The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Penny Everline

Penny Everline has served on transportation advisory groups at the local, regional, and national levels including the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council, the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board Transportation Committee, the Transportation Planning Board's Access for All Advisory Committee, and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) National Work Group. She recently left her job with Easter Seals Project ACTION, a national training and technical assistance center funded through the Federal Transit Administration, to focus on advocacy work at the local/regional level. She holds an MSW degree and teaches at George Mason University. 


5 ways transit riders can make transit more accessible

People with disabilities often face barriers to accessing public transit. And while much of the burden of removing those barriers falls on public agencies, other patrons can help make transit more accessible too.

Photo by Ludita on Flickr.

Discussions about making the fixed-route more accessible to people with disabilities and older adults often center on items in the transit provider's sphere of control (i.e., vehicle and station design, stop announcements, assistance provided by bus operators, etc.). Barriers beyond the transit provider's sphere of control, such as obstacles encountered by pedestrians in the public right-of-way, also need to be addressed. Rarely, however, do we discuss what the transit customer can do.

Here are five things transit customers can do to make the fixed-route more accessible.

Recognize that customers with disabilities have the right to use transit
It is fairly common knowledge that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses the right of people with disabilities to use public transportation, specifically under Title II. Nevertheless, I have witnessed impatient and sometimes intolerant behavior toward people with disabilities and older adults on transit.

For example, the other day I overheard a conversation on the Metro in which a woman was complaining about a man in a wheelchair who was on the train and was in her and "everyone else's way." Of course, the rider who used a wheelchair had the same right to be on the train as she did. And if he was in fact in the way, surely she could have asked him to move a bit or exited using another door.

I have occasionally experienced riders demonstrating a similar level of impatience on the bus, particularly when older adults or people with disabilities take longer to board or disembark than average. Of course, this impatient behavior does not occur every day or on every bus. However, these negative experiences can compound and make using the fixed-route considerably more stressful for people with disabilities and older adults, which contributes to making the service seem less accessible.

I am reminded of a former colleague of mine who once said: "I love public transportation. I just can't stand the people." Needless to say, "the people" are part of the deal with public transportation. And this includes people with disabilities and older adults. When we treat people with disabilities and older adults on the bus and train with the same basic level of respect we expect from others, we contribute to the accessibility of transit.

Vacate priority seating and securement locations when they are needed
Every train and bus has a priority seating area. Every bus also has mobility device securement locations. Many times on both the train and the bus, I have witnessed a person who obviously needed a seat boarding while people who did not appear to need priority seating failed to vacate priority seating.

On the bus, the bus operator is required under the ADA to ask the passenger(s) to vacate the priority seating or securement location when it is needed for a person with a disability or older adult. But, the bus operator is not required to force anyone to move. Some people have hidden disabilities that might necessitate the use of priority seating.

On the train, we do not have a train operator in every car to observe each person boarding and disembarking or to monitor priority seating. On the train, it is truly up to us as passengers to do the right thing and to offer our seat when our seat is needed.

I have asked people to vacate the priority seating locations on the train for an older adult, a person with a cane, etc. Since I usually get on the train when all seats are taken, I typically have no seat to offer. So I say something as simple as: "Hey. Can someone offer a seat to this lady/this gentleman?" Someone steps up, but only after being asked.

Of course, some people with disabilities ask for a seat themselves. They may be accustomed to asking for a seat, but they really should not need to ask. I have also observed that many older adults and some people with disabilities are hesitant or, perhaps, even unable to ask.

We all need to be more attentive, step up, and offer our seats when they are needed by people with disabilities or older adults. A number of years ago, CTA in Chicago had an ad campaign: Stand Up for People with Disabilities. Perhaps we should have a similar campaign here in DC.

Recognize customers with disabilities' right to travel with a service animal
Some customers with disabilities travel with service animals. This is also a right protected under the ADA. Service animals are not pets; they are animals trained to perform specific tasks. The most common service animal is a dog, but there are other types of service animals.

Many transit customers do not know how to behave around service animals. I have seen people on the train attempting to pet, talk to, and/or make direct eye contact with service dogs.

We should always assume that the service animal is working. It is never acceptable to touch, talk to, or to feed a service animal without the owner's permission. In fact, doing so could distract the service animal from the task at hand or even undo some of the training the service animal has received.

Intentionally distracting a service animal can actually be dangerous to its owner. So, in addition to recognizing the right of people with disabilities to travel with service animals, it is equally important to behave appropriately around them. Of course, people with disabilities who travel with service animals have the responsibility to keep their service animals under control.

Work collaboratively to address barriers in our communities
For transit to be truly accessible, the path of travel to and from the transit stop or station must be accessible. Many (if not everyone) in this blog's readership appreciate the importance of good planning and good, safe pedestrian connectivity to transit. But, are we engaging people with disabilities in our discussions?

I believe we need to do more to engage people with disabilities in both our discussions and planning processes if we want to make the pedestrian circulation network accessible to all transit customers, including customers with disabilities.

Of course, not all transit riders are formally engaged in transportation planning or advocacy efforts related to transportation. However, many people are involved in some way in their communities, whether it be through a Home Owners' Association (HOA), Community Association, Parent Teacher Association, etc. Each of these groups from time to time weighs in regarding specific unsafe street crossings, motor vehicles speeding through neighborhoods or in school zones, incomplete sidewalks or sidewalks in need of repair, nearby zoning/land use decisions, etc. And every community has residents who are older adults or people with disabilities who can and should be reached out to and included in these important community discussions.

Work collaboratively to promote transit
I enjoy working with transit advocates from many different backgrounds and perspectives. Some come from a planning perspective embracing new urbanism. Others come from an environmental perspective embracing strategies that reduce carbon emissions. Others are motivated by the goal of transportation equity. And others are concerned with a specific group that relies on transit for mobility (i.e., people with disabilities, older adults, people with low incomes).

