Metro

MBTA to subsidize Uber, Lyft rides for customers with disabilities

Perkins School for the Blind teacher Kate Katulak did a demonstration of the ride-hailing technology with Uber driver Vernel Williams on Friday.

DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

Perkins School for the Blind teacher Kate Katulak did a demonstration of the ride-hailing technology with Uber driver Vernel Williams on Friday.

WATERTOWN — The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will subsidize Uber and Lyft rides for customers with disabilities, forging a unique partnership that reflects the growing relationship between public transit agencies and ride-for-hire firms.

Officials on Friday touted the year-long pilot, the first of its kind, as a way to improve the much-maligned service for MBTA customers with disabilities, while also driving down expenses for the Ride, the door-to-door van service that cost the T $102 million during the last fiscal year.

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Major public transit agencies are required to provide door-to-door van services to certain customers with disabilities under federal law. Brian Shortsleeve, the MBTA’s acting general manager, said the program will “drive the conversation nationally” about such services.

“Customers are going to get reduced fares, much shorter wait times,” he said. “And the MBTA is going to get a much lower operating cost on these trips.”

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Under the new program, those who qualify for the T’s door-to-door service will pay $2 for an Uber or Lyft ride, and the T will pay up to $13 to subsidize the rest of the trip.

Governor Charlie Baker announced the partnership at the Perkins School for the Blind, where he was joined by Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and Lisa Calise, a member of the board that oversees the T who also serves as Perkins’ chief financial officer.

As ride-for-hire firms continue to expand, they have been eager to strike deals with government partners across the country. North Shore Community College in Danvers, for example, recently started offering subsidized Uber rides to students traveling between public transit stops and the campus.

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Users of the Ride were able to test out a similar taxi program earlier this year. With the new program, they can use Uber and Lyft apps to request on-demand rides. Lyft will also provide a call center for customers who don’t have smartphones.

Disability rights advocates have criticized ride-for-hire firms in the past for not providing enough access to riders with disabilities. For the past year, Uber has partnered with taxi companies to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles to customers, according to Chris Taylor, the general manager for Uber Boston.

“Our goal at Uber is to make transportation reliable and convenient for all, and that does mean everybody,” Taylor said.

The partnership comes shortly after Massachusetts lawmakers passed controversial legislation regulating ride-for-hire firms. The law requires new background checks for drivers, conducted by the state. But it has been criticized by the taxi industry for not including more rigorous fingerprint checks.

In the past year, several Uber drivers in the state have been accused of sexually assaulting their passengers.

Asked about the safety of the Ride’s vulnerable customers, Baker said the state was committed to enforcing the legislation, which he said included “the most comprehensive background check in the country.”

The administration has pushed hard to cut costs at the T, which faces a $100 million structural deficit, and the Ride has been a key target for reform. In the 2015 fiscal year, the T spent more than $45 to subsidize every trip on the Ride, compared to $2.86 for a bus ride or 61 cents for a subway ride.

Additionally, concerns about the service, which is contracted out to three companies, had soared in recent years. From 2010 to 2014,complaints doubled, even as the number of trips dropped.

James White, chairman of the Access Advisory Committee to the MBTA, said the pilot program may take a while to catch on with customers like him, who use wheelchairs to get around. So far, there are many fewer wheelchair-accessible Uber and Lyft vehicles than regular vehicles, and those drivers require more training to help customers.

Still, White is all too familiar with the Ride’s problems. On Friday, he waited nearly 45 minutes for his Ride vehicle after the event. And when he called the dispatch center four times, nobody answered.

If Uber and Lyft could help fix such problems, he said, that could change someone’s world.

“If you’re not on a fixed route service, this is your only option, so it opens up possibilities,” he said, as the Ride driver prepared to lower the lift that could get him into the van. “You can live, maybe, a more normal life, right? Which is all that we want to do.”

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