Tight Schedules, Part 4: Complementary Paratransit Service

Most motorcoach companies do not provide paratransit service. So learning the nuances of this mode is often limited. But much can be learned from this rarely-creative, inefficient and often dangerous service. Paratransit’s tight schedules, and the reasons for them, provide important lessons for any mode of transportation.

In contrast to motorcoach operators, transit agencies have a formal responsibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide complementary paratransit service. Most transit agencies contract out these services to private companies. Either way, tight schedules trigger safety compromises. If the victim has an effective attorney, tight schedules are a liability.

Ingenuity Squandered

In recent decades, the understanding of paratransit system efficiency has all but disappeared. Before the ADA was promulgated, in 1991, communities provided paratransit service because they wanted to. Now they provide it because they have to. While most early paratransit systems were primitive, a few were highly innovative. The efficiency was breathtaking.

With their robotic wizardry, few paratransit systems today provide even two passenger trips/vehicle service hour. In the late 1970’s, Tulsa, OK’s system provided 10.7 passenger trips/hour. Tulsa had cracked the code – identifying and optimizing the variables which govern efficiency (see transalt.com/content/principles-paratransit-system-design). A lack of chaos, excellent on-time performance, safety and minimal exposure were natural fall-outs. With this efficiency, schedules were not compressed to a point where they induced drivers to commit safety compromises (see “Safety Compromises,” National Bus Trader September through December, 2017; April through November, 2018).

In 1991, two things came along at the same time and changed everything. First came the promulgation of the ADA and its requirement that every transit agency provide complementary paratransit service. Used to running vehicles up and down the same roads and serving the same stops, often for decades, transit agencies were dumbfounded. To these agencies, the provision of four-dimensional, demand-responsive, shared-ride service was like experiencing the occult. As a mysterious, much-resented “unfunded mandate,” most paratransit service was immediately farmed out to private contractors, few of which had any knowledge themselves.

At this same time, scheduling software emerged. This technology gave transit agencies the perfect escape from both the mystery and the accountability. Robots substituted for knowledge. And through indemnification, contractors largely removed transit agencies from the liability loop. The robots provided the most-perfect excuse for paratransit’s outrageous costs and abysmal on-time performance: “Mr. Boardmember, I don’t know what else we can do. We even have computers operating the system.”

With these dynamics and excuses, any interest in designing systems to optimize efficiency vanished. Instead, transit agencies began controlling costs in two ways:

Limiting eligibility

Creating “ride limiting barriers”

The first strategy cut down the number of passengers theoretically eligible. Contractors were engaged to direct the “certification process.” Many or most were chosen on the basis of the high rejection rates they achieved for other transit agencies. The second strategy simply made service difficult to use. The paratransit community had achieved its goals and lost its way.

Amidst this general ignorance, disinterest, chaos and betrayal, what led most directly to tight schedules was the fragmentation of operating responsibilities. Transit agencies contracted out the scheduling to software developers given the mandate to reduce costs. Separate providers of the actual service were engaged to cope with the results. In the middle of a famous class action lawsuit for illegal trip denials and woeful on-time performance (Anderson v. Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, 2003), the software developer (the paratransit industry’s largest at the time) “tweaked” the software’s travel speed algorithm to add 30 percent more running time to the schedules. One can hardly imagine the chaos before this tweak.

Such problems became worse as software was increasingly operated by either the contractors themselves or the “lead agencies” which selected, engaged and purportedly managed them.

When they performed the scheduling, transit agencies were even more zealous in making schedules too tight. In 2002 alone, I helped three paratransit systems (Edmonton, CA; Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority, and District of Columbia Public Schools) unravel the delivery of service that had practically collapsed when their staffs were forced to operate the software after purchasing it from their developers. All three reverted to manual scheduling until the robots could be repaired, and the drivers and passengers could adjust to the results.

When contractors performed the scheduling with third-party software, these contractors operated under the same pressure to cut costs as did the software developers. The exception was that the contractors indemnified their lead agencies for the results.

Under the ADA, a contractor “stands in the shoes of its lead agency.” But only lead agencies could design the systems. So as the notion of system design disappeared, and live Earthlings with a feel for operations were replaced by robots, the contractors were trapped. The budgetary crises which led to lower- and lower-paid drivers and thinner and thinner management made things even worse. To this day, as an expert witness, I continue to find paratransit, NEMT  and schoolbus services with drivers paid less than my former paratransit operating company paid its drivers in 1985. I usually find little evidence of meaningful management.

