Editorials

The Cutting Edge of the Common Good

Get paratransit up to speed

Matthew Daley for the Boston Globe

There are tough commutes, and then there’s Jerry Boyd’s commute. To get to his office at the Social Security Administration on High Street from his home in West Roxbury, Boyd relies on The Ride, the MBTA’s door-to-door service for people with disabilities. Sometimes it’s on time, sometimes it’s early, sometimes it doesn’t show up at all. “When The Ride works, it’s great. When it doesn’t work, it is terrible — but for people like me, it is always essential,” Boyd says.

Boyd, who has cerebral palsy, has been reliant on The Ride for the past 25 years and seen the service through ups and downs. “More and more they treat you like a UPS package rather than a person,” he says.

Boyd’s commute can take hours or a few minutes, depending on the route. Reservations for pickup generally need to be made a full day in advance, but that doesn’t guarantee punctuality. Boyd’s co-workers have become accustomed to seeing him kill time in the lobby at the end of the day. “Late again, eh, Jerry?”

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This needn’t be the case. The arrival of a new generation of transportation companies — including the ride-hailing networks Uber and Lyft and the pop-up bus service Bridj — hints at the potential of a sped-up, data-driven approach to paratransit. Smartphone apps that efficiently match people who have somewhere to go with vehicles that can take them there may be the quintessential American technology of the early 21st century. Those same algorithms, if deployed creatively, could bring new freedom to some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents.

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The difficulties that the elderly and the disabled face in getting around are also a quintessential American challenge for the 21st century. Most of the suburban subdivisions where so many baby boomers raised their children were designed around car travel. As the population ages, more and more people will face isolation in the homes where they’ve lived for decades.

In dense urban areas, there’s a different problem. For people who can’t drive but can walk, there’s an obvious benefit to having stores and services close by. But surging property values in areas served by reliable public transit push people with disabilities, whose incomes generally lag behind the average, to seek cheaper housing ever farther from established transit routes.

Over the years, the public conversation on paratransit in Greater Boston has focused less on improving the experience of The Ride’s customers than on the stiff cost of providing the current service. By one analysis, the average trip on The Ride costs the MBTA $45; riders pay $3 or $5. That’s a key reason why the T is investigating whether and how to use ride-hailing networks — which charge significantly less — at least to transport passengers who don’t require specialized vehicles.

While The Ride is a budget-buster for the MBTA, the broader cause of paratransit has also suffered from having to piggyback on a sprawling transportation authority in a perpetual state of financial crisis. A spotty paratransit system inflicts its own social costs — impossible to calculate — when people like Jerry Boyd can’t put in their full eight and a half hours at the office.

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At the outset, entrusting the mobility needs of disabled residents to the T made a certain amount of sense. Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, transit agencies are required to provide alternative service for people who live near, but cannot use, established transit lines. Since then, the T has invested heavily in making its stations and buses wheelchair-accessible. It has also made The Ride available even in areas of its member communities that it isn’t legally required to serve.

Still, the T’s woes lead to the threats of fare hikes and service cuts that periodically alarm users of The Ride. And certain aspects of the program’s operations betray its bureaucratic origins. The T’s three contractors each have their own dispatch systems. The Ride runs separately, and often more expensively, from the paratransit fleets that human-services agencies use.

Improving the status quo is far trickier than just giving Uber and Lyft vouchers to qualified users. After all, 20 percent of the program’s customers, according to the T, need wheelchair-accessible vehicles with trained drivers.

The ride-hailing companies have made halting efforts to meet this need, with mixed results at best. Uber has a feature called UberAssist, which matches people who use walkers and wheelchairs with drivers who’ve received certain training on how to handle such equipment. The company also has launched UberAccess and UberWAV, through which users can summon wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Yet users of these services in other markets have complained that there are rarely any appropriate vehicles available — and questioned the sincerity of the company’s commitment to serving an underserved niche.

One problem is that vehicles that might someday be part of a single coordinated paratransit network are dispersed among a variety of owners. Some are in the hands of the contractors that operate paratransit programs like The Ride; others belong to local governments, taxi companies, medical-transportation companies, and religious groups, and even families who’ve invested in a wheelchair van because of a loved one’s disability. Impressing all these vehicles into service — via an efficient, easy-to-use electronic algorithm — would make it far more likely that, when a wheelchair user needs to get somewhere on the spur of the moment, there’d be a vehicle nearby.

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That responsiveness is critical to the future of paratransit. Technology has made society more spontaneous in many ways, and accessibility programs should evolve to meet the changing needs of those they serve.

Ride-hailing companies have solved this problem before; they already allow users the option of summoning taxis, SUVs owned by limo companies, private cars, and would-be carpoolers. For the sake of users, government should lean hard on Uber and Lyft to expand their paratransit networks — and enlist their help in developing a seamless, customer-focused approach to deploying vehicles.

There are obvious problems to work out. Smartphone penetration may soon be universal, but it isn’t now. Advocacy groups voice misgivings about the use of amateur drivers to ferry people around and discomfort with the labor practices of the ride-hailing networks. Many in Boston’s disabled community are hesitant about overhauling The Ride because, for all its faults, it is the only service they have. All of these are legitimate concerns.

Yet there’s no denying that Uber and Lyft have identified a whole new standard of convenience — a goal that should also prompt the reinvention of transportation systems for the elderly and disabled. The companies certainly haven’t been shy about raising such expectations. A promotional video for Uber shows independent-minded grandmothers riding serenely toward the loving embrace of their families and friends.

Vowing to protect public safety, and perhaps to level the playing field for a beleaguered legacy taxi industry, lawmakers in Massachusetts and elsewhere are debating a variety of rules for ride-hailing companies. But if there’s one area in which regulators should insist on the firms’ enthusiastic participation, it’s on transportation access for the elderly and disabled.

The message should go like this: You’re the ones with the multibillion-dollar valuations and the deep expertise in logistics. You help us figure this problem out.

A progressive policy agenda must respond to the emergent challenges of a turbulent era with the know-how. It’s premature to suggest that ride-hailing networks could simply take over paratransit. But their potential to expand the horizons of elderly and disabled Americans is already evident.