Wilhelmina Melrose might be disabled, but she’s no homebody.
Whether it was trips to the mall, church, or her exercise class for diabetics, she was always game to venture out, until now. With last summer’s increase in fares for The Ride, the T’s door-to-door service for seniors and people with disabilities, she can no longer afford to take more than one or two trips per week.
“I don’t like being cornered up in a house all day,” said Melrose, 62, who lives in Roxbury. “I like to do something. I like to exercise my mind.”
Melrose’s plight is exactly what many feared: Seven months after MBTA fare increases kicked in, travel on The Ride has declined more drastically than the 10.3 percent drop-off T officials predicted last March. Between July and December of 2012, registered passengers made 934,985 trips on The Ride, a 16.2 percent decrease from the same six-month period in 2011.
Seniors and disabled individuals say the jump in one-way fares from $2 to $4 has forced them to cut back on outings, spend more time at home, and in some instances, scrimp on life-sustaining trips such as grocery shopping and doctor visits.
“I am absolutely convinced,” said Rick Morin, cochairman of the transportation committee at the Bay State Council of the Blind, “they knew damn well that this was going to bring the number of rides down.”
The Ride, a service mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, has historically been financially draining for the T. On average, each trip costs the state $40, which made the service a prime target for fare hikes last year.
And though the buses and trains have posted modest increases in ridership since the fare increase, bucking T predictions, trips on The Ride have steadily declined.
T officials suggest that many of these riders have been able to take other forms of public transportation, but advocates for senior citizens and people with disabilities are skeptical.
“That’s certainly the exception, rather than the rule,” said Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. “The majority of people who have reduced their use of The Ride are not accessing the community as much as they used to.”
The number of Ride Charlie trips — trips taken on bus or train by individuals eligible for The Ride — have increased by 32.7 percent, suggesting that some disabled riders are indeed switching to fixed-route modes of transit. But that increase represents only 40,049 rides, still leaving 140,000 fewer trips overall by Ride users.
Beverly A. Scott, general manager of the MBTA, said T officials anticipated a drop-off in ridership, but are working to find out whether that decline has occurred mostly among those who have been able to find alternate modes of transportation.
The Massachusetts Office on Disability and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs are compiling a study that they hope will shed some light on how the fare increases have affected seniors and those with disabilities.
With information from that study, Scott said, the T can find alternate approaches to accommodate those without mobility. She wants the MBTA to collaborate with community organizations to provide alternate means of transportation.
“It’s about working in partnership,” Scott said. “One cannot simply look at public transit agencies when we are dealing with something as critical as the ‘silver tsunami,’ and then say the only one that has the responsibility for trying to address this is public transportation, which is absolutely cash-strapped.”
“The T is going to take its piece,” she continued, “but it’s not a solo act.”
Some programs have already begun to help fill the gap. ITNGreaterBoston, founded one year ago, provides car services to senior citizens and people with disabilities, using volunteer drivers and subsidies provided by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and the MetroWest Health Foundation.
The trips cost users a lot more than The Ride; one-way, on average, costs $14. So far, use has been modest: About 150 members have taken 2,000 rides.
Jean Patel Bushnell, executive director of ITNGreaterBoston, envisions that The Ride will begin working in concert with private systems like hers.
Marie Phinney, 73, now relies on a friend to drive her to buy food; she wants to save her Ride budget for doctor visits. But she has cut down her weekly grocery trips to once per month; she doesn’t want to inconvenience her friend.
It is possible that house-bound seniors and people with disabilities will begin to experience health problems as a result of less frequent use of The Ride, said Karen Schneiderman, a senior advocacy specialist at the Boston Center for Independent Living.
“Staying trapped in your home — yes, it’s diminishing quality of life, but it’s actually shortening the lifespan of people,” Schneiderman said. “If you just sit in your house all the time and you can’t get out, you can’t see people, and you can’t do anything you enjoy, your life feels less valuable.”
Joanne Repoza, 77, of Malden was never one to take The Ride for bingo outings — weekly doctors visits and food runs is all she used it for.
But now, she says, she can barely afford those essential trips. Occasionally, she cancels medical appointments. Asking her daughter to take a day off work and drive her to the doctor is out of the question.
Occasionally, she tries to take the T on the way to an appointment. By the time she arrives at Massachusetts General Hospital, she says, she’s so winded and flustered that passersby ask if she needs help.
“Now I’m home-bound,” Repoza said. “I walk from my kitchen table into my bathroom and I’m huffing and puffing like I ran a mile.”
In October, the T began charging $5 one-way Ride fares for “premium” destinations — locations that are more than three-quarters of a mile from a bus or train route.
Determining what locations fall inside the premium zone can often prove complex, especially because the fare may change after a nearby bus line ceases to operate for the evening.
Some, like John Winske, board member of the Disability Policy Consortium, said they wish the MBTA had established a payment system that would peg fares to a person’s income, or whether they are residents at a nursing home.
“They went for the quick rather than a long-term strategy that required some thinking,” Winske said.
“Our only hope right now is the new general manager,” Winske said. “She’s shown herself to be someone who listens to the community. . . . We can only hope she intercedes.”