Transit is an accessible and affordable transportation option. When proponents of new urbanism, environmentalism, or transportation equity promote adequately funding transit, increasing pedestrian access to transit, and/or making our communities more walkable, they simultaneously promote an accessible and affordable transportation option.

There are opportunities to work together across our interest areas to promote transit, but we often fail to recognize and seize these opportunities. We need to talk more with each other, learn more about one another's perspectives, and advocate together when we find common interests. I can say from experience that the dialogue will be awkward at first, but definitely worthwhile.

Note: Some ideas in this post are addressed in Easter Seals Project ACTION's Getting There Together: Supporting Accessible Sustainable Transportation in Your Community.


Free neighborhood shuttle could save DC money

Residents and workers in Southwest Waterfront want to restore a discontinued free shuttle bus, the Shuttle-Bug, that operated between G and M streets SW from Sixth Street to slightly past Third Street.

Image from SWTLQTC.

The Shuttle-Bug connected thousands of residents in that area, including people with low incomes and older adults, to the Safeway, CVS, and Waterfront Metro station. While it is easy to recognize the social benefits of such a service, there are economic benefits as well for DC in reducing dependency on MetroAccess and even fixed route bus service.

According to the Post, Shuttle-Bug operated for 18 months "as a way to offset the hardship that construction posed to pedestrians." Now that the construction is complete, city officials contend that the need for the service no longer exits.

However, designers of the shuttle service from the Southwest Action Team (SWAT) have a different memory. They state that the service was developed and funded as a neighborhood crime mitigation measure. They recall that prior to Shuttle-Bug's creation, several community residents were assaulted, robbed, and, in one case, murdered along their walk to the Metro station. MPD Assistant Chief of Police, Diane Groomes, wrote a letter of support to continue the Shuttle-Bug program citing the safety benefits.

According to the Post article, a survey conducted by students of George Mason University "found that one-third of participants said they took the shuttle for safety reasons" and that "twenty-five percent said they had difficulty walking, and nearly two-thirds said they do not own a car or do not drive." Consequently, designers of the Shuttle-Bug service believe that the service addressed unmet community needs.

In addition, the Arena Stage, which was closed during the Shuttle-Bug's period of operation, will re-open in October 2010. Arena Stage patrons who take Metro will need safe, reliable transportation from the Metro to Arena Stage and back again. Consequently, staff at Arena Stage also drafted a letter of support to continue the Shuttle-Bug service.

Shuttle-Bug ran on a fixed-route basis, complete with bus stop signs. If a rider with disabilities wanted a special drop-off that was safe, the driver would accommodate the request provided the drop-off was on the route.

Shuttle-Bug served the morning peak from 7-10 am, the evening peak starting at 4 pm, weeknights for after-work grocery shoppers and people who attended Blues Night on Monday or Jazz Night on Friday, and a Tuesday/Friday 10:30 am to 1:30 pm service that ran on a slightly larger route to serve another building with a high percentage of older adults.

The average number of rides per day on Shuttle-Bug ranged from 98 to 165, and the total number of rides provided since the program's inception was 44,055. According to SWAT, fare revenues were unnecessary because the cost to collect, handle, and secure the small amount of fare revenue would exceed the value of the fares collected.

How Shuttle-Bug Could Save DC Money

Since about twenty-five percent of Shuttle-Bug riders expressed having difficulty walking, it is likely that at least twenty-five percent qualify for MetroAccess service. MetroAccess service costs on average $38 per ride, whereas the average operating cost per ride on Shuttle-Bug was $4.98.

Now that the Shuttle-Bug service no longer exists, it is likely that those individuals who qualify for MetroAccess who rode Shuttle-Bug will go back to using the more costly MetroAccess service. As we know, MetroAccess is subsidized by the WMATA Compact jurisdictions including the District of Columbia. Clearly, $4.98 per ride is a bargain when compared to $38.

Even when you compare Shuttle-Bug to traditional fixed-route bus service, the cost differentials are striking. The cost per hour to operate Shuttle-Bug was only $60.11 due to there being no overhead costs. The current cost for WMATA to provide fixed-route bus service is $102.41 per hour. (Note: I provide this comparison only to show how much it would cost if WMATA provided the Shuttle-Bug service, and not to suggest that regional bus service is the same as a community shuttle.)

Shuttle-Bug was funded through a public-private partnership, with Waterfront Associates, LLC (the developers of Waterfront Station) and Fairfield Residential (the owner/developer of the View at Waterfront) funding 70% and the District of Columbia funding the remaining 30%. SWAT is presently requesting that the District of Columbia fund the Shuttle-Bug program for an additional year while they seek diversified funding.

One possible strategy to diversify funding would be to ask area businesses that benefited from the service (Safeway, CVS, etc.) to contribute to the service. However, achieving a new public-private partnership would take both time and a demonstrated financial commitment from the District of Columbia.

Shuttle-Bug riders and community residents have already submitted over 500 signed testimonials to continue the shuttle service. According to SWAT, this represents ten percent of the 5,000 households in the target area served by Shuttle-Bug.

Shuttle-Bug is a less expensive option for the District of Columbia in this neighborhood compared with traditional MetroAccess and Metrobus services. Of course, some will argue that Metrobus and Metrorail customers should just walk the four or so blocks to the Waterfront Metro station. Nevertheless, the potential for significant paratransit cost savings for local governments makes Shuttle-Bug an alternative transportation model worthy of further exploration in our region and beyond.


Can SmarTrip work for riders with the lowest incomes?

WMATA's goal is to get as many riders as possible to use SmarTrip. The approved FY2011 operating budget increases the fare difference between SmarTrip and cash rides, giving an increased incentive to use SmarTrip. But does this hurt riders with lower incomes?

Photo by Erica Wissolik on Flickr.

Advocates for riders with low incomes believe that significant barriers to purchasing and using SmarTrip cards continue to exist for these riders.

Potential barriers for riders with low incomes include physical barriers, economic barriers, and situational barriers.

Physical Barriers

The first physical barrier concerns the rider's ability to get to a location where SmarTrip cards are sold.

