MBTA, Uber and Lyft join forces: Is this the future of paratransit?

MBTA will subsidize a new ridesharing service for paratransit customers, the governor announced Friday. For many, it's a sign of progress – and a model for other government-funded transit systems.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/File
A smartphone user accesses the Ubera app next to a picture of an official German taxi sign, in 2014. Uber, Lyft, and Boston's MBTA recently embarked on a pilot program that will bring ride-sharing services to customers with disabilities.

Uber and Lyft may be part of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s future. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Friday that the two ride-sharing services will provide an on-demand transit alternative for customers with disabilities.

The new initiative, which Governor Baker announced at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., is a year-long program in Boston. Uber described the venture as “a first-of-its-kind pilot partnership ... to provide paratransit riders with on-demand transportation options.”

Until now, paratransit customers have had to rely on The Ride, a private service that costs the MBTA $45 or more per trip and must be booked 24 hours in advance. Officials say they hope this new initiative will improve service for customers while cutting costs for the MBTA. 

"This collaborative effort between the MBTA, our partners at Uber and Lyft, Perkins, and so many others shows how we can use private market innovation and emerging technology to enhance service and accessibility for our riders,” said Brian Shortsleeve, interim MBTA general manager, in a statement.

He explained that the MBTA, which tried a similar partnership with taxi companies last year, would keep looking for opportunities to reduce costs and increase customers’ transit options.

The Ride will operate concurrently with ride-sharing services throughout the pilot period. Customers who choose to take an Uber or Lyft will be able to order a ride on-demand, using the smartphone apps. Lyft also offers a telephone service for those without smartphones.

The program will increase "access to jobs, education, errands, and social activities," Lyft Boston general manager Tyler George told Boston.com.

Unlike The Ride, where riders paid a $3.15 flat fare, Uber or Lyft users can access trips for as little as $2. The MBTA will pick up the next $13 of the tab, and then the customer pays for what remains of the journey. (If riders book one day in advance, they can access the same $3.15 set fare as The Ride offers). For the money-crunched MBTA, that could be a significant saving.

Uber and Lyft have each faced lawsuits over their inaccessibility to passengers with disabilities. This pilot program presents an opportunity for them to become not only accessible, but also friendly, to those with disabilities. Plaintiffs had taken issue with the ride-sharing services' lack of wheelchair access and mistreatment of customers, as The Christian Science Monitor's Jessica Mendoza reported last year.

Both companies will now provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and all drivers will go through safety screenings, including criminal and vehicle background checks. (Massachusetts law recently mandated a more rigorous check for ride-share drivers). Drivers in the pilot program will attend special training sessions to improve their understanding of paratransit customers’ needs.

James White, chairman of the MBTA’s Access Advisory Committee, is optimistic about the progress that the pilot represents. “You can live, maybe, a more normal life, right? Which is all that we want to do,” he told the Boston Globe.

Partnerships between Uber and metro-area transit systems are already underway in several US cities, including Los Angeles and Minneapolis. In Atlanta, the “Last Mile Campaign” has provided hundreds of thousands of rides to and from MARTA stations. In Dallas, Uber has been integrated into the DART app, allowing riders to order cars to meet them from public transport. City officials have argued that ride-sharing services will increase the number of customers using public transit by making metro routes more accessible.

In the District of Columbia, Uber and Lyft are one step closer to a public-private partnership after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted Thursday to underwrite federal employees’ use of ride-sharing services and taxi companies. The agreement is intended as a stopgap measure in the face of SafeTrack emergency track work, which has dramatically reduced Metro service. Lawmakers say they hope that subsidized ride-sharing will reduce city traffic and get people to work on time.

Like Boston, DC experimented with taxi partnerships for its MetroAccess (paratransit) customers. The taxis cost about half what the MetroAccess program does, Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron M. Linton told the Washington Post. The city has been in meetings with Uber and Lyft, and may develop a relationship similar to the one announced in Boston on Friday.

Not everyone is excited by the idea, however. Massachusetts State Sen. Linda Dorcena Ferry said she “worries about a public-private partnership overtaking the MBTA’s services,” according to the Boston Herald. 

Others are critical of government money going to services that they say do not do enough for customers with disabilities. James Weisman, chief executive of the nonprofit United Spinal Association, explained his concerns to the Washington Post in March. 

Speaking about Uber’s lack of accessible vehicles, he said: “Do I think that inaccessible vehicles can be used in paratransit? Sure. Do I think that we should reward people who discriminate on the basis of disability with public contracts? No, I don’t.”

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