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Taxis could make paratransit service cheaper

WMATA's MetroAccess paratransit service has become too expensive for both its clients and the governments that fund it, and has suffered from some serious problems with its service. Using more taxis to transport persons with disabilities could decrease costs and improve service quality.

Photo by dominiccampbell on Flickr.

People with certain disabilities qualify for Metro Access service. Riders pay twice the quickest fixed-route transit fare, up to a maximum of $7 per ride. But that doesn't cover the cost of a trip. To cover the rest, the local jurisdiction pays WMATA $45 for each trip.

WMATA will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) on March 31 for new paratransit operators. But if the RFP follows the original proposal, it will make a big mistake: It would restrict taxis to serve no more than 5% of paratransit trips.

MetroAccess is saddled with a poor customer service record. At a town hall meeting this past October, MetroAccess customers complained about poor treatment by drivers and call dispatchers, poor routing, long waits for pick up and drop off, and vehicle breakdowns. On a couple of occasions, clients of Iona Senior Services' Alzheimer's Day Program were dropped off at the wrong location, and it took hours to locate them. WMATA can do better than this, and taxis could help.

MetroAccess head Christian Kent has crafted a plan to fix the quality of MetroAccess service. Instead of having one vendor bid on the whole package of services, as in the previous contract, the RFP lets vendors bid separately to run the call center, the fleet services, and quality assurance.

Most jurisdictions of similar size do the same. Experts I spoke to feel that this is the best approach, especially having a different vendor handle quality assurance from the one(s) actually running the service.

But one piece of the plan does not make sense: decreasing taxi use from 20%, as specified in the old contract, to only 5%.

Research (cited at bottom) is clear that taxi paratransit services can be less costly than standard ADA paratransit:

  • In 2005, Arlington County's taxi paratransit cost $20.50 per trip, versus $35 for WMATA.
  • San Francisco's taxi paratransit costs $15-$18, versus $40 for Muni paratransit.
  • Houston's ADA taxi service per hour is $32.10, versus $42.65 for paratransit van service.
  • 50% of jurisdictions surveyed reported taxis saved money for transit agencies.
Beyond cost savings, there are other advantages. The taxi system has more flexibility. Taxis are there when you need them, can handle a trip without needing to know the day ahead of time, often come quickly, and force riders to wait less. They provide a safety net for peak service times, and fill in gaps in coverage. And customers like the direct, exclusive ride.

There are also challenges with using taxis. Some try to defraud the transit service. It's hard to monitor it, and drivers don't have as much training as the van services. Christian Kent cites these as reasons to decrease the amount of taxi use in the system.

Nevertheless, Arlington paratransit manager Steve Yaffe makes a strong case for taxi use. His system uses taxis to provide 50% of its paratransit service. He has demonstrated that the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages.

Yaffe said,

I recognize the difficulty in finding taxi vendors with sufficient internal controls and oversight over training, maintenance and accounting. Another difficulty with using taxis for this type of service is the dearth of jurisdictional reciprocity privileges for taxis being used to transport people with disabilities. However, new business models are being developed and have been implemented elsewhere to get around these obstacles and provide the necessary level of accountability and service oversight. The Metro Access RFP should not preclude the flexibility to increase future levels of taxi participation.
DC disability advocates testified at a January hearing on taxi service, chaired by Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), about the importance of providing more wheelchair-accessible taxis and drivers with training to serve those with disabilities. When I talked to Cheh about the possibility of the MetroAccess RFP reducing the use of taxis, she acknowledged that this appears to move in the wrong direction.

Instead of defining a percentage of taxi use for the system, WMATA should include specific quality standards for taxis. This will give all the jurisdictions the flexibility to improve quality, so that taxis can provide services for Metro Access users. This could lead to lower costs and better quality. 22 senior service providers in the District signed off on this recommendation. We hope Christian Kent listens.

Research citations:
Arndt, J. & Cherrington, L. (2007). The Role of Private-For-Hire Vehicles In Transit In Texas. Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
Burkhardt, J. (2010). Potential Cost Savings from taxi paratransit programs. Institute of Transport Studies (Monash). Social Research in Transport Clearinghouse.
Burkhardt, J., Doherty, J., Rubino, J., Westat, & Yum, J. (2008). A Survey On The Use of Taxis in Paratransit Programs. Easter Seals Project Action. Retrieved from
Chapman, Koffman, Pfeiffer, & Weiner (2010). Funding the Public Transportation Needs of an Aging Population. American Public Transportation Association.

Marlene Berlin is a community activist who has lived in DC since 1975. She is the editor of Forest Hills Connection, which covers the Forest Hills/Van Ness/North Cleveland Park communities. She is also on the Van Ness Main Street board.  


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Wow Metro, you know you're doing a bad job when it's safer, more reliable and just overall more pleasant to take a taxi than your service.

by Joe on Mar 28, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

This is an issue with specialized paratransit generally, not a WMATA issue - note the cited difference in SF and Houston.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 28, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

There's another reason to promote taxi usage, a big one, and I am surprised you missed it.

Generally, paratransit services are used across the city, yet taxi availability tends to be focused on the core. And people complain about limited access to taxi services outside of the core.

By allowing and encouraging taxi use as part of a wider range of paratransit support services, I think taxi availability will increase in under-served areas of the city, especially if ride sharing is allowed.

Note too that you neglected to mention this article from the Examiner from the other day, .

