Metro

MBTA’s disabled customers switch to Uber, Lyft

Taking on-demand trips with Uber and Lyft has been so popular among some of the MBTA’s disabled customers that one in five of those participating in a pilot program have stopped using The Ride, the T’s regular paratransit service, according to the T.

The pilot program is due to expire April 1, and T officials did not make a decision about its future when it was up for discussion this week. T staff recommended the program continue through June, at least, with discussions about the future of the service to occur during budgeting for fiscal 2019.

Calling it a “pet project of the governor,” Massachusetts Senior Action Council Executive Director Carolyn Villers predicted the pilot will continue.

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“There’s a lot we have to figure out,” Villers told the News Service after Monday’s meeting of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board. Ideally, the dispatch and scheduling for all Ride customers would mimic the ease with which the pilot participants can now hail a car, Villers said.

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After becoming dissatisfied with vendor Global Contact Services, the MBTA this year went looking for a new company to handle calls and dispatching for The Ride.

“The new vendor will be expected to implement new technologies and operational best practices to reduce cost to serve and improve customer satisfaction as well as on-time performance,” MBTA General Manager Luis Ramírez said in January.

About 4 percent of Ride customers are active participants in the pilot program, according to the MBTA.

“We’ve come to see this as an enormously powerful tool,” said Governor Charlie Baker a year ago, when he announced the pilot would be made available to all users of The Ride.

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When eligibility for the pilot was expanded, Brian Shortsleeve, who was then in charge of the T and is now on the control board, said he hoped use of the ride-hailing apps for paratransit trips would reduce the overall cost of the program.

The popularity of the program has cut into its potential for cost-saving, according to Director of Transportation Innovation Ben Schutzman.

Rides using Uber and Lyft are cheaper than traditional trips through The Ride, but those savings were offset by higher usage, according to Schutzman. In the pilot, participants took 43 percent more trips overall while their trips through The Ride went down by 27 percent.

With a subsidy of up to $40 per trip, the MBTA found the pilot members were roughly 1 percent cheaper on average, saving the T about $2,800 per month. Under the pilot, participants pay $2 and then the T covers up to $40 of their trip. Ordinary trips through The Ride cost $3.15 or $5.25.

Under a popularity metric known as a Net Promoter Score, the pilot landed at 85, beating out popular tech companies Apple (72) and Amazon (69). The pilot eclipsed public transit in general (12) and the MBTA (-11) under the metric that measures customer satisfaction, according to Schutzman.

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More needs to be done to increase the supply of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, according to Schutzman.

Villers echoed that, warning that if the on-demand service does not become more accessible for all paratransit users, there will be a “second tier” of service for some, which she said is an unacceptable outcome.