I ordered my first SmarTrip card online and purchased replacement cards at the Commuter Store in Rosslyn. In addition, SmarTrip cards are available at various CVS, Giant, and other locations throughout DC, MD, and VA, including Metrorail stations.

Some people are unable to purchase a SmarTrip card online since doing so requires a credit card and not everyone has a credit card. Not everyone who rides the system goes to rail stations or nearby the commuter stores, where SmarTrip cards are sold. And while SmarTrip cards are available for purchase in some CVS and Giant locations, WMATA should expand the number and type of retail locations where SmarTrip cards are sold.

The second physical barrier is one with which I have some personal experience. SmarTrip card readers on buses are not accessible to people who are blind or who have low vision. Due to a visual impairment, I cannot read the balance displayed when I swipe my SmarTrip card. Nor can I read the balance that is displayed when I add money to my card on the vehicle. The truth be told, I simply swipe my card and hope for the best. If the machine (or bus operator) tells me I need to add value to my card, I add value.

This physical barrier is not too much of a problem for me because I always have an extra $5 or so to put on my card. But for riders with very low income AND low vision paying trip-by-trip, this can be a significant barrier and source of frustration. Of course, the solutions involve making the equipment more accessible and, in the meantime, training bus operators to provide the needed assistance to passengers who are blind or who have low vision.

Economic Barriers

The primary economic barrier to purchasing and using a SmarTrip card is the initial cost of the card. The WMATA Board recently voted to reduce the SmarTrip card purchase cost from $5 to $2.50, minimizing this initial financial barrier. WMATA also distributed thousands of SmarTrip cards to social service agencies. Of course, not all people with low-income are clients of social service agencies.

WMATA staff and the WMATA Board have clearly taken action to minimize the financial barrier to purchasing SmarTrip cards. This is commendable. However, there are riders that have such limited financial resources that they can only afford to pay for one or two rides at a time. Once many of these riders actually get SmarTrip cards, they simply load $2 to their SmarTrip cards each time they get on a bus (excluding those times when a transfer applies and they do not need to add any money).

This process is not only burdensome to the rider, but also brings obvious albeit ironic operational implications: it actually slows down the boarding process:

  • The rider boards the bus and swipes his/her SmarTrip card.
  • The bus operator indicates that there is not enough value on the card.
  • The rider indicates he/she wants to add more value.
  • The bus operator pushes a button.
  • The rider swipes the SmarTrip card again.
  • The rider pushes two dollars into the machine.
  • The rider swipes the SmarTrip card again to record the added value.
  • The rider swipes the SmarTrip card a second time to pay the fare.
In this scenario, using SmarTrip likely takes longer than paying by cash would. Using SmarTrip saves the rider 20¢ per trip and makes free transfers possible. Therefore, the rider willingly endures the inconvenience of adding money each time he/she boards the vehicle to save money. But the unintended consequence is that the dwell time at the stop increases.

Situational Barriers

The final set of barriers to purchasing and using SmarTrip cards relate to a person's individual circumstances or situation. For some individuals, using SmarTrip might not be practical or realistic. For example, I've heard that people with mental health issues are often hesitant to use SmarTrip cards due to fear of losing the cards.

Also, I've heard that some undocumented immigrants are fearful of using SmarTrip because they are concerned about agencies knowing their status. Finally, I've heard that individuals living in abusive relationships are hesitant, or literally unable, to use SmarTrip cards because they cannot safeguard any of their possessions.

These are just three examples. However, it is important to note that many people living under these circumstances are probably also riders with low incomes.

I am not suggesting that WMATA needs to revolve its fare policy around outlier data or individual scenarios. WMATA should continue to encourage as many people as possible to use SmarTrip cards and should make them as easy as possible to purchase and utilize.

However, WMATA also needs to remember its remaining regular customers who do not use SmarTrip cards or are struggling to use SmarTrip cards. There are social and operational implications to recent fare policy decisions worthy of further conversation.


Travel training promotes independence and saves costs

Many of us get on our bus or train every day without thinking twice. Some of us who are not morning people (myself included) wake up two stops before our office not remembering how we got there.

Photo by gaspi *yg on Flickr.

Our body knows where to go, has been there many times before, and takes us there on autopilot. None of us were born knowing how to ride transit. At some point, we learned.

For many people with disabilities and older adults, learning how to ride the fixed-route bus or train isn't so easy. However, it can be a life-changing experience.

Stuart Thacker, a recent graduate from Wakefield High School and the first student to graduate from the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia's (ECNV's) new travel training program, summed up what learning how to ride the bus and train means to him. "I'm a free man," he said.

Stuart's high school transition coordinator referred him for travel training before he graduated. Stuart lives near the Pentagon City Metro with his parents, who also rely on public transportation. Before he learned how to ride transit on his own, Stuart had few independent transportation options.

Stuart was nervous when he first started learning how to ride the bus and train. "I was mainly worried about how I could find my way," he explained. But practicing taking transit with his travel trainer, Robyn Bernardy, made all the difference. "The more I do, the more I feel independence," he said. Stuart said he is now ready to be the guide for his mother when they take the train together.

Robyn provided regular one-on-one instruction to Stuart over a two-month timeframe. She was more hands-on at first, but gradually faded into the background allowing Stuart to take the lead and to become more confident.

Stuart learned one route at a time. He now knows how to get to and from multiple locations on his own including the Kennedy Center, where he plans to apply for an internship.

The ECNV travel training program helps people with disabilities and older adults learn to travel safely and independently using public transportation in the Washington area. It teaches travel skills including:

  • Identifying transportation options
  • Reading maps and schedules
  • Planning the trip
  • Buying and using fare cards
  • Identifying the appropriate bus and/or train to ride
  • Boarding, riding, and deboarding trains and buses
  • Crossing the street
  • Maintaining appropriate behavior
  • Handling unexpected situations or problems
The ECNV travel training program is free to participants, and those who complete travel training receive a free reduced-fare SmarTrip card with $50 in fare. Free travel training for those living in Maryland and DC is also being provided by Independence Now, Inc. in Silver Spring, MD and by the District of Columbia Center for Independent Living.

