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Two Maui Bus buses engaged in paratransit services. One is picking up a person who uses a wheelchair, while another is discharging another person using a mobility scooter.
Two Maui Bus buses engaged in paratransit services. One is picking up a person who uses a wheelchair, while another is discharging another person using a mobility scooter.

Paratransit, or Dial-a-Ride, is an alternative mode of flexible passenger transportation that does not follow fixed routes or schedules. Typically mini-buses are used to provide paratransit service, but also share taxis are important providers.

Paratransit services may vary considerably on the degree of flexibility they provide their customers. At their simplest they may consist of a taxi or small bus that will run along a more or less defined route and then stop to pick up or discharge passengers on request. At the other end of the spectrum—fully demand responsive transport—the most flexible paratransit systems offer on-demand call-up door-to-door service from any origin to any destination in a service area. Paratransit services are operated by public transit agencies, community groups or not-for-profit organizations, and for-profit private companies or operators.



Over the last three decades the word 'paratransit' has migrated and taken on two somewhat separate broad sets of meaning and application.

The more general meaning, as set out above, involved projects starting in the early seventies, documented by the Urban Institute in the 1974 book Para-transit: Neglected options for urban mobility, [1], followed a year later by the first international overview, Paratransit: Survey of International Experience and Prospects.[2] These are still extremely important in many parts of the world.

By the early eighties and in particular in North America, the term began to be used increasingly to describe the second meaning: special transport services for people with disabilities. In this respect, paratransit has become a sub-sector and business in its own right.

Paratransit service for people with disabilities and the elderly

A New York City Transit paratransit bus.
A New York City Transit paratransit bus.

There are many examples of paratransit systems operated by governmental or non-for-profit community agencies, as well as by private paratransit companies. In the United States, private transportation companies typically provide paratransit service in cities and metropolitan areas under contract to local public transportation agencies. Veolia Transport, First Group (which purchased Laidlaw Transit in October 2007) and MV Transportation, with contracts in cities throughout the United States and Canada, are among the largest private contractors of paratransit services. In Hong Kong, Rehabus service is provided by the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation.[3] In Finland, the City of Helsinki provides a modern automatic paratransit system with neither schedulers nor dispatchers.[4]

Most paratransit vehicles are equipped with wheelchair lifts or ramps to facilitate access.

Paratransit history (US)

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), paratransit was provided by not-for-profit human service agencies and public transit agencies in response to the requirements in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 prohibited the exclusion of the disabled from "any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." In Title 49 Part 37 (49 CFR 37) of the Code of Federal Regulations, the Federal Transit Administration defined requirements for making buses accessible or providing complementary paratransit services within public transit service areas.

Most transit agencies did not see fixed route accessibility as desirable and opted for a flexible system of small paratransit vehicles operating parallel to a system of larger, fixed-route buses. The expectation was that the paratransit services would not be heavily used, making a flexible system of small vehicles a less expensive alternative for accessibility than options with larger, fixed-route vehicles.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

With the passage of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was extended to include all activities of state and local government. Its provisions were not limited to programs receiving federal funds and applied to all public transit services, regardless of how the services were funded or managed. Title II of the ADA also more clearly defined a disabled person's right to equal participation in transit programs, and the provider's responsibility to make that participation possible.[5]

In revisions to Title 49 Part 37, the Federal Transit Administration defined the combined requirements of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act for transit providers. These requirements included "complementary" paratransit to destinations within 3/4 mile of all fixed routes (49 CFR 37.131) and submission of a plan for complying with complementary paratransit service regulations (49 CFR 37.135). Paratransit service is an unfunded mandate.[6]

Under the ADA, complementary paratransit service is required for passengers who are 1) Unable to navigate the public bus system, 2) unable to get to a point from which they could access the public bus system, or 3) have a temporary need for these services because of injury or some type of limited duration cause of disability (49 CFR 37.123). Title 49 Part 37 details the eligibility rules along with requirements governing how the service must be provided and managed. In the United States, paratransit service is now highly regulated and closely monitored for compliance with FTA standards.

As the ADA became effective in 1992 (49 CFR 37.135), the FTA required transit systems in the US to plan and begin implementing ADA compliant services, with full implementation by 1997 (49 CFR 37.139). During this period, paratransit demand and services rapidly expanded. This growth led to a myriad of new approaches to manage and provide these services. Computerized reservation, scheduling and dispatching for paratransit have also evolved substantially and are now arguably among the most sophisticated management systems available in the world of rubber tire transit (non-rail public transit).

Since the passage of the ADA, paratransit service has grown rapidly as a mode of public transit in the US. Continued growth can be expected due to the aging of baby boomers, possibly doubling paratransit ridership during the next 10 years.[7]

Paratransit in developing world cities

Paratransit systems in many developing world cities are operated by individuals and small business. The fragmented, intensely competitive nature of the industry makes government regulation and control much harder than traditional public transport. Government authorities have cited problems with unsafe vehicles and drivers as justifying efforts to regulate and "formalize" paratransit operations. However, these efforts have been limited by ignorance on the part of regulatory authorities and mistrust between authorities and operators. [8]

Alternative service stategies

Following the implementation of ADA paratransit service, there has been growing interest in service strategies offering flexible alternatives to paratransit. Transit operators increasingly need to serve markets for which conventional fixed route bus and rail modes are too expensive, inefficient, or inflexible. Many operators are finding that flexible services have an important role to play in serving low-density areas, dispersed trip patterns, and travel by seniors and people with disabilities. However, the expense of serving geographically dispersed areas means that paratransit is often unable to meet the travel demand of persons unable to drive, leading many paratransit providers to require pickup appointments weeks in advance.

Future of paratransit

In January 2010, the Metro Council of St. Paul, MN warned that Paratransit ridership "may grow by as much as 6% per year for the next 10 years." Paratransit ridership growth of more than 10% per year was reported in the Washington, DC metropolitan area for 2006 through 2009, a trend that was expected to continue. In response to these trends, transit agencies serving St. Paul, the Washington, DC area, and other cities have been implementing communication and computer technology to control costs and improve service.[9][10]

Intelligent transportation systems technologies, primarily GPS, mobile data terminals, digital mobile radios and cell phones, and scheduling, dispatching and call reservation software are now in use increasingly in North America and Europe. These systems are replacing formerly manual processes with automation that is already in widespread use by the trucking industry. Interactive voice response systems are the next technology innovation anticipated for Paratransit services.[11]


  1. Ronald F. Kirby, Urban Institute, et al (1974) Para-transit:negelected options for urban mobility ISBN 0-87766-121-9
  2. Eric Britton et al (1975) Paratransit: Survey of International Experience and Prospects, EcoPlan International and U.S. Dept. of Transportation
  3. A Guide to Public Transport for People with Disabilities, Chapter 3: Rehabus Service, Government of Hong Kong Transport Department, retrieved 2009-12-10
  4. The Americans with Disabilities Act Title II Technical Assistance Manual Covering State and Local Government Programs and Services Department of Justice ADA website. Retrieved 2010-2-12
  5. Funding crunch puts paratransit service in jeopardy Next-day transportation services for disabled mandated by federal judge
  6. University of Detroit Mercy (2008-5-12).Improving Paratransit Services in the Toledo Metropolitan Area. Research in Progress. Transportation Research Board. Retrieved 2010-1-27
  7. H. Schalekamp, D. Mfinanga, P. Wilkinson, R. Behrens (2009). An international review of paratransit regulation and integration experiences African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-Motorised Transport. retrieved 2010-1-27