Paratransit Services Long in Need of an Upgrade

Over 3.6 million Americans are home bound because their disability restricts or prevents travel. More than 13.4 million adults who are in the typical labor workforce ages (18-64) have travel-limiting disabilities. They are joined by more than 11 million older than 65. How does this affect their ability to get to work, health appointments, social appointments, and day-to-day living?

While many with a disability limit their travel, others have to depend on friends or family members for a ride or use special transportation services such as paratransit. It is vital that State transport authorities understand the needs of this population and improve paratransit services to suit and support their needs.

Regulations Are in Place, But Bureaucracy Exists

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—designed to provide support and protect the rights of individuals with disabilities—is binding for most employers, businesses, State and local governments, and nonprofit organizations. One of the ADA’s stipulations is for public transit agencies with fixed-route service to provide a complementary paratransit service. Intended for those who are unable to use a fixed-route train or bus service because of their disability, paratransit service must be provided within three-fourth of a mile of a bus route or railway station at the same hours and days and at no more than twice the fare of a regular fixed route. 

Eligibility for paratransit

All three categories defined by the ADA require individuals to be able to ride at least some fixed-route transit for some trips. 

  • Category 1: People who can’t travel on the bus or train, even if it’s accessible, because of a physical or mental disability
  • Category 2: People who need an accessible bus or train
  • Category 3: People who have a specific disability-related condition

The transit system often works with the local community to design the eligibility criteria. Those applying for the service may be required to:

  • Submit an application along with supporting documents
  • Go for an in-person interview/assessment

Once eligible, you may fall into one of three categories: 

  • Unconditional: always requires paratransit
  • Conditional: could use the fixed-route service for some trips
  • Temporary: for those who may have a temporary loss of functional ability and cannot use the fixed route service

Additional information on eligibility criteria and stepwise navigation through the process can be found here

Challenges for Paratransit Riders

One big challenge that paratransit users face is on-time pick up. In late 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice informed the New York City Transit Authority that operational practices within their Access-A-Ride paratransit program were creating challenges for riders, including untimely drop-offs and excessive travel times. The transit authority’s dashboard that shares performance information for Access-A-Ride shows that while the primary carrier was performing well with on-time pick-ups, third-party brokers providing the service have consistently failed to meet the on-time goal. 

Delayed pick up is a common theme—an investigation by the local NBC news channel in Chicago found a significant number of complaints from paratransit users were about late pick-up or no-shows. A customer satisfaction survey in Cleveland in late 2022 found lower satisfaction with scheduling staff and on-time pick up. Users complained of long wait times for scheduling a ride.   

These challenges point to a need for operational improvements such as increased staffing, increased fleet size or partnering with ride-share services, and using digital methods (apps/portals) for scheduling rides and for real-time tracking. 

Here is some information on paratransit services in a few states:

Are you a paratransit user or know someone who is?


Surabhi Dangi-Garimella, Ph.D. is a biologist who provides writing and strategic support to non-profit groups via her consultancy, SDG AdvoHealth, LLC.

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Surabhi Dangi Garamella

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