Of course, travel training has its limits. Travel training will not take away the environmental barriers at some transit stops and stations or along the path of travel to those stops and stations. And not everyone who starts the travel training program will be able to develop the skills necessary to travel on their own. Some people with disabilities and some older adults will continue to need to use the paratransit service for some or all of their trips.

But for those individuals, like Stuart, who can learn how to use the fixed-route bus or rail for some or all of their trips, travel training increases independence and opportunities while reducing paratransit costs. And according to Stuart, "It's a blast!"


WMATA governance task force distracts from real issues

On May 12, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) Board of Directors voted to join a task force established by the Greater Washington Board of Trade to review the WMATA governance structure.

Photo by David Maddison on Flickr.

This is more a distraction than a useful exercise. There are indeed ways WMATA can and should improve. But restructuring the WMATA Board is unlikely to make any real difference in safety practices, labor relations, customer service, efficiency in spending, or the amount of funding available from jurisdictions and the federal government. We need to be focusing on those issues, not rearranging the chairs.

The independent review will be overseen by a public-private task force that, according to COG's press release, will "compile previous studies and research on transit agency governance models, review WMATA and other current models, and identify best practices and strategies that could be applied in the National Capital Region" while recognizing the "uniqueness" of the region.

However, a little research reveals that this analysis has mostly already been done before.

Task Force Step 1: Compile previous studies and research on transit agency governance models

A quick visit to the Transportation Research Board (TRB) website and search of Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) reports reveals a comprehensive report on transit agency governance models: TCRP Report 85, the Public Transit Board Governance Guidebook. TCRP Report 85 was developed as part of a larger project called TCRP Project H-24 with the goal to "provide national data and information on public transit board governance and the nature and characteristics of transit board effectiveness."

The report does not recommend one governance model over another. However, it offers insight regarding: the primary role of transit boards, characteristics of effective transit board members, and key influences on transit board effectiveness.

Here is a summary of key findings in TCRP Report 85:

Transit Agency Governance Models Vary (and That's Okay)

The report shows that transit agency governance models vary widely in terms of how board members are selected, who board members are (i.e., elected officials, citizen representatives, etc.), board size, length of terms, and whether or not board members can be re-appointed. The report does not recommend one model over another.

The Primary Role of Transit Boards

According to the report, most transit executives and board chairs agreed that the board's primary role is that of policy maker and "only 5 percent of the CEOs selected the combination of policy making and day-to-day operations." Major activities of board members included: establishing service policies/standards, fiduciary/budget approval, strategic planning, overall fiscal control, and setting organizational priorities.

WMATA and the WMATA board have, at times, struggled to find the line between policy decisions that should be made by the board and day-to-day operational decisions that should be left to WMATA staff. Recent events, investigations, and the high level of media coverage (by both mainstream and social media) of WMATA have likely contributed to the fineness of that line and potential blurring of board member and executive roles, no doubt making both roles (that of board member and of GM) challenging, to say to the least.

Characteristics of Effective Board Members

Following the disclaimer that "each transportation system has different needs and the board should reflect those needs," the report identifies the following characteristics of effective board members: advocate for community, committed to public transit, focused, knowledgeable, open to communication, political, prepared, team player/consensus builder, and understands the board's role.

At times, WMATA board members have been criticized for being too political, and some advocates have questioned the benefit of having elected officials on the board. Yet, the report asserts that "political astuteness" is essential and goes so far as to suggest that "political and civic leaders should be appointed to the board because they can represent the view of transit and business leaders."

The report also emphasizes that interest in transit, support of the agency's mission, and commitment to carry out the duties of a board member are equally important. And, at times, WMATA board members (not all, but a few) have been criticized by advocates for rarely riding Metro and for missing WMATA board meetings.

Key Influences on Board Effectiveness

The report identifies "CEO/general manager leadership" and "board commitment" as the two major influences on transit board effectiveness. Key influences on board chair effectiveness identified by the study include: "board member commitment," the "receipt of timely information," and the "chair's own ability to provide leadership." Again, it's not about the governance model; it's about the people.

Also noteworthy, the "timely receipt of information" is identified as a key influence on both chair and transit board effectiveness. The lack thereof, in my opinion, has posed a far greater threat to the WMATA board's effectiveness than WMATA's governance model.

Task Force Step 2: Review WMATA and other current models

TCRP Report 85 includes cases studies of different transit agency governance models. One could start there. However, I suspect the task force will want to compare WMATA's governance model to the governance models of peer agencies, only some of which are included in the report's case studies.

The question is: How will peers be identified? By annual ridership numbers? By comparable modes (i.e. systems that have rail, bus, and paratransit)? By size and complexity of the service area (i.e., encompassing multiple counties and states)? Or by some combination? How the task force defines WMATA's peers will shape the findings.

It should also be noted that case study research on the "state-of-the-art" or "state-of-the-industry" of peer transit agencies' governance models will not automatically equate to findings on "best practices." The research will simply reflect current practices of peer agencies.

Task Force Step 3: Identify best practices and strategies that could be applied in the National Capital Region

Herein lies the problem. With so little existing research on "best practices" and strategies related to transit agency governance models, how will this exercise result in anything more substantive than a compilation of task force member observations and opinions?

Clearly, there is a need for additional research on transit agency governance models. Perhaps the task force should submit a research recommendation to TRB.

Clearly, the Board of Trade and COG share concerns regarding WMATA governance. But are those shared concerns really about the governance model or something else?

Could the WMATA board be more effective? Yes. Could WMATA executives help the WMATA board be more effective? Yes. Will changing WMATA's governance model solve WMATA's problems? Probably not.

This is a critical time for our regional transit system and its riders. While the task force hypothesizes and theorizes on the most suitable governance model for WMATA, the WMATA board of today (flaws and all) must focus on the work that needs to be done: addressing the FY2011 operating budget shortfall and its implications on transit service, implementing safety recommendations, finding the right general manager, securing adequate capital funding for the next six years, and pursuing dedicated funding so that our regional transit system is safe, efficient, and sustainable. If only a task force could help with these tasks.


