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4 Instruments to Manage Paratransit Costs

Sep 25, 2017
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This is part three of a blog series on orchestrating your transit masterpiece. Catch up on part one and two here.


There are many ways that transit relates to a symphony orchestra. You can view your entire agency as all the different sections (departments) coming together to create a masterpiece. How does vehicle operations and employee operations interact? Can maintenance affect both of them? Does real-time communication and automation between systems exist, harmonizing your agency’s infrastructure?

These are good questions, but, you can also get granular and look at the players and instruments themselves within each section. In the woodwind section of a symphony orchestra, it is often expected for each player to know how to play their auxiliary instrument – also known as the specialized version of their instrument. For example, the flute has the piccolo, the obo has the English horn, etc. So, while paratransit is part of the whole orchestra, we can narrow it down a bit further to see that there are some particular stipulations within paratransit.

With the advent of the ADA and continuing modification of regulations to meet current trends, fixed route has become more and more accessible. However, it still doesn’t fit the mold for every passenger. There are situations in which passengers with disabilities can’t use fixed route services because of a specialized need. Paratransit services allow for that unique, individual specialty – but at what cost?

Unsustainable Cost Increases

It has become commonplace that transit systems are coping with the growing cost of providing paratransit service – with costs now hovering, on average, between $45 to $50 USD per trip for curb to curb service (or door to door in many cities). While overall transit ridership is declining across America, in a majority of cities, paratransit ridership is still increasing.

Most major transit systems now outsource the provision of this paratransit service to private transit contracting companies such as Transdev, First Transit, or MV. But even with these cost saving measures, the overall price to provide reservations-based service is eating up 8-10% of many transit systems’ operating budget while only providing about 2-3% of their overall ridership. In many cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, where I served as CEO of the MTA, the cost of providing paratransit service was increasing at nearly twice the rate of the cost of providing the other modes of public transit.

If this increase in paratransit cost continues unabated, it will affect the ability of transit systems to provide new transit services.   

What Approaches are Transit Systems Taking to Reduce These Costs?

Specializing in demand response is a challenging task. And dealing with the variances of each passenger make you look for other cheaper, ADA compliant alternatives.

Here are four approaches that can help increase efficiency, decrease costs, and ultimately make your paratransit passengers have a better experience:

Ridesharing – Many agencies are looking to taxis or transportation network companies, such as Lyft, to take some of the trips. Costs for these services come in, on average, at half (e.g. about $25) the per trip cost of traditional contracted wheelchair lift-equipped vehicles. Additionally, new software programs are now available that permit reservationists to book the least costly option between taxi/Lyft or the contract provider for a registered paratransit user, taking into consideration any special needs such as a wheelchair lift or any other specialized request.

Travel Training – Transit agencies are now also taking a fresh look at travel training to encourage regular paratransit riders to take the (lower cost) fixed route service. This has the added benefit of giving paratransit users more flexibility in their transportation as they do not need to make an advanced reservation on fixed route like they do on most paratransit services. Some city transit systems (such as in Baltimore, Maryland) offer certified ADA users free rides on fixed route public transit. This also encourages the use of the much lower cost travel option. Fixed route bus service is often 10 times less expensive per trip than the cost of a similar paratransit ride.

Increase Trip Productivity – Transit managers are focusing on increasing paratransit trip productivity (passengers per hour) as a way to keep costs down. Since most transit systems pay their contractors by the revenue hour, the more passengers you can transport per hour, the lower the overall cost to provide this service will be. However, increasing productivity has an inverse effect on on-time performance (OTP) so they must also keep an eye on maintaining a high OTP – meaning their arrival times at the pickup and drop off points. (Most systems work to keep this OTP above 90%.) 

Harness Your Software (and the Data that is Provided) – Many forward-thinking transit systems are looking to technology to lower their cost. This includes providing portions of the ADA certification process to be completed online and encouraging their passengers to book their trips online to lower the cost of providing reservations. Additionally, being able to analyze the data your software provides and harness it will allow you to see what has happened and what is going to happen next. Maybe there is an area that is difficult to service, or a certain route isn’t effective, or a particular passenger is always late. All of this will affect your OTP and productivity.

The Crescendo

Just like hiring a great conductor for an orchestra, expertise in the art and science of operating an efficient and effective paratransit service is a top priority for transit systems across North America.  Similarly, teaming with technology companies to provide the best-in-class reservations, scheduling and dispatch software is a necessity today. Most transit executives understand that investing in their technology will pay greater dividends in overall reduced operating cost. 

Keeping your specialized services’ cost to a sustainable level is key in continuing to be able to provide top quality transit. By using the instruments above, you will be well on your way to orchestrating your transit masterpiece.


Please join me at APTA to figure out how to manage your paratransit costs and how it fits into the bigger picture of the full symphony orchestra. Learn more here.

Paul Comfort is the VP, Business Development at Trapeze Group. Prior, he most recently served as CEO and GM of MTA Maryland (Baltimore’s transit agency), the 11th largest transit system in the U.S.
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