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Conditional Eligibility: Making Paratransit Work for Those Who Need It

As paratransit services iterate over the next few years to become more equitable and accessible for all, we must remember that eligibility, fixed route transit systems, and future-proof technology all have a stake in setting up and enforcing this framework.


Cameron Stone

Paratransit services are a lifeline for individuals with disabilities who can't use regular public transportation.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first enacted in 1990, it became the guarantor of mobility when other options, like fixed route, fell short. When we think about it this way, really, so much of transportation revolves around equity and inclusion.

But with new modes in place – think demand-responsive transportation (DRT) – and the introduction of modern technology, there is an exciting opportunity to collectively find ways to enable more riders with diverse needs to utilize the fixed route transit system that’s already available today. In the words of a study done by the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), it’s about developing an eligibility process that stresses abilities rather than limitations.

That's where conditional eligibility comes in.

What is conditional eligibility?

Conditional eligibility is all about determining who can use paratransit services based on certain conditions or criteria. It's like a special pass for those who need a little extra help getting around. Instead of being eligible all the time, conditional eligibility means you meet specific requirements to access paratransit services when you really need them.

Eligibility typically falls into three categories:

  1. Unconditional Eligibility: An individual is always eligible for paratransit services due to a disability that prevents them from using fixed-route public transportation under any circumstances.
  2. Temporary Eligibility: An individual is eligible for paratransit services for a limited period due to a temporary disability or while recovering from an injury or surgery. Temporary eligibility can be either conditional or unconditional.
  3. Conditional Eligibility: An individual is eligible for paratransit services only under certain conditions. These conditions may be related to their disability, environmental factors, or the availability of accessible fixed-route services. Examples of these conditions include:
    1. Mobility Impairments: A person with a mobility impairment may be able to use fixed-route transit when the weather is mild but may require paratransit services during extreme weather conditions like rain or snow.
    2. Distance Impairments: A person with a mobility impairment may be able to use fixed-route transit when walking distances are less than 1/3 of a mile but require paratransit services for journeys that involve walking more than 1/3 of a mile.
    3. Visual Impairments: A person with a visual impairment may be able to use fixed-route transit during daylight hours but require paratransit services at night when visibility is limited.
    4. Unfamiliar Locations: A person may need paratransit services if they haven't been trained to use fixed-route transit between their starting point and destination. To support these riders, agencies offer Travel Training Programs.

Why we need conditional eligibility

Let's face it: there's always a demand for paratransit services, and the costs per trip can be high. So, collectively we've got to make sure we're stressing abilities, rather than limitations when looking to maximize existing fixed-route transit infrastructure.

The concept of conditional eligibility creates a framework for us to get there.

Here are some of the key benefits:

  • Improved Resource Allocation: By focusing paratransit services on individuals who truly need them due to specific conditions or limitations, transit agencies can optimize the use of their resources and provide a more efficient service.
  • Cost Savings: Paratransit services tend to be more expensive per trip compared to regular public transportation. To put it into perspective, the average cost for transit operators in the United States to provide a fixed route bus trip is on average $5, compared to $60 – $100 per trip for many paratransit services. By encouraging eligible riders to use regular public transit when possible through travel training, agencies can reduce overall paratransit costs and allocate funds more effectively.
  • Enhanced Service Quality: Conditional eligibility programs allow transit agencies to tailor paratransit services to meet the specific needs of eligible riders, resulting in improved service quality and customer satisfaction.
  • Greater Independence for Riders: Travel training programs empower riders with disabilities by giving them the skills and confidence to use regular public transportation, promoting greater independence and improved quality of life.
  • Increased System Capacity: By reducing the demand for paratransit services through conditional eligibility and travel training, transit agencies can increase their system capacity and better accommodate the needs of a diverse rider population.
  • Compliance with Regulations: Implementing conditional eligibility and travel training programs helps transit agencies comply with the ADA and other relevant rules by providing equitable and accessible transportation options for all riders.
  • Reduced Environmental Impact: Encouraging regular public transportation through travel training programs can help reduce the environmental impact of paratransit services, as fewer specialized vehicles are needed on the road.
  • Accessible Infrastructure: Conditional eligibility helps transit agencies and riders alike realize the gains from investment in accessible infrastructure. This could include shelters, stations, and buses.
  • More Inclusion: A diverse rider population requiring mobility aids, for example, can ride with friends and family, so that these users are much more integrated into their communities.
Did you know? Sustainable, accessible and inclusive impact is at the core of everything Spare does. Since launching, Spare has powered millions of on-demand trips for over 100 partner organizations, covering 63 million kilometers across the world. Through these efforts, Spare has created almost 8 million new social interactions among many other milestone achievements.

