The importance of a quality transportation system cannot be overstated. Our highway system, railroads, airports and a robust transit system are essential to economic growth and the simpler purpose of moving people from place to place.
With an election approaching, it is important that we have conversations with public officials about the underrepresented transportation issue –– and especially the concerns of those being left behind by the current system, particularly those with disabilities.
While a third of the country, with the push of a button, simply hails a car through a transportation network company (TNC) such as Uber to travel quickly and at reasonable cost, many members of the disability community are stuck in the position of needing to schedule rides days or even weeks in advance with little to no assurance of punctuality.
While we need to continue to move forward in finding innovative solutions to address transportation disparities, we shouldn’t settle for solutions that are leaving people behind. As it stands, the vehicles of transportation network companies generally don’t meet accessibility standards. Para-transit is expensive and hard to plan for.
Partnerships with TNCs are not an ideal long-term answer, but the technology and existing systems can be used in the development of more sustainable answers
The state and localities have two viable options in providing ride-share services to individuals with disabilities –– approaches that meet accessibility regulations and are available via smart phone. The first choice is simply to develop regulations mandating that a certain percentage of a TNC’s vehicle fleet must meet federal accessibility standards
The second option is for the state to leverage existing technologies and provide a comparable option. While TNCs and taxi companies differ in business structure, they both offer the same on-demand-style service. Many taxi companies are even rolling out GPS tracking to keep up with competition from companies like Lyft. And their vehicles are more likely to meet accessibility standards.
It is the 21st century, and now is the optimal time for public agencies to implement a smartphone transit app. Agencies could roll out the service in pieces, beginning with the ability to track your ride online, which would eliminate the long wait times often associated with para-transit services.
Most TNCs utilize subsidies to keep rides cheap enough to balance the need to maintain a solid customer base, while paying drivers enough to maintain a large fleet. These subsidies come straight out of the pockets of private companies.
Each ride on public transit agency para-transit is subsidized by tax dollars, adding cost to the population as a whole. Even with the public subsidies, para-transit rides cost more than the typical bus fare.
Public agencies would be able to fill more vehicles to higher capacity with carpooling models. By utilizing the existing fleet more efficiently, they could provide faster service, thus improving service quality. Extra seats in vehicles could also be used to pick up carpool customers who do not require accessible vehicles but are traveling to similar locations.
We live in an era of innovation. We have the potential to change systems and find real solutions to transportation disparities. But before we move forward, we need to stop and contemplate how we are going to use modern-day technology to improve access to transportation options
TNCs are a very plausible option and there is a demand for them, but effective policy is inclusive of everyone. It’s time to give everyone a seat at the table in the development of such policies.
Noah J. McCourt is an autism self-advocate, a member of the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and since 2017, chair of the state Subcommittee on Children’s Mental Health. Jim McDonough is chair of the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners.