Transit and Paratransit Discovering the World of App-Based Services – Including and Beyond Uber

Author: Sheryl Gross-Glaser

Published: February 16, 2016

Cities are not just pondering the ride hailing model for paratransit, but they are actually talking to ride hailing companies for different types of services. Some are even setting up their own ride hailing operations. Transit agencies are interested in less costly and more flexible business models for public demand-response transportation services and for filling gaps in current fixed-route services. Indeed, wherever I go the word “Uber” is on many lips, not necessarily in reference to the company, but to its model and the mobility-on-demand (MOD) service provided.

Different Business Models in Different Places

Boulder, Co, for example, has a transportation company, Transdev On Demand, that is offering a new MOD service called zTrip. Unlike Uber, zTrip features transparent pricing, no surge pricing, and background checks and other regulation of drivers. Next month, zTrip will be inaugurating its wheelchair-accessible MOD service.

Just like its better-know counterparts, zTrip offers itself as the perfect transportation solution to problems that spontaneously occur, such as on a Valentine’s Day weekend. zTrip gave 140 free rides of $25 or less in Boulder over that weekend:

Whether you are a couple that had a little too much to drink, you are looking for a safe ride home after a less than comfortable (awkward) date or just looking for the safest transportation around town; zTrip is the solution for a safe ride home.

Lots of Choices Beyond Uber

Uber is not the only game in town; nor is the one-passenger-per-ride – virtual taxi service – the only type of service model.

Unlike most other app-based ride hailing services, Via [], an on-demand transit app, provides shared rides at a fixed price. There is a good deal of information in a recent podcast of CT Magazine. Though Via is currently only available in limited areas of New York City and Chicago, the company is helping other transit agencies close gaps in service. Many agencies around the country have expressed interest in working with Via. The company’s goals are to enable public transit to provide on-demand, first/last mile access and improved paratransit services, including services in smaller, low-density communities.

Lack of a Convenient Bus Route or Commuter Train

Another app-based service, one that concentrates on commuters, has contracted with a big-city transit agency to provide flexible commuter service. Next month, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) will be starting a one-year pilot service with Bridj, to be called Ride KC: Bridj. Currently, Bridj operates in areas of Boston and Washington, DC, that transit does not serve well. And this unconventional service gets even more unusual. The KCATA/Bridj deal requires Bridj to use particular vehicles for the service. “Ford Motor Credit Company is supporting the one-year pilot with financing through its municipal lease finance program.”

According to the project announcement by Bridj,

“Only 18 percent of jobs in the Kansas City region are accessible within 90 minutes when using existing mass transit options,” said Bridj’s George, citing figures from the Brookings Institute. “By improving access to jobs, Ride KC: Bridj is a catalyst for social and economic opportunity, and an example of what is possible when cities adopt technological innovation and work in collaboration with private entities to create a truly modern city.”

For more details, reads a business article about the KCATA/Bridj project, and the Bridj announcement.

MOD Popping Up All Over

In other places, transit or municipal leaders are talking to already-entrenched MOD providers, such as Uber and Lyft. One Lyft-designed platform enables medical care providers to book rides for patients. New York City, for example, is having riders book non-emergency medical trips rides through this platform.

Officials in Washington, DC, and Boston are in talks with Uber to discuss transportation for people with disabilities. In Boston, reports say that the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) will soon be expanding a subsidized taxi program to provide MOD rides to ADA riders. Travel training is another strategy being used, but the purpose is the same – to cut costs.

In DC, the transit authority is inviting proposals, whether from Uber or others, for alternatives to the costly MetroAccess ADA services that are currently provided. “Everything is on the table,” an article in the Washington Post states.

An excellent source for recent information is a report from the Shared Use Mobility Center, called 7 Services Expanding Mobility for Aging Americans.

Not Everyone Is Smiling

According to the Washington Post article, not everyone is embracing the MOD concept as the savior for ADA service.

But while they [specifically referring to Uber] might be accepted among customers who crave prompter service and the convenience of app-based ordering, the idea gives some accessibility advocates pause. Some question Uber’s lack of accessible vehicles and the level of training its drivers receive in dealing with passengers with special needs. Others echo widely publicized concerns about the company, centered chiefly around safety, insurance coverage and its vetting process for drivers.

There are also labor, disability rights organizations, and taxi advocates lining up in opposition to giving paratransit business to ride hailing companies.


On the One Hand; but on the Other Hand


Legal proceedings are underway in California and New York regarding Uber’s service to people with disabilities. On the other hand, Uber in particular has developed two services especially for older adults and people with disabilities. The first is called uberASSIST, which is currently operating in several cities and in Australia; the second, just launched last month, is uberWAV, for wheelchair users, but solely operating at this time in Toronto.


It remains to be seen whether ride -hailing MOD service – homegrown or by established companies – will take over, become part of, or significantly alter transit and paratransit. But one change has already occurred: Everyone’s expectations of quality and convenience for all types of publicly-available and publicly-funded transportation have changed.

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