By setting conditions and enforcing them, we ensure that paratransit services are available for those who truly require them on their journeys, while also integrating them with regular fixed-route options. It's like a transportation jigsaw puzzle where everyone gets a piece.

Conditional eligibility: how does it work?

Transit agencies traditionally implement conditional eligibility programs using different approaches, both with and without technology.

Unlike its unconditional and temporary counterparts, the truth of the matter is that conditional eligibility is complex and as a result, not fully adopted. In fact, in a TCRP study, 30 percent of transit agencies reported not using conditional eligibility, meaning that applicants were found either unconditionally eligible or not eligible, while 63 percent indicated that some applicants were granted conditional eligibility. Due to the sheer amount of conditions and criteria, conditional eligibility is not easy to navigate, and even more difficult to enforce at the agency-level.

In the absence of technology, transit agencies typically implement conditional eligibility programs manually, relying on paper-based processes and human verification. The following steps are commonly involved:

  • Application Process: Interested individuals submit applications either through mail, in-person at designated offices, or through downloadable forms available on the agency's website.
  • Eligibility Criteria: Transit agencies define specific eligibility criteria, such as income thresholds, disability status, age requirements, or other qualifying factors, based on their program goals and guidelines.
  • Verification and Documentation: Applicants are required to provide supporting documentation to prove their eligibility. This may include income statements, disability certificates, identification documents, or other relevant proofs.
  • Manual Review: Agency staff members manually review and verify the applications and supporting documents to determine the eligibility of each applicant. This process can be time-consuming and prone to human error.
  • Approval or Rejection: Based on the verification process, the agency notifies applicants of their eligibility status. Approved applicants receive the benefits or services associated with the program, while rejected applicants are informed of the decision and may have the option to appeal.
  • Renewal and Recertification: Eligibility for conditional programs is often time-limited. Applicants must periodically reapply or recertify their eligibility to continue receiving benefits.

In recent years, transit agencies have begun to tap into technology to streamline parts of the eligibility process.

However, there is still work to be done.

In particular, one of the failings in making conditional eligibility work in practice is that the tech stack isn't there to properly support the policy.

Let’s explore two scenarios:

  1. A transit agency creates the right eligibility criteria, but struggles to interview people and assess them with technology. In this case, implementation is still not feasible.
  2. A transit agency has mechanisms in place to properly assess an individual, but doesn’t have the right technology to capture route-specific barriers in a system that is incorporated into their scheduling. Enforcement of this program is still not feasible.

The trends we're seeing

In the world of conditional eligibility and paratransit services, we've noticed some exciting trends that are shaping the future of accessible transportation:

Fixed route fleets accessibility improvements

Over the past 30 years, agencies have been investing in their fixed route fleets to make them more accessible and user-friendly. Globally, we’re witnessing an emphasis on making transit more inclusive and equitable for all riders. By improving accessibility and accommodating the needs of riders with disabilities, agencies aim to create a transportation system that caters to diverse needs.

Maximize fixed route infrastructure

Transportation agencies are getting creative and finding ways to make the most of their existing fixed-route systems. They're optimizing routes, schedules, and resources to minimize reliance on paratransit services. It's all about working smarter, not harder, to provide inclusive transportation options for everyone.

The best part? Agencies in North America are already innovating in this area. In Canada specifically:

  • Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) runs a Family of Services travel program that includes pick-up and drop-off procedures for customers with conditional eligibility
  • York Region Transit (YRT) offers Family of Services that includes conventional YRT, Viva Rapid Transit, community bus, Mobility On-Request and Paratransit door-to-door services. Paratransit clients may be able to travel using YRT's Family of Services for all or part of their trip, where each requested trip is assessed on a trip-by-trip basis.