MetroAccess cuts remain

While many transit advocates breathed a collective sigh of relief when they learned that WMATA Interim General Manager Sarles' FY2011 proposed operating budget included far fewer service cuts than were originally outlined in former General Manager Catoe's proposed budget, several significant service cuts remain, including cuts to MetroAccess.

Photo by Daquella manera.

Here is what Sarles proposes for MetroAccess:

1. Cut the MetroAccess service area to ¾ mile around the fixed route to reflect ADA minimum requirements.

While the phrase "minimum requirements" would suggest that this is simple to implement, it isn't. MetroAccess does not currently have the capability to determine what origins and destinations fall outside of the ¾ mile area during both off-peak and peak service times. Due to scheduling software limitations, MetroAccess currently only has the capability to base the ¾ mile corridors on peak period fixed route service.

2. "Grandfather" some current MetroAccess participants that take trips beyond ¾ mile of the fixed route. Sarles proposes "grandfathering" in current MetroAccess customers that took MetroAccess trips in 2009 with an origin or destination that fell beyond ¾ mile of the fixed route.

It is unclear at this time if "grandfathering" would be trip-specific, rider-specific, or a combination of both. The "grandfathering" provision would not apply to MetroAccess customers who did not take a MetroAccess trip in 2009 nor would it apply to applicants who apply after July 1.

To complicate matters, initial research shows that there is no precedent from other transit systems for "grandfathering" riders from a previously existing service area when the service area is reduced; although, I hope WMATA staff can prove me wrong on this. In the meantime, it appears WMATA would be starting from scratch to design and implement the "grandfathering" process. That's a potentially risky endeavor for a service considered to be a qualified civil right.

Although beneficiaries of the proposed "grandfathering" are unlikely to complain about being "grandfathered" in, several disability advocates have raised equity concerns. At the very least, "grandfathering" would be confusing, particularly in future years when some riders would be getting more extensive service than others.

3. Continue to charge twice the bus fare for MetroAccess trips within the ¾ mile corridor of the fixed route. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), WMATA can charge no more than twice the fixed route fare for MetroAccess trips made within the ¾ mile service area surrounding the fixed route. WMATA calls this the "base fare." Sarles proposes keeping the MetroAccess base fare policy the same as it is now. How much the MetroAccess base fare increases will depend on how much the bus fare increases.

4. For trips outside the ¾ mile area, increase each of the zone fees by $1. According to the MetroAccess Customer Guide: "Any trip that begins or ends more than ¾ of a mile from the nearest bus stop or is more than 1 ½ miles from a Metrorail station is subject to a supplemental fare, in addition to the base fare." The supplemental fare is based on 4 zones. Zone 1 is up to 3 miles from the fixed route. Zone 2 is between 3 and 6 miles. Zone 3 is between 6 and 9 miles. Zone 4 is more than 9 miles. The current zone fee is $1 per zone. Sarles proposes increasing each zone fee by $1. So, Zone 1 would increase from base fare plus $1 to base fare plus $2. Zone 2 would increase from base fare plus $2 to base fare plus $3. Etc.

Several significant changes to MetroAccess that are still being considered by WMATA were not included in Sarles' April 22 FY2011 operating budget presentation. These changes are as follows:

5. Reduce the MetroAccess service area to match the hours and times the fixed route service is available for specific trips. For example no bus service on weekends or holidays or after 7 p.m., etc. would mean no MetroAccess service.

Again, due to scheduling software limitations, MetroAccess currently only has the capability to base the ¾ mile corridors on peak period fixed route service. They don't yet have the "polygons" for midday, evening, Saturday or Sunday. In addition, this reduction in service could prove difficult to explain to the many MetroAccess customers who would be affected by it.

6. Implement conditional eligibility on July 1. Under the current eligibility process, individuals found eligible for MetroAccess are unconditionally eligible (i.e., eligible for all trips). Conditional eligibility (i.e., trip-by-trip eligibility) refers to eligibility for some trips, but not all, as the customer's ability to use fixed-route service is likely to change with differing circumstances.

While moving forward with conditional eligibility would result in significant cost savings while preserving service for those individuals who really need it, there are significant implementation issues to be addressed. WMATA staff has stated that they do not currently have the capability to implement conditional eligibility on a trip-by-trip basis, which they must have in order to meet the ADA requirements. The level of accessibility (pedestrian ramps, sidewalks, landing pads) must be known at each origin and destination to determine what trips are eligible for MetroAccess versus what trips can be taken on the fixed route. Disabilities that vary from day to day, like M.S., must also be able be taken into account.

7. Once conditional eligibility is implemented, change the free fixed route ride program so that it is only available to MetroAccess customers who are found conditionally eligible (and not available to customers who are found unconditionally eligible).

As background, the free fixed route ride program was originally implemented to encourage MetroAccess customers to use the less costly fixed route service when they are able to do so. This type of program is quite common in transit systems in the U.S. because it encourages rider behavior that will result in operational cost savings (a win-win for the rider and the transit provider).

The assumption behind this proposed change is that MetroAccess customers found unconditionally eligible (i.e., eligible for all trips) cannot ever use the fixed route. While it is reasonable to assume that someone found unconditionally eligible for MetroAccess would be unable to use the fixed route on his or her own, it is equally reasonable to assume that same person might occasionally—with the appropriate assistance of a personal care attendant, friend, or family member—be able to use the fixed route.

Because eligibility is based on the individual applicant's ability to use the fixed route alone, it is plausible that even individuals found unconditionally eligible for MetroAccess would sometimes use the less costly fixed route. It could be counter-productive for WMATA to take away the incentive (i.e., free fixed route fare) for using the less costly fixed route.

WMATA Finance & Administration Committee Chair Catherine Hudgins, who also chairs the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board's Access for All (AFA) Advisory Committee, has facilitated the Finance & Administration committee's discussion of the FY2011 operating budget. To date, that has primarily focused on fare policy as opposed to service cuts.

It is uncertain whether the WMATA Board will discuss the AFA's recommendations regarding MetroAccess, which were presented in response to Catoe's proposed FY2011 operating budget and which differ significantly from what is outlined in both Catoe's and Sarles' proposed FY2011 operating budgets.

The AFA's recommendations include no MetroAccess service cuts; instead they focus on operational strategies, the eligibility process, and fare policy to achieve cost savings. Interestingly, the AFA projects that its recommendations would result in greater MetroAccess cost savings (estimated $10+ million in cost savings) than the MetroAccess service cuts and adjustments outlined in Sarles' proposed FY2011 operating budget (estimated between $6 and $7.2 million in cost savings).

Here is my question for WMATA and the WMATA Board:

If WMATA can achieve greater cost savings on MetroAccess through improved operations, tightening the eligibility process so that the service is only available to the people who need it when they need it, and modest fare increases than it could through Catoe's and Sarles' proposed MetroAccess service cuts, why are the service cuts still on the table?


MetroAccess can save money while also saving rides

Recently, I shared my perspective on why mobility is important to the disability community, including to those individuals who rely on ADA complementary paratransit (MetroAccess), and factual information on the purpose and minimum requirements for ADA complementary paratransit service. Now, it's time to talk about money.

Photo by dmitridf.

In response to my posts, a number of commenters recommended cutting back the MetroAccess service area so that it more closely reflects the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) minimum requirements. I cautioned against this.

While cutting back the service area could obviously result in operating cost savings through a reduction in the number of rides provided by MetroAccess, people with significant disabilities who rely on paratransit service would be left with no transportation options.

The good news is that there are ways to significantly reduce the operating costs of MetroAccess without cutting back the service area.

In a letter sent to the WMATA Board on April 7, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) Access for All Advisory committee (AFA) outlined a number of strategies to significantly reduce MetroAccess operating costs while preserving the current service area. AFA's recommendations are as follows:

Increase taxi usage for MetroAccess trips by 10 to 20 percent. Transit authorities in cities across the U.S. (including DC, New York, San Francisco, and Houston) are contracting out portions of their paratransit service to taxi service providers. This is an increasingly common practice due to the cost savings that can be achieved, specifically for those single rider trips that cannot be scheduled with additional riders. AFA contends that increasing the taxi usage for MetroAccess trips by 10 to 20 percent could save the authority between $3.8 and $7.7 million annually.

Self-insure the MetroAccess fleet. While it would force WMATA to get a firm grasp on hiring, training, supervision, retraining, and preventative maintenance, self-insuring the MetroAccess fleet would also result in significant savings (approximately $2 million annually).

Reduce presumptive eligibility and add conditional eligibility. Once a person's application for MetroAccess is complete, the ADA regulations allow WMATA 21 days to make a determination regarding that person's eligibility. Once the 21-day period passes, the person is given "presumptive eligibility" until the determination is made.

The AFA letter alludes to the number of paratransit applications that are not being reviewed and decided upon within 21 days and, consequently, the number of applicants who are being given presumptive eligibility as a result. Reducing the number of people being given presumptive eligibility (especially for those individuals who are later found ineligible) would also result in meaningful cost savings.

If a person is currently found eligible for MetroAccess, they are found unconditionally eligible, which allows MetroAccess use for all trips. The ADA allows for conditional eligibility, which applies only to certain trips which the individual's disability prevents making using the fixed-route system. Changing to conditional eligibility could result in savings of between $3 and $5 million annually.

Increase MetroAccess fares. According to ADA regulations, the MetroAccess fare for the MetroAccess service area within ¾-mile of the fixed route cannot exceed twice the amount of the fixed route fare. The service area beyond ¾-mile does not fall under this specific regulation, and WMATA has proposed increasing them up to 300-400%.

However, fares outside the ¾-mile beyond the fixed route should not be increased to the point where they become cost-prohibitive for most riders, as would be the case if they were increased by 300 to 400 percent. A more modest increase would be appropriate.

In addition to AFA's recommendations, there are a couple of operational decisions that WMATA could make that would also increase the cost-effectiveness of MetroAccess.

Group riders together. Just as is the case with the fixed route, the more people you have on a vehicle, the more cost-effective the service. Thus, from an operational perspective, one of the best ways to get paratransit costs down is to combine more trips on a single vehicle. Riders going in the same direction at the same time would ride together.

Most MetroAccess rides are call-ins and the ride times may vary somewhat. An alternative is to encourage regular riders to request and accept subscription service. Subscription service is intended for regularly scheduled trips, such as daily trips to work, regularly scheduled trips to adult day programs or senior centers, etc.

MetroAccess could choose to offer subscription trips at times that enable rides to be grouped on the same vehicle. These subscription trips would be predictable, using the same route, same driver, and same pickup locations each day, with pickup and drop-off times based on well thought-out scheduling.

Of course, MetroAccess already groups multiple riders together on the same vehicle. However, WMATA can do even more to increase MetroAccess efficiency through increased subscription service and grouped trips. At the same time, MetroAccess should focus taxi usage on trips that cannot be grouped or "sandwiched" between groups on MetroAccess vehicles.

Create zones and require transfers. Can you imagine a one-seat transit ride from Fairfax City to Rockville? On the fixed route, you would need to take the CUE bus to the Vienna Metro station, transfer to the Orange Line, then transfer to the red line at Metro Center to Rockville. On MetroAccess, no transfer is required. Yet ADA complementary paratransit service is intended to complement (i.e., be comparable to) the fixed route service.

Much like carpooling, paratransit trips are easier to group together when they are relatively short trips. If you wanted to carpool from Arlington to DC, it probably wouldn't be difficult to find a carpooling opportunity (though, of course, transit would probably still be a better option!). However, if you wanted to carpool from Arlington to College Park or Arlington to Frederick, it might be more difficult to find a carpooling opportunity.

