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What is paratransit and why is it important?

Providing assisted rides in an aging world means taking a hard look at what’s currently in place and how it can be better


Jeff Swan
Paratransit extends services for those with disabilities

Many transit agencies do more than just provide fixed-route transportation. They offer riders a portfolio of transit services to help meet their needs, from on-demand microtransit and non-emergency medical transit (NEMT) to what is often referred to as paratransit in North America.

This last category deserves special attention. With the number of individuals 65 and older around the world predicted to double by 2050, ensuring that cities have solid paratransit systems in place that connect this group to health and social services is vital.

But what is paratransit and what is its role in a well-functioning transit landscape? There is no one-size-fits all definition. Broadly-speaking, paratransit, also known as community transport and assisted transit, is flexible public transportation adapted for people who cannot ride the fixed-route system due to mobility or cognitive disabilities. This can mean wheelchair-bound individuals, those who require assistance to board a bus or those who can’t walk to a regular bus stop. Seniors, who often face mobility challenges as they age, make up an important proportion of paratransit ridership.

While paratransit as a concept might seem relatively simple it can include anything from a taxi-like service that picks up a single passenger at their door, to a minibus that follows a semi-regular route and makes pickups based on scheduled requests, to complete on-demand transit operations that are routed in real-time. Ultimately however, it is a demand-responsive form of transit.

In some countries, like the United States, it’s a federally mandated provision with codified guidelines. In others, the onus is on transit agencies to completely define its scope. This blog post will explore paratransit in the United States, Canada and Europe. In broad strokes, it will explain some of the shortcomings of legacy systems as a whole and offer solutions of how we can evolve paratransit services into rider-first paradigms that promote equity and support a better quality of life.

Paratransit in the United States

In the United States, paratransit is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life from work and school to transportation. It requires that any city which provides residents with fixed-route transit, be it bus or rail, also provide “complementary paratransit” to those riders with disabilities who cannot use this system. The law says that transit agencies need to provide paratransit service within ¾ of a mile of a bus or rail station, for roughly the same amount of time per day and at no more than double the cost of the fixed-route fare. In other words, ADA paratransit should be comparable to fixed-route.

Not everyone is eligible for ADA paratransit in the United States. Riders must qualify and are granted access to the service based on their eligibility: conditional, unconditional and temporary.

  • Conditional: an individual can use paratransit under specific circumstances like during inclement weather. Outside of these circumstances, these riders should be able to use the fixed-route system.
  • Unconditional: allows eligible riders to use paratransit at any time and for any reason because the fixed-route system cannot meet their needs. For instance, if a city does not have deck-lowering buses, wheelchair users won’t be able to board and will need to use adapted vehicles.
  • Temporary: for people who normally would use the fixed-route system to get around but because of perhaps an injury, need paratransit services for a limited amount of time.

Transit agencies can also choose to offer paratransit services outside of the ADA banner in cities where it’s not required (i.e. where there is no fixed-route offer). Spare's partner National Express launched an on-demand transit system on behalf of the Greater Attleboro-Taunton Regional Transit Authority (GATRA) in Massachusetts that utilizes a fleet of fully-accessible vehicles in a door-to-door service model. It no longer has to qualify riders under ADA. GATRA also commingles its service, meaning that it combines paratransit and microtransit clientele in the same vehicle allowing it to maximize its passenger per vehicle hour cost.

Paratransit in Canada (called "Specialized Transit" locally)
Unlike its neighbor to the south, there is no national law that governs paratransit in Canada and therefore no comprehensive eligibility process. According to mobility consulting firm Nelson Nygaard, “as a result, an oversized group of registrants is provided a service that does not fully meet their mobility needs due to capacity constraints.” This means that the programs aren’t doing a good job of screening out riders who can ride fixed-route service.

Together with the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), Nelson Nygaard produced a voluntary code of practice to help standardize eligibility screening, which some transit agencies across the country have started using to persuade policy-makers to implement more accurate eligibility models.

In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, the nature of paratransit programs vary widely from city to city. While in some cases, it is provided by a transit agency or municipality, it can also be contracted out to specialized providers or delivered by community organizations.

In Quebec, the province has defined an eligibility process for its transit agencies and includes various levels:

  • General: valid for all trips at all times
  • Partial: valid for certain trips only
  • Provisional: valid for all trips during a determined period of time
  • Seasonal: valid for all trips during winter only

It also lays out the rules for accompanying services or when riders can have a helper board with them.

Paratransit in Europe

Though the European Union (EU) studies urban mobility in its member states and has done work on passenger rights for people with disabilities or reduced mobility, there is no Europe-wide paratransit standard, and paratransit, as defined in the American context, doesn’t generally exist. However, with sustainable transportation and better public transit, at the heart of the EU’s decarbonization plans, finding greener ways to move all people is a major part of the public conversation.

Germany, which has amongst the highest percentage of seniors in Europe, has enacted the German Passenger Transportation Act which promises to make barrier-free and accessible transit a reality in all regions by 2022. This doesn’t necessarily mean purpose-built paratransit but rather a more inclusive approach to transit where all modes can be used by individuals with mobility limitations. It also translates into a more diverse transit landscape, including demand-responsive options that connect all individuals to a rich multi-modal environment. Spare's Partner Rhine-Neck Transport in Mannheim for instance was able to use a demand-responsive model to transport seniors to and from COVID-19 vaccination centers using its fleet of wheelchair-accessible microtransit vehicles—a kind of pop-up paratransit.

Why paratransit, or paratransit by any other name, is vital

Regardless of what we call it, transit that’s adapted to the needs of low-mobility riders and those who need extra assistance, is important to society as a whole. The ability to move freely, easily and spontaneously within your community has many benefits. It connects you to services and work opportunities but can also be instrumental in the fight against social isolation, particularly for the elderly.

Many existing paratransit systems however don’t give their riders the ability to truly move freely. That’s because they run mainly on advanced or scheduled bookings. In some cases, riders need to book a few weeks in advance so that transit providers have enough time to properly plan routing, which makes it difficult for them to make spontaneous decisions about their day-to-day. They are kept hostage to a schedule and when compared to the freedom of standard fixed-route transit, the goal of equitable service is simply not met. But technology is providing a promising path forward. Similar to on-demand microtransit, on-demand paratransit takes advantage of the rise in smartphone technology and quick data processing to bring real-time transit to handicapped riders.

Platforms like Spare allow transit agencies to automate paratransit booking and scheduling. Riders can make trip requests via an app or through a call center and once their trip details are entered into the system, an algorithm automatically matches the request to the available fleet. This happens within seconds, making real-time transit possible. Once that option is available riders can start to reap the benefits of free movement. That might mean a last minute trip to the community center for bingo night or the chance to venture to a better grocery store.

On-demand paratransit is the best of both worlds. It doesn’t require advanced bookings but can accommodate and even prioritize them, ensuring that riders with the most pressing needs are never left stranded. What’s more, in a data-first platform, riders’ individual needs are automatically accounted for. Those who need a wheelchair accessible vehicle or driver assistance to board will only receive relevant trip matches.

By identifying and accommodating the most vulnerable riders—those that need a little help or a more tailored approach to transit—agencies can strengthen their entire ecosystem and bring true equity to people's day-to-day movements.


To find out more about how Spare powers on-demand paratransit and other assisted mobility services, reach out at hello@sparelabs.com