Obviously, with more use from traditional paratransit services, less subsidy of disabled access taxi vehicles will be required.

by Richard Layman on Mar 28, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

I have a friend who's a paratransit driver for WMATA. It's more than just picking people up and dropping them off. You're dealing with people with severe disabilities and those who are recovering addicts. And the reason they refuse to stop if a passenger needs to use the bathroom is because of a California case where a passenger got off the van to use the bathroom at a restaurant, slipped and fell, and sued the bus company. There are a LOT of liability issues that need to be addressed before you just start signing taxis up for this job.

by monkeyrotica on Mar 28, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

The cost estimates are apples and oranges. SF and Houston are very different kinds of places and different from DC. The vectors for trips from Arlington also would be different from DC. that may be why only 1/2 the jurisdictions benefit from one over another. Using taxis, private vans, etc. through some sort of voucher system might work better.

by Rich on Mar 28, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

Typically, when taxis are brought into paratransit service delivery, it's not any cab that's eligible. Drivers have to be trained and certified, and disabled access equipment is added to the cabs, not unlike what is described in the Examiner article that I previously cited.

regarding the article's general thrust, it's another illustration of how transportation planning should not by default only be done by the transit provider.

DC could step in and demand a different type of service, because it generates the bulk of the service demand, because it hasn't set up a separate service (unlike Arlington County e.g.).

But I doubt that's on the radar of DDOT.

Ironically, at the community transportation level, transit services often develop out of health-related/paratransit services.

by Richard Layman on Mar 28, 2012 6:44 pm • linkreport

The 5% max trips was implemented when MV took over the contract in 2006 because of "issues" with the taxi provisioning previously, including a larger number of late pickups.

There's a much bigger issue that gets in the way of the idea as well: There are *no* wheelchair accessible taxicabs operating in Prince George's County. Most cab companies now use Silver Cabs as their contact/brokerage, and when you call and request a powerchair accessible taxi, you get told there are none.

It's true that, if asked, PG County will say they have accessible cabs, but they're only referring to ones which can handle a collapsible chair, using a "normal" vehicle.

Surrounding jurisdictions *do* have taxis capable of handling all types of wheelchairs, but they're barred from making pickups out of their licensed jurisdiction - another headache that would have to be addressed.

Increasing taxi use for provisioning MetroAccess trips might on paper look like a cost reduction, but going by previous experience prior to 2006, the potential costs to Metro through lack of efficiency, fraud, availability, and training will likely end up even higher than the expected "savings".

by StyxRiverGynoid on Mar 28, 2012 7:44 pm • linkreport

Good discussion.

Several thoughts. First, I think COG commissioned a study on MetroAccess several years back that recommended increasing usage of taxicabs in provision of the ADA complementary paratransit service. I believe a related recommendation was to increase the number of contractors so that one contractor wouldn't have the bulk of the business, as my understanding is the case now.

Second, we do need to continue to increase the number of accessible taxicabs in DC and PG. Another resource from Easter Seals Project ACTION that might be of interest related to this is called Moving Forward Together; and their Taxi Toolkit might also be helpful in training taxi operators how to provide good service to customers with disabilities.

My understanding is that use of taxicabs in the provision of ADA complementary paratransit service can be particularly cost-effective for the shorter, single jurisdiction trips.

Finally, appreciate the suggestion re: vouchers. Voucher programs could be particularly helpful in jurisdictions where there are large areas not covered by fixed-route transit, and I would like to have more discussion on that. But, it sounds like the immediate, time-sensitive discussion is whether Metro should decrease or increase its taxicab usage in its paratransit service.

by Penny Everline on Mar 29, 2012 8:32 am • linkreport

There is a strong case to be made for increasing the number of MetroAccess trips to DC taxicab service. This service should only be granted to and provided by taxicab companies that can meet the required service standards. These companies should have the required infrastructure to support these services like call center operations, dedicated driver fleet that meets all of the certification requirements, automated dispatching systems using GPS positioning, auditable accounting systems and dedicated customer service and quality assurance teams to monitor service quality.

There is a significant liability and risk to the companies that provide this service and only those companies that are willing to make the necessary investments should qualify to provide this critical service. The rollDC program is a success because the current providers met all of required operations, infrastructure, servicing, certification and financial reporting criteria for the program.

As more DC taxicab companies make the necessary investments in all of the afore-mentioned areas the number of qualified providers will increase and give the city more service flexibility. WMATA should closely evaluate the success of the roll DC program to better understand how these local providers were able to provide such a high level of service. Transportation is their core competence and they know how to provide this service cost effectively and safely.

by Roy D. Spooner Sr. on Mar 29, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

As a metroAccess user and resident of the District i've mostly enjoyed and been thankful for metroAccess service. However it's not as convenient as i'd like. I'd opt to pay out of pocket for taxicabs but these are infrequently available both where i live (Gover Park) and where i work (Petworth). Consequently i use metroAccess.

It's likely that nothing short of a complete overhaul of the city's taxicab system would yield a taxicab infrastructure sufficient to meet the need of para transit.

Please note that paratransit does not mean only wheelchairs. On the contrary i believe that the high majority of metroAccess riders do not use wheelchairs. People who are blind, or able to walk, or dialysis patients might benefit from taxis whereas people who use wheelchairs or people with developmental disabilities might benefit more from contractor services.

by Phil Maggio on Mar 30, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

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