A strategy for creating shorter paratransit trips that are easier to group together is to create zones and only promise one-seat rides within zones. The original DC diamond (DC and Arlington) could be one zone. The rest of the service area in Virginia could be another zone. And due to the large service area in Maryland, it might be necessary to somehow divide Prince George's County and Montgomery County into two additional zones. MetroAccess riders traveling to and from zones outside the diamond might have to transfer from one MetroAccess vehicle to another at safe, lighted locations.

The fare structure would be kept as simple as possible, perhaps with just two fare levels. With a zone system, reservations could remain a centralized function; however, scheduling would occur by zone and would require communication between scheduling offices.

In addition to allowing for more grouped trips, this type of zone system would have additional operational benefits. It would be much easier for drivers to learn one zone than it currently is for them to learn the entire service area of DC, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Alexandria, City of Falls Church, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County. This would make it easier for paratransit drivers to do their jobs and to feel truly successful, increasing on-time performance and morale while decreasing staff turnover.

Of these ideas, the zone system would likely be the most controversial among the disability community and is not presently endorsed by AFA. However, it certainly appears to be less harmful than cutting back the service area to ¾-mile around the fixed route. And it could significantly improve operations and the cost-effectiveness of the service.

The closing paragraph of the AFA's April 7th letter to the WMATA Board states:

MetroAccess costs should be put in context of the benefits of helping the region's most vulnerable populations. Growth in the number of MetroAccess trips means more people with disabilities are working, getting medical care, and experiencing freedom and mobility they would otherwise not have.
WMATA can save the same amount of money (or perhaps more) on MetroAccess through operational improvements than they could by cutting back the service area to the minimum requirement of ¾-mile around the fixed route. Cutting back the service area to the minimum requirement of ¾ mile around the fixed route would leave people with disabilities with no transportation options.

Therefore, the WMATA Board should give serious consideration to the recommendations of AFA and to the other suggestions offered by transit planners and the disability community that will best preserve mobility for people with disabilities while reducing paratransit costs. Doing so will result in a win-win for WMATA, the disability community, and the Washington metropolitan region.


Demystifying ADA complementary paratransit

Yesterday, I shared why access to public transportation is important to me as a person with a disability who cannot drive and who relies on the fixed route service.

Photo by Transportation for America.

In addition, I explored why access to public transportation is equally important to people with disabilities who rely on ADA complementary paratransit service (MetroAccess). I expressed concern about cutting MetroAccess service back to the minimum required service area without having adequate, affordable, and accessible alternative transportation options in place.

A number of commenters asked questions or gave opinions about ADA complementary paratransit, which for WMATA is MetroAccess. Easter Seals Project ACTION has an excellent Q&A section on this topic. Here are excepts from their site which are relevant to our discussion, reprinted with permission:

What is ADA complementary paratransit?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public transit agencies that provide fixed-route service to provide "complementary paratransit" services to people with disabilities who cannot use the fixed-route bus or rail service because of a disability. The ADA regulations specifically define a population of customers who are entitled to this service as a civil right. The regulations also define minimum service characteristics that must be met for this service to be considered equivalent to the fixed-route service it is intended to complement.

Service characteristics: In general, ADA complementary paratransit service must be provided within ¾ of a mile of a bus route or rail station, at the same hours and days, for no more than twice the regular fixed route fare.

What are the three categories of eligibility for ADA complementary paratransit?

Category 1: People who can't navigate travel on the bus or train, even if it's accessible, because of a disability

This category includes people who are unable, due to a mental or physical impairment (including a vision impairment), to board, ride, or disembark from an accessible bus or train without assistance. For example:

  • People with cognitive disabilities, if they do not know where to get off the bus or how to go to their destination from the bus stop
  • People who are blind or who have low vision, if they don't have the travel skills needed to navigate the route to their destination.
  • A person with a visual impairment that allows him/her to see well enough to travel independently during the daytime but not at night.
Category 2: People who need an accessible bus or train.

This category includes people who use wheelchairs and other people with disabilities who can use an accessible vehicle but who want to travel on a route that is still inaccessible (not served by accessible buses or accessible trains and key rail stations).

Category 3: People who have a specific disability-related condition

This category includes people who have a specific disability-related condition that prevents them from traveling to a boarding location or from a disembarking location. Environmental barriers (distance, terrain, weather) or architectural barriers not under control of the transit agency (such as lack of curb ramps) that prevent an individual from traveling to or from the boarding or disembarking locations may form the basis for eligibility. For example:

  • A person who uses a wheelchair may be able to negotiate a trip to the bus stop up a moderately sloped hill on a summer day, but not in the winter after a heavy snowfall.
  • A person may be eligible if architectural barriers present safety hazards on the only route to the train station or bus stop.
  • A person who walks with a cane and would need to travel 3/4 mile to the bus route, but she cannot walk that great a distance.
  • People with disabilities that affect them very differently over time, such as multiple sclerosis. During some periods, they are able to go to the bus stop or train station. During other periods, they are not able to do so.
All three categories include people who may be able to ride fixed-route transit for some, but not all of their trips.

What is conditional eligibility?

In terms of ADA complementary paratransit, conditional eligibility (also known as trip-by-trip eligibility) refers to paratransit eligibility for some trips, but not all, as the customer's ability to use fixed-route service is likely to change with differing circumstances. Conditional eligibility may be appropriate for individuals who can reasonably be expected to use fixed route service for some trips (when barriers that prevent travel are not present), but who cannot be expected to use fixed route service under other conditions. A few examples of barriers and conditions that may prevent an individual's use of fixed route service include:

  • Weather conditions may prevent use of fixed route service by someone with a temperature sensitivity.
  • A person who is able to navigate the fixed route system for some trips. (See note below on travel training.)
  • A person with a variable condition (for example, multiple sclerosis, HIV disease, or the need for kidney dialysis) may be unable to ride fixed route service depending upon their condition at the time of the trip.
  • Barriers in the environment (such as lack of a sidewalk or curb cuts) that prevent a person from getting to or from a bus stop, or from using the bus stop (if a lift cannot be deployed at the bus stop because it lacks a 5' by 8' landing area, for example) would prevent use of fixed-route service for that trip.
Travel Training: Many people who cannot negotiate the entire fixed route system can be travel trained for certain trips. Typically, training is provided for trips that the person makes frequently, such as to work or school. These individuals would only be ADA paratransit eligible for trips they have not been trained to make on fixed route. As part of the application and determination process, it should be determined if such training has been provided. Individuals cannot, however, be required to participate in travel training. The public entity may choose to offer training and may encourage individuals to take advantage of this service. Until the individual takes advantage of this service and is adequately trained, paratransit service must be provided.

