When Breanna Apple’s job at Ulta Beauty requires her to wake up at the crack of dawn, Tyrra and Michael Apple set their alarm, too.
The Burnsville couple take turns transporting their 26-year-old daughter, who has a developmental disability and doesn’t drive, to work so she can avoid rising at 4:30 a.m. to wait for Metro Mobility, which sometimes comes 30 minutes late. “We have to get up extra early to make sure she gets there,” said Tyrra Apple.
But a first-of-its-kind pilot project in Dakota County is aiming to make getting to work easier for disabled adults by contracting with Lyft, the ride-sharing service that provides transportation on demand via customers’ smartphones. The contract will allow Lyft to bill the county for rides, within restrictions on the number of rides per month, county officials said. The project is funded with a $100,000 state grant.
“People want to work that have disabilities, but in Dakota County in particular, transportation is a big barrier to getting to your job,” said Megan Zeilinger, the county’s employment services manager.
Dakota County officials said that the program, which begins this summer, gives people with disabilities increased independence and saves them time. With reliable transportation, many participants will be able to increase their hours or even rejoin the workforce, Zeilinger said.
Efforts to use ride-sharing services to solve transportation quandaries have been drawing national attention. In Minnesota, the Metropolitan Council has researched the concept and several nonprofits want to try it out.
Dakota County’s ride-sharing project is the first in the state to work with local government, said Noel Shughart, Minnesota Department of Transportation transit planner. It’s expected to serve 500 adults with disabilities by 2019, and state officials hope to replicate it elsewhere.
But some disability advocates and potential riders point out possible problems, including safety concerns.
Kathy Sutherland said her son Grant, 23, who has autism, worries about the backgrounds of the new drivers picking him up every day. “He’s nervous about a stranger hurting him,” she said.
Hitching a ride
Getting around the sprawling suburbs presents challenges, especially when someone has a disability and doesn’t drive.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that accessible transit options be provided for people with disabilities. That’s why the Metropolitan Council operates Metro Mobility. But the bus service requires riders to call ahead, and it may run late. Sometimes a ride simply isn’t available. And the service has geographical limits.
“Down here in Lakeville, there’s a magic line that goes across the city and you can’t get Metro Mobility past that line,” said Dave Modrynski, owner of Kota Connections, a company that helps people with disabilities find jobs and live independently.
For riders beyond Metro Mobility’s coverage area, Transit Link, a dial-a-ride service also run by the Met Council, is available. But it doesn’t run past 7 p.m. or on weekends.
Modrynski’s 30 clients, all from the Lakeville area, will make up the first group of adults with disabilities to try Lyft. They had a dry run with the service last week.
“You can’t say all folks should have a job but then not have a way to get to the job,” Modrynski said. “It’s going to help them and their families a lot.”
The pilot program will record how participants are getting to work now, from walking to hitching rides with family or friends. One man working an overnight shift resorted to staying at a Minneapolis homeless shelter because he didn’t have transportation back to Lakeville, Zeilinger said.
Dakota County officials said they chose Lyft over ride-sharing competitor Uber because of its strong customer service and, they believe, more robust background checks for drivers.
Lyft already partners with local agencies across the country — including those in southern Nevada, Boston and Dallas — to provide transportation for people with disabilities, said Kaitlyn Carl, a Lyft spokeswoman.
County officials said they weren’t yet sure what Lyft will cost the county, compared with other modes of transportation. Their feeling is that most trips will be short and run $10 or less.
But concerns about using Lyft to transport people with disabilities persist. Modrynski said some parents worry about safety, and he tells clients to trust their gut in questionable circumstances. County officials said they emphasize that the program is completely voluntary.
Another problem is that Lyft drivers may not be available in the farthest-flung suburbs. But more people may start driving for Lyft if they know there are dozens more customers out there because of this program, said Heidi Corcoran, Dakota County transportation coordinator.
Patty Thorsen, chair of Metro Mobility’s Transportation Accessibility Advisory Committee, has cerebral palsy and can’t drive or walk very far. She said that Metro Mobility, which she uses, trains drivers to work with people who have various disabilities. Someone is accountable if needs aren’t met or a driver is insensitive, Thorsen said.
“My biggest concern … would be training of [Lyft] drivers, specifically disability awareness training,” she said.
For instance, Thorsen said, a Lyft driver might not know to announce themselves at the curb to a blind customer.
David Fenley, ADA Director at the Minnesota Council on Disability, said that ride-sharing services don’t work for everyone because most cars aren’t equipped for people using wheelchairs.
In the next phase of the program, Dakota County officials said they hope to recruit drivers who can accommodate passengers needing handicapped-accessible vehicles.
Despite the challenges, state officials believe that ride-sharing for those with disabilities has promise and will be watching closely to see how it works, Dakota County officials said.
Grant Sutherland needs a ride home from his job at Aldi in Lakeville several times a week. To pick him up, Kathy Sutherland has to bring along his brother, who has severe autism, on the five-mile trip. Eventually, she thinks Grant will get comfortable using Lyft.
“I think it’s good for him,” she said. “I can’t keep doing this, because I’m an aging parent.”