Navigating the Future of Paratransit: Insights from an ADA Paratransit Expert on Modernization and Accessibility
In an exclusive interview, I sat down with Ben Schutzman, an ADA paratransit expert and former Chief of Paratransit Services at MBTA. With his extensive background as an experienced executive, entrepreneur, and management consultant, Ben has successfully utilized technology, analytics, and innovation to build and transform organizations, particularly in accessible transportation.
Lynda: Ben, it's great to have you here to discuss the future of paratransit. To kick things off, could you tell us your thoughts on what needs to improve to make paratransit services better for paratransit riders?
Ben: At a high level, paratransit needs to evolve in ways that will improve the rider experience while maintaining accessibility and affordability for all riders. This means enhancing communication and notification systems, rethinking how service is scheduled and provided, and investing in technology, all while consistently focusing on equity.
Looking more specifically at the rider experience, one of the key challenges in paratransit is inefficiency around pickup and dropoff times. If paratransit riders don't know when their vehicle is coming to pick them up, the handoff with the driver will be inefficient. The rider either waits for 15-20 minutes and wastes their time, or they wait in their apartment until they get the call that says the driver's outside, which means the customer is already late. So if you can show the rider where their vehicle is or give them an accurate warning, that would improve the experience.
Lynda: Considering the rapid changes in consumer expectations, what can we do to ensure paratransit doesn't fall behind other transportation services?
Ben: To keep pace with these changes, we need to re-think the "date dance" of paratransit. For instance, why should a person book a day in advance? It's unclear when their meetings will be or what the traffic will look like on any given day. If we want to get people back to using paratransit, we must provide a good customer experience that rivals not only modern modes of transit like Uber and Lyft, but also fixed-route public transportation.
Lynda: Speaking of Uber and Lyft, I know that some cities are integrating non-dedicated fleets into paratransit. Can you explain how this works and the benefits it could bring?
Ben: Lyft and Uber have services where drivers can assist all paratransit riders; this is very valuable. But, having TNCs is beneficial for cities even more broadly.
When you pull TNCs into a paratransit operating system, it's okay if they cannot serve every non-ambulatory customer as long as the paratransit operator and the transit agency have designed a holistic system that serves everyone equitably - including, importantly, the availability of when you can book and how quickly the service can pick you up.
If we're going to use these vehicles, they can be used for ambulatory customers and they can make the model work more efficiently, while wheelchair-accessible vehicles can be assigned to non-ambulatory riders. You must design the whole transit system, especially paratransit, for equity.
Lynda: When discussing equity, it seems vital to ensure that paratransit services are accessible to those who truly need them. Can you elaborate on how this is related to supply and demand?
Ben: Yes, right, it's a supply and demand question across the board. Understanding who really should be eligible based on the letter of the law and the spirit of the law is particularly important on the demand side of the equation, but it’s a topic we must tackle if we are to keep pace with the evolving transit landscape and customer expectations. We want to make sure paratransit is being used for those who are eligible and qualifying, and who “really need these services" is universally agreed upon.
Lynda: So, ensuring that only eligible individuals use paratransit is crucial. How can automation assist in managing the eligibility process?
Ben: Having the right eligibility process in place overall is crucial, but when you determine someone's conditionally eligible based on, say, their main concern being night blindness or balance issues in freezing temperatures, you can automate this in the system. This allows us to be honest with the customer and say, based on the information we've received in our evaluation of you, you can take a trip in the middle of the day in summer and that's great. We should encourage that kind of freedom and mobility, but also protect the resources we have for when that individual really needs them, such as in the winter at 8 PM at night when it's icy.
Lynda: It seems like automation makes the eligibility process more efficient and fair. Could this same principle be applied to deciding who is eligible?
Ben: On a trip-by-trip basis, you'd want many of those things to be automated. Individual discretion from a reservationist takes time, which costs money, and introduces subjectivity which can lead to issues. It puts the reservationist on the spot to say yes or no to an individual who calls and says they would like to take a trip. It's not really fair to anybody in that conversation.
Lynda: Technology will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the evolution of paratransit, what specific technological improvements could help make the paratransit system more equitable and efficient?
Ben: I'd say integrating new forms of transit into our existing paratransit systems is important to increasing capacity in the system in a cost-effective way. Taxi programs have been around for years, but they weren't integrated into the core way you dispatch trips to customers. At the MBTA, we tried working with our software provider at the time to integrate taxis, but they just couldn't help us. When done correctly, this type of integration can increase the options for a paratransit rider and make the system more equitable.
From a rider experience perspective, customer-facing apps and self-service tools can have a transformative impact. These technologies can improve autonomy to schedule, track, and manage their trips independently, improving the overall paratransit experience significantly. Technology can facilitate better communication, minimize wait times, and allow for personalization to fit the specific needs of each customer.
Investing more in technology, even if it's a smaller portion of the budget, could save a larger portion in the long run. We're living in a world where budgets are always tough in transit. Imagine having a $120M budget and spending merely $600,000 on software, the brain of the operation. A small, say, 1% improvement in efficiency could knock one, two, or even five million dollars off your budget.
Lynda: So, evolving technology plays a role in improving paratransit, but what about regulatory changes? Are there policy adjustments that you think need to be made?
Ben: I think there may be a begrudging movement forward from the policy standpoint. Even if it's not official policy, having mobility-on-demand programs and allowing some level of use of Uber, Lyft, and taxis for non-dedicated trips is a start. At the MBTA, we initiated the first pilot program with them and were pushing against what the FDA officially said you could or could not do, but the world is moving towards more rider choice and higher expectations for service quality, and policies need to align with that.
Lynda: As we navigate the future of paratransit, how can we harness the power of technology and adopt policies to create equitable, efficient, and integrated transportation for individuals with disabilities?
Ben: By capitalizing on technological advancements and embracing forward-thinking policy adjustments, paratransit can lead the way toward a future where individuals with disabilities can experience more modern and convenient services. This could mean fully integrating new transit forms, automating eligibility processes, and giving riders more visibility and autonomy over their trips. By doing this, we can create a dynamic and inclusive paratransit system that meets the needs and aspirations of everyone involved.