, very long.”

However, he said the RIDE’s woes are far from unique. In more than 20 years working in disability rights, Shiotani said, he has never heard of a paratransit system that seemed successful enough to be a model, and current staffing shortages affect more than just accessible transportation.

One of the RIDE's top officials says the T is working hard to improve service.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Multiple drivers told a Globe reporter the RIDE’s hiring issues stem from poor pay, and that wages don’t match the importance and difficulty of their work. One RIDE driver, interviewed while dropping off a passenger by Government Center Station, noted that MBTA bus operators make more for what he called an easier job.

The starting wage for RIDE drivers ranges from just under $19 to around $20 per hour, Stiehler said. Meanwhile, regular T bus drivers start at $22.21 an hour, she said.

Since the RIDE, which has a budget of about $130 million, outsources driving to several contractors, the MBTA does not directly control driver wages. But Stiehler said the agency is looking for ways to offset wages with what she called “market equity adjustments.”


She said the RIDE aims to become “more competitive with the MBTA drivers,” but said a specific wage goal has not been finalized.

Most RIDE trips are handled by two contractors: Veterans Transportation Services and National Express Transit. Representatives of National Express did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Kevin MacDonald, general manager of Veterans Transportation, referred questions about the RIDE’s operation to the MBTA, but wrote in an email that paratransit “has some of the most complex logistics found in any form of travel,” and Boston’s epic traffic only makes routing more difficult.

“Not only do our drivers adapt daily in an environment that continually changes — they do so with good humor and concern for the people we serve,” MacDonald wrote.

In the meantime, the RIDE has modified hiring policies to increase its applicant pool, lowering the minimum age to drive for the service to 18 and hiring part-time drivers to fill peak hours.

Stiehler has also added eight administrative positions, including a crucial customer liaison, bringing total headcount to 27. Since she first joined in January 2022, the department has operated with 14 staff, despite an authorized headcount of 19. Stiehler said she hopes to begin “building our bench.”

Kat Torres Radisic, who facilitates the Rider Transportation Access Group — a community organization that advises the MBTA on accessibility — called the liaison role an important step, but said the ideal candidate would have experience taking the RIDE.

Stiehler is “working really, really hard and has been doing great things, like trying to listen to RTAG,” Torres Radisic said. “Something I do think their team could do better is including people with lived experience, hiring people with lived experience.”

Torres Radisic said Stiehler and her team appear capable of improving service but are shackled by a lack of money.

Intentions aside, service remains poor.

Wice’s morning trip took about one hour, compared to less than 45 minutes on the Red Line, or 15 minutes by private car, according to a route generated on Google Maps. Still, he was more than 30 minutes early to lunch.

For his return trip, Wice requested a 4 p.m. pickup but was told it would come at 4:29 p.m. It was an hour late, getting him home after 6:20. He had been gone for nearly seven hours.

Daniel Kool can be reached at Follow him @dekool01.