Santa Clara County paratransit riders want service improvements
VTA operates a paratransit service called Access to help people with disabilities and mobility issues travel around Santa Clara County. Photo courtesy of VTA.

Zsa Zsa Taylor has been doing everything possible to keep her joy alive after a diagnosis of MS and cancer. But her commute makes that tough.

Like other Santa Clara County residents with disabilities and mobility issues, Taylor travels around the region using VTA Access, a paratransit program that normally services more than 500,000 riders per year. Taylor uses it to get to and from work, go to medical appointments and get groceries.

But she’s ready to abandon the service because getting to appointments on time requires leaving her home hours in advance, and her work commute sometimes take hours because multiple passengers get on and off on the way there.

“It just seems to me if you’re disabled, they can get away with it,” Taylor told San José Spotlight. “What choice do you have?”

Paratransit in the pandemic

VTA Access experienced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic like VTA’s other transit services, which saw decreased ridership and struggles between the union and management over safety protocols.

Spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight paratransit has operated at less than half its normal service during the pandemic. Ridership is also down due to COVID—daily riders dropped as low as 650 a day. Numbers have recently crept back up with 929 trips on a weekday, but that’s still short of the 2,100 weekday average pre-pandemic.

MV Transportation, the contractor that operates Access for VTA, did not respond to requests for comment.

The net operating cost for paratransit services was $21.7 million in fiscal year 2020, a decrease of 1.8% compared to the previous fiscal year, according to VTA records.

“On time performance has never been higher, 98%,” Hendler Ross said. “It is monitored daily and evaluated each month, with performance targets in contract.”

But rider gripes with VTA Access predate the pandemic, and transportation advocates believe more can be done to improve the service.

“I’ve heard nothing but complaints about it,” said public transit advocate Monica Mallon. “Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to who uses it is saying it’s really challenging to use and really frustrating.”

‘Traffic is picking up’

Autumn Elliott, litigation counsel for Disability Rights California, told San José Spotlight people with disabilities throughout the state complain about commute times on paratransit services. She said transit agencies are supposed to provide people with disabilities comparable access to public transportation.

She also said paratransit operators aren’t supposed to have capacity constraints—meaning they should be able to anticipate the demand for service.

“But if there are really long transit times, as compared to what there is on a fixed route system, then that suggests there is a capacity constraint, and that they haven’t put in enough resources to meet the amount of demand,” Elliott said.

Aaron Morrow, chair of VTA’s Committee for Transportation Mobility and Accessibility, told San José Spotlight that VTA Access isn’t ideal, but riders need to take some accountability of how they manage their time.

“Clients expect paratransit to run perfect, and I’d love it to run perfect,” he said. “If you want it to run perfect, get an accessible cab or take the bus. I’m sorry, but traffic is picking up.”

Morrow said VTA struggles with retaining drivers for the paratransit service, citing competition from Uber and Lyft.

“That’s why I’ve suggested paying them more money—start their pay at $18, $19 or $20 dollars an hour,” he said, adding that VTA has not pursued this strategy.

One attractive aspect of VTA Access is its pricing. The paratransit service charges $4 for a standard one-way fare to a destination that might cost $20-30 in an Uber or Lyft, according to residents who use it.

But some people are willing to eat the cost of alternative modes of transit because they find other aspects of paratransit inconvenient.

‘It’s actually nice’

Linda MacLeod, a San Jose resident, used VTA Access services a couple of times due to deteriorating eyesight. She told San José Spotlight several problems made it challenging to use, including being unable to change the route once in the van and having to wait long periods of time to be picked up.

She compared that with the ease of being able to pull out a phone and arrange for an Uber to arrive at your door in five minutes.

“It’s actually nice, paratransit (drivers) will come to the door and help you into the car—Uber and Lyft don’t really do that,” she said. “But the trade-off is you might be standing there waiting for quite a long time for someone to show up.”

MacLeod contrasted paratransit with regular VTA bus lines—a service she loves.

“There was a bus schedule, and I could rely on the bus to pretty much pick me up when I needed to and drop me off,” she said.

Paratransit can make sure you get somewhere by 9 a.m., she added, but that might mean getting picked up at 7:30-8 a.m. According to VTA’s website, customers who request a pick-up time of 9 a.m. can have a 30-minute pick-up window between 8-10 a.m.

Morrow said he frequently asks VTA management about creating public service announcements for the paratransit program because it’s so vital to people in Santa Clara County.

“Many of them, if they didn’t have the service, they’d be shut-ins in their own homes,” Morrow said. “They couldn’t go to the doctor, couldn’t go to the grocery store—they couldn’t have a semblance of a life.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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