Nation-wide driver shortages

The United States is experiencing a shortage of public transit drivers in many regions across the country. Many factors, including an aging workforce, low unemployment rates in other industries, and challenges in attracting and retaining qualified drivers are to blame. When set up and enforced with the right technology, conditional eligibility creates a framework and ability for transit agencies to encourage a diverse rider population to take advantage of fixed routes when their abilities allow them to, thereby reducing specialized vehicles and drivers needed on the road.

Consider readiness & demand

Just because an agency introduces conditional eligibility and has the modern tech stack to enforce it does not necessarily mean that every city is ready for such systems. The readiness and demand for transit systems that integrate fixed-route for persons with disabilities is greater in areas that have more developed public transit options, like Europe. The Valys dial-a-ride system in the Netherlands, for example, was studied to promote more usage of fixed route services amongst their ridership. In the study, it was found that riders that are most likely to use multi-modal journeys amongst their ridership are either older users (age peak at 80 to 85 years) mostly without mobility aids and younger users (age peak at 45 to 50 years) mostly with mobility scooter or wheelchairs.

Add modern technology in the mix

In recent years, advancements in modern technology have fundamentally changed paratransit services and the way it's delivered. From introducing a better way to introduce same-day paratransit to optimizing routes and vehicles in real-time despite local conditions, technology is one part of the overall jigsaw puzzle of paratransit.

And the future of conditional eligibility is looking bright for transit agencies and its ridership.

Here's how:

Online Application Process

Instead of paper-based applications, transit agencies provide online portals or forms for applicants to submit their information electronically. This reduces paperwork and facilitates a smoother application process. A digital eligibility management tool like Spare Engage helps with the application and assessment process, turning old spreadsheets into streamlined digital collaboration and unclear determination timelines into clear timers. In fact, Engage is also built with digital accessibility in mind.

Electronic Verification

Technology can enable automated verification processes by integrating with external databases or services. For example, income verification can be done electronically by connecting with tax authorities or social service agencies, reducing manual effort and enhancing accuracy.

Digital Document Submission & Smart Scanning

Applicants can upload their supporting documents electronically, reducing the need for physical paperwork. Advanced tools also have smart scanning capabilities, allowing agencies to scan paper applications and documents with optical character recognition. This allows for faster processing and document storage.

Data Analytics & Decision Support

Advanced analytics and algorithms can help identify patterns, anomalies, or potential fraud in the data, aiding in the decision-making process for eligibility determination. Spare Engage offers comprehensive reporting tools that provide transit agencies with valuable insights into determination times, regulatory compliance, and program performance. With these capabilities, agencies can monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their conditional eligibility programs, driving continuous improvement and innovation.

Automated Notifications

Technology enables automated notifications to be sent to applicants, informing them of their eligibility status, renewal deadlines, or any changes to the program.

Seamless Communication

Communication is the lifeblood of eligibility management. Applicants, administrators, and doctors all need to be informed and on the same page about eligibility statuses. Technology enables transit agencies to communicate with both riders and doctors alike in the preferred channels of their choice (i.e. physical mail, fax, in-app messaging, SMS, email, and IVR notifications), ensuring that each message reaches the right audience at the right time.

Online Renewal & Recertification

Applicants can complete renewal or recertification processes online, simplifying the process and reducing the burden on agency staff.

Automate Enforcement & Scheduling

For conditional eligibility to work, it comes down to setup and enforcement. From the partners we’ve spoken to, many agencies set up conditional eligibility programs, but very few are enforcing them–let alone, automating enforcement. In a world where conditional eligibility truly works, riders with mobility impairments can automatically book trips even if it’s snowing outside. The technology then automatically identifies if the rider has been travel trained between two locations and presents this information to the dispatcher.

Without technology to streamline enforcement, the concept of conditional eligibility is faulty. But when it works, modern technology can validate and confirm that each trip request fully adheres to conditional eligibility abilities and constraints. Ultimately, transit agencies can enhance efficiency, reduce administrative costs, and provide a more user-friendly experience for applicants throughout the conditional eligibility program.

Conditional Eligibility is the Future

Conditional eligibility is our secret weapon in ensuring that paratransit services work for those who truly need them. It means finding ways to iterate, like doing more of what’s working and eliminating those that no longer serve our riders anymore. With the help of modern technology, we can take paratransit and conditional eligibility to the next level.

By critically examining what’s working, what’s not, and re-thinking how modern tech stacks can aid in these processes, ultimately we create a transportation system that's inclusive, efficient, and equitable.