Can a person with a disability who lives outside of the designated ADA complementary paratransit service area apply for ADA paratransit eligibility?

Yes. Individuals who live outside of the ADA complementary paratransit service area, or even outside of the transit agency's jurisdiction, can still apply for ADA paratransit eligibility. Their applications should be accepted and considered. This includes persons visiting from other transit districts as well as persons who live just beyond the borders of the transit agency or in other areas where no public transit service is provided. These persons may be able to get to the ADA paratransit service area on their own and would then be able to ask for paratransit service.


Transit makes world larger for people with disabilities

When I was 16 years old and all my friends were learning how to drive, I learned that driving was not an option for me due to a visual impairment. I lived in a small town with no public transportation. So, as my friends got their keys and gained their freedom, I watched my small world get smaller.

Photo by

Sure, friends and family members drove me around. But I couldn't get farther than a couple miles from my home on my own.

I was a straight A high school student with hopes of going to college, but also harbored significant doubts about my future. Without being able to drive, how would I ever be able to get a job, rent my own apartment, go shopping, visit friends, and live independently?

The answer: Public transportation. Since attending college, I have chosen to live in communities with good, reliable transit service. Thanks to the availability of transit, I've been able to pursue graduate degrees, work, live independently, own a home, volunteer in my community, shop, meet up with friends, you name it.

I can do anything—except drive, of course. And buses and trains connect me to almost every person, place, and activity in my life in the DC Metro region. It's pretty amazing when you stop to think about it.

There are many people in our region living with disabilities who cannot drive and who also share my experience. In fact, there are many people with more significant disabilities than I have. Some of them cannot access the fixed-route bus and rail system. They qualify for ADA complementary paratransit: MetroAccess.

Some people who qualify for MetroAccess need to use the service for every trip, whereas other people who qualify can use the fixed-route service some of the time and under certain conditions. This varies based on the individual's abilities and the conditions around the stops and stations and in the path of travel to the stops and stations.

There has been a great deal of discussion on how to address escalating paratransit costs in our region. Should the MetroAccess fare structure change? Should Metro cut back the ADA complementary paratransit service area to more closely reflect the ADA minimum requirements?

For most people who do not have disabilities and who do not rely on ADA complementary paratransit service to get where they need to go, the answers are an immediate and resounding "Yes" and "Yes." But from my perspective as a person with a disability who relies on the fixed-route, it is not that simple.

Here's what I do know. Mobility is extremely important to the disability community, and I can speak to this from experience. The disability community, and in particular those individuals who rely on ADA complementary paratransit service, should be included and engaged in the discussions regarding any proposed changes to MetroAccess.

I also believe that the focus of this dialogue on paratransit should be expanded to address how we can preserve and promote mobility for people living with disabilities in our region. This will require thinking outside of the bus, so to speak, and should include other modes beyond ADA complementary paratransit.

Efforts are already underway to reduce MetroAccess costs. For example, the Centers for Independent Living in our area will soon be teaching people with disabilities how to use the less costly fixed-route bus and rail service when they are able to do so. In addition, WMATA is about to implement a conditional eligibility process for ADA complementary paratransit.

However, we've got a long way to go before WMATA, the jurisdictions, and the disability community will all be ready for the major changes to MetroAccess outlined in the proposed FY2011 budget. Here's a Q & A illustrating why:

Question: Is there a central number a person with a disability can call to find and reserve another ride if ADA complementary parartransit service is no longer available in his/her area or becomes cost prohibitive?

Answer: No.

Question: Are there currently other accessible, affordable transportation options beyond ¾ mile of the fixed-route?

Answer: In many cases no, though this depends on the trip distance. Fortunately, we have accessible taxicab service in our region. However, lengthier trips will be cost-prohibitive for individuals at lower income levels and perhaps even to some at moderate income levels. In addition, I can share from experience that some taxicab operators refuse or attempt to avoid the very short trips. So, relying on taxicab service exclusively could be problematic for the disability community.

Question: How many communities beyond ¾ mile of the fixed-route have robust transportation voucher programs to fill in remaining service gaps?

Answer: None, but there are some good programs out there that could be expanded (i.e., in Fairfax County).

Question: How far along are we as a region with human services transportation coordination? Could that be part of the solution?

Answer: We're not too far along yet, but we have great potential in this area to increase transportation options for people with disabilities through coordination. This will take time, however, and will not happen soon enough to help us in FY2011.

Question: Why do people with disabilities who rely on ADA complementary paratransit service choose to live beyond ¾ miles of the fixed-route anyway? Why can't they just move if the service area changes?

Answer: Not all people with disabilities who rely on paratransit service choose where they live. Some people live with family members who have already made the choice for them, and others simply live where they can afford to live. That is often not within ¾ mile of a Metro station or bus stop.

And finally...

Question: If Metro cuts back the paratransit service area to ¾ mile around the fixed-route, how will people with disabilities who previously relied on the paratransit service be able to get a job, rent their own apartments, go shopping, visit friends, and live independently?

(Sound familiar? This is the same question I asked myself when I was 16 and did not have access to public transportation.)

Answer: I do not have a good answer. Neither does WMATA. Nor do the jurisdictions.

The truth is that some people with disabilities would have no transportation options. I remember all too well what it was like to have no transportation options, and I would not wish that upon anyone.

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