Christy Cruz-Cullins uses an Access-a-Ride app to hail ride-share vehicles from her building in Kips Bay, Manhattan, June 22, 2023.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
The MTA plans to triple the number of paratransit users who can book on-demand trips, THE CITY has learned — but expanding the popular pilot program will mean users will pay more for each ride, while the transit agency caps how much it will subsidize each ride as well as the number of trips participants can take.
Launched in 2017, the program called On-Demand E-Hail currently offers unlimited $2.75 taxi and for-hire vehicle trips to 1,200 Access-A-Ride users whose disabilities prevent them from taking subways or buses.
The MTA will now increase the participant pool to 3,600 by August, while capping the number of trips per month and increasing the cost of a ride to $5.
“Living on a fixed income, it’s going to impact me financially,” pilot program participant Christy Cruz-Cullins, 41, told THE CITY.
Cruz-Cullins, a disability outreach worker and wheelchair user who has cerebral palsy, said the changes could alter how she commutes between her home in Manhattan and her job.
“I’m concerned with the amount of trips I will need per month in terms of traveling to Brooklyn for work,” she said.
Even the expanded number of users will account for only a sliver of the MTA’s 175,000 registered paratransit customers. Officials acknowledge the first phase of the pilot program was not financially sustainable. Usage by just 6% of those 1,200 customers accounted for about half of the program’s $16 million budget.
“That was very unfair to the people who were using the program a lot less,” Chris Pangilinan, the MTA vice president of paratransit, told THE CITY.
The 2,400 new participants will be randomly selected from the Access-A-Ride customer base, officials said, with MTA officials hoping the findings from the next phase can help develop a more reliable projection of how much it would cost to expand the program further.
“What we want to do is continue to learn how our customers are using the service and see if we can do even more in the future,” New York City Transit President Richard Davey told THE CITY.
MTA officials said the $5 per ride co-pay is similar to what other transit agencies charge for similar on-demand services.
“This is a premium program, just like the express buses,” said Pangilinan, pointing to the $6.75 fare for coaches that link the boroughs with Manhattan.
‘Punished for Living Where We Do’
The new pilot splits trips into two categories.
The E-Hail “distance program” will allow up to 25 trips per month with the MTA covering up to $40 for the cost of each trip. The E-Hail “high-volume program” will provide up to 40 monthly trips with the MTA covering up to $25 for the cost of each trip. While riders can travel more than those allocations, they will have to cover the balance of the trip’s total price.
“I will probably be using [E-Hail] less because I’m going to have to lay out more money every time I have to go to Manhattan,” said Jean Ryan, a motorized wheelchair user and pilot program participant who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “People in the boroughs will be punished for living where we do.”
The initial rollout of the E-Hail program has been well received. MTA officials regularly hear at monthly board meetings from public speakers calling for an expansion of on-demand service. In contrast, standard Access-A-Ride trips must be booked by 5 p.m. on the previous day, and the paratransit service has struggled with reliability in general.
“I love this program, I feel like it gives me more freedom,” said pilot program participant Mario Reyes, a wheelchair user from Manhattan. “It’s a hassle to call and book your ride for the next day.”
Participants and advocates for people with disabilities, however, said the next phase may not be as popular because of the changes.
“The most vulnerable population of MTA customers are not going to be able to afford it or even use it, unless they are going a very, very short distance,” said Eman Rimawi-Doster, executive director of the Harlem Independent Living Center and a double amputee who is among the first 1,200 participants. “And that’s not often how they use it.”
According to the MTA, the median number of E-hail trips taken by participants in the initial phase of the pilot program was 17.5 per month, with a median cost per trip of $40. But of the 1,200 participants, just 21 people took more than 150 trips per month.
Transit officials said setting caps on monthly trips and MTA subsidies will allow the agency to expand E-Hail to more users while keeping the program budget at $16 million. The annual budget for paratransit operations is $558 million.
“A vast, vast majority of people will not see an impact to their trip count,” Pangilinan said.
The next phase of the program is set to run through February, MTA officials said, though it could be extended through August 2024.
Dustin Jones, a program participant and wheelchair user who lives in Manhattan, said he anticipates the $5 cost per ride is likely to steer him away from a transportation option that he called a game-changer.
“We want expansion,” Jones said. “But not like this.”
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