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Criticism of MBTA’s rides for the disabled soars

Agency to discuss ways to improve costly service

Passenger Mandi Curtis, of Roxbury, talked with The Ride driver Manny Rebello outside Boston Medical Center.
Passenger Mandi Curtis, of Roxbury, talked with The Ride driver Manny Rebello outside Boston Medical Center.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Complaints about The Ride, the MBTA's door-to-door van service for disabled riders, have more than doubled over four years, even as it provided fewer trips, according to new statistics from the transit agency.

As the T looks to cut costs across the system, officials are analyzing The Ride, which cost the agency $97 million in the 2015 fiscal year. On Monday, staff will tell the board that oversees the agency about the program's costs and various initiatives that could improve the service.

Mandi Curtis, who is legally blind, said she stopped using The Ride for several months because it had become so unreliable.

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"On the one hand, it's amazing because it allows someone with a disability to live an independent life — in theory," said Curtis, who takes The Ride to and from work at Boston Medical Center. "But then when I actually try to employ using these services, I end up losing hours of my day every day for five days a week."

For $3, disabled users who cannot take the MBTA's buses, subways, or commuter rail trains can use the door-to-door service to areas near bus and train stops. About 96,000 riders are eligible for the service.

In 2010, the MBTA logged 2,004 complaints about the service. By 2014, the number of complaints grew to 4,323. The higher numbers have continued into 2015: From January through August, 2,887 complaints were received.

Those numbers have jumped even as the number of trips has dropped. During the 2010 fiscal year, the MBTA provided about 2.4 million rides. By fiscal year 2014, that number dropped to 2.1 million. MBTA officials did not immediately explain why trips have fallen, but the agency began enforcing stricter eligibility requirements in 2012.

Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said several factors explain the jump in complaints, including changes to what areas are served by The Ride, bad weather, and drivers getting lost in new areas. Officials also noted that the 2015 numbers included months with a record-breaking amount of snow that snarled transportation across the region.

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Bill Henning, executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living, acknowledges that The Ride is a difficult — and expensive — service to run. But Henning said it is a lifeline for many disabled or elderly Bostonians who don't have other options.

"It's a tough service to get right, but it's a vital service for the people who use it," he said.

Karen Schneiderman, the senior advocacy specialist at the Boston Center for Independent Living, said the service was particularly bad during the past winter. As another winter approaches, however, she said she still hears about rides that are 60 to 90 minutes late.

"I thought that after the snow had abated, things would get better, but I still continue to get lots and lots of complaints," she said.

Curtis had to wait for the service to depart Boston Medical Center because the driver needed to wait for another passenger.
Curtis had to wait for the service to depart Boston Medical Center because the driver needed to wait for another passenger.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Adriana Mallozzi, who has cerebral palsy, uses The Ride because she cannot move her limbs and uses a wheelchair. The 38-year-old from Brookline has been using the service since the 1990s but said she has had some of her worst service this year: During the winter storms, she was stranded twice. In one instance, she said she called a dispatcher, only to find out the service had canceled her ride.

Even without the snow, she sometimes ends up waiting more than an hour for her rides, nearly missing the events she's trying to attend. Last week, she tried to have a ride scheduled for 6 p.m. from the Boston Medical Center area. After she called, dispatchers told her they could not find her a driver. She finally got picked up at 7:30, she said.

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Mallozzi said she wished she didn't have to take The Ride, but it is sometimes her only way to travel. People like her — those who can't access many of the transit stops and buses — also need public transportation, she said.

"We should have the ability to go about our lives just like everyone else and have access to reliable transportation," she said.

The MBTA began providing the service in 1977, when many of its stations were inaccessible for users in wheelchairs. The MBTA has renovated dozens of its stations to provide more elevators and ramps, largely because of a lawsuit that forced the change. Yet disabled users still cannot access 38 rapid transit stops and 34 commuter rail stops.

In the past, The Ride has been targeted because of its costs. Former transportation secretary Richard Davey once referred to the service as a "budget-buster."

The MBTA pays $45 to subsidize every trip, compared to $2.86 for a bus ride or 61 cents for a subway ride on the Red, Blue, or Orange lines. The overall subsidy for an MBTA ride is $2.07.

Every trip on The Ride costs an eligible rider at least $3, with some "premium" trips costing $5. Officials have tried to increase the prices in the past, but the MBTA rolled back the increases after sharp drops in ridership.

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The high subsidy stems in part from a lack of competition among companies that vie for contracts for The Ride, officials have said. Three companies currently contract with the MBTA to operate the service: Greater Lynn Senior Services, Veterans Transportation Services, and National Express.

Curtis waited for her departure.
Curtis waited for her departure.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

MBTA officials say they have considered a number of ways to improve service. According to an internal audit, the T's Office for Transportation Access is trying to implement a pilot program that would allow those eligible for The Ride to use taxis instead. The audit also says they are considering a centralized calling center, which could help dispatchers better schedule the rides.

Riders such as Curtis say they would welcome such improvements. She says she has gotten used to getting to work three hours earlier than she should or coming to work an hour and a half late.

Earlier this year, Curtis tried to use services such as Uber and Lyft because she couldn't rely on the service. But because of her budget, she's using The Ride again.

On Friday, she was pleasantly surprised to find the service was early for both her morning and afternoon pickups. As she made her way to the car, she remarked about how rare it was.

"If this is an indication that they're getting better, then I would be ecstatic about that," she said.

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Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.