In paratransit service, I learned thirty years ago that a good driver could operate a difficult route roughly 30 percent more efficiently than a poor driver. Or one with a good memory and good sense-of-direction compared to a driver with neither. Today’s “navigators” are certainly viable replacements for poor drivers. But no navigator can replace a good driver. This is partly because the cargo is alive, sensitive and vulnerable. But we also have parades, detours, construction, accidents, traffic, road rage, inclement weather, deteriorating roads and bridges,  pedestrians crossing streets while in their phones, and many other things to which robots cannot easily adjust.

More important, of course, is what no longer happens at the system design level. Frankly, no navigator or any other robot can sort through and optimize the variables which genuinely govern efficiency. That the live Earthlings in charge have no interest in doing so is largely a consequence of yielding the game to the robots. The big winners are the victims’ lawyers and the mega-contractors. The big losers are the passengers and the taxpayers.

Circuitous Paths and Tight Schedules

Paratransit creatures like myself have strange habits. Constantly making routes is an obsession. I rarely do even a household errand without three other stops along the way. On my way to the kitchen I discover, pickup and drop off three things that belong in the bathroom or the living room. Along the way to the kitchen, I pick up something that belongs I the dining room, and drop it off after my trip to the bathroom. In the bathroom, I find something that belongs in the garage, just as I had when I reached the kitchen. Then I find something in the garage that belongs in the laundry, and drop it off on my next trip to my bedroom, where I find something that belongs in the den.

Anyone without these skills could waste a lot of time in his or her personal life. So one can understand the challenge of operating a large, multi-vehicle, demand-responsive transportation system, with live, vulnerable cargo and on-time performance requirements, without these skills. Inefficiency, chaos, safety compromises and lawsuits are the natural consequence and unavoidable result. In the land of inefficiency, ignorance, indemnification, budgetary pressures and bureaucratic impunity, tight schedules are inevitable.  They are what we have because of what we have become.

Lessons from Far and Near

There is no long-term comfort in providing fixed route service. Consolidation through acquisition is squeezing out competition. Robots are replacing management. Increasingly, robots will replace drivers. All these things will increasingly replace your business. To survive as a service industry, we must offer something which the robots cannot provide. This is precisely why the TNC’s are wiping out the taxi industry while merely denting the limousine industry.

In paratransit service, robots are also not far from replacing service altogether. Frustrated by their failure to provide paratransit service efficiently, and the enormous costs of this failure, FTA officials have already voiced the hope of someday simply eliminating it. The dream is to simply give every disabled individual a driverless car or accessible minivan. No more shared rides. No more complexity. No more management. No more thinking. No more responsibility. No more lawsuits. As a final justification, the closer spacing of vehicles (experiencing no reaction time) will offset the presence of more of them on the roadway. Of course, someone must pay for all this.

For those in the motorcoach industry, pay close attention to this question: If robots can provide curb-to-curb trips, what chance does fixed route service have? There is an old saying in Washington, D.C. that, “In a democracy, one gets what one deserves, and one deserves what one gets.” If our transportation community does nothing about the underlying forces which translate into tight schedules, tight schedules will be what we continue to have. Understandably, other consequences will follow.

Truth and Consequences

Do not think for a minute that tight schedules have no consequences. Scores of transit agencies have suffered the costly and embarrassing consequences of class action lawsuits.  But these cases reflected only the extremes of tight schedules. In the more than 100 wheelchair tipover cases I have done as an expert witness, I have found a tight schedule in almost every one. And tight schedules were the underlying cause of the most of the 20 or so passenger molestation cases I have done. Frankly, tight schedules were the underlying cause of more than half of the 600 lawsuits in which I have been engaged as an expert. The victims of tight schedules go far beyond the passengers.

For those not paying attention, transit ridership is way down. If it is not already, motorcoach ridership will be down as well. With a few tweaks of security and identity software, hitchhiking will soon siphon off a percentage of transit and motorcoach trips, just as Airbnb has replaced many conventional hotel rooms.  Uber, Lyft and their TNC cousins are mere steppingstones. Gobbling up the taxi industry was just an appetizer. It the FTA has its way, it will offer up paratransit service as a sacrifice. The FMCSA cannot be far behind.

Providing shared ride transportation efficiently is still something robots cannot do. Pre-scheduling is an illusion. It is a lie advanced by software developers to customers eager to lower costs and escape accountability. The trips are merely dispatched in batches. Without system design, there are limits to efficiency. Only live Earthlings can exceed these limits.

Wait until security-enhanced hitchhiking gobbles up Uber and Lyft. As the middle class shrinks, hitchhikers will happily contribute “gas money,” and motorists will gladly accept it. Those without something unique and of genuine value to offer the public transportation field will slowly disappear. Passengers will not be the only losers.