Curbing Metro Mobility’s Growth

In order to accommodate riders with disabilities, transit agencies are required to make fixed route vehicles (buses and trains) accessible. They are also required to provide a demand responsive service (dial-a-ride) in the same geographic area and during the same time periods as the fixed route service. In the Twin Cities, that service is largely provided by Metro Mobility.

MM3

Metro Mobility (MM) vehicles roam freely across the region. Because MM trips are usually non-stop and door-to-door, they are often faster and more convenient than fixed route transit. A person with a certified disability can choose either fixed route or MM, but MM has become the preferred choice for many, especially for longer trips. Demand has risen continuously for years, and the operating cost has followed. Metro Mobility cost $60 million in 2015. The average cost per ride, including subsidy, is over $29.00, while the average Metro Transit bus or train ride is about $3.50.

Although attempts are made to carry multiple passengers on each trip, most trips carry only a single person. As a result, MM buses average only two passengers per vehicle hour. Contrast this with Metro Transit buses, which carry 35 passengers per vehicle hour. Light rail does even better, 62 passengers per vehicle hour.

Because of the ever-increasing cost, there have been attempts to dampen demand. The Metro Mobility fare is $4 during peak periods and $3 at other times, higher than the regular $2.25/$1.75 fare for bus and LRT. Also, trips must be ordered a day in advance. Despite these disincentives, ridership continues to grow and the operating cost grows along with it. MM provides about two percent of the region’s rides but consumes 12 percent of the budget.

The real problem is that MM service is a premium product at a popular price, a one-seat express ride no matter how far you travel. Comparable fixed route trips often require one or two transfers between vehicles and are much slower. No wonder people with a choice opt for the expensive service.

Unfortunately, there is only so much money for transit, and MM is consuming an ever-larger piece of the pie. Every MM passenger trip sucks up the money that could pay for about 14 fixed route passenger trips. Because MM service is a federal unfunded mandate, it gets first crack at much of the available funding and fixed route transit gets what is left over.

Tethering the dial-a-rides

There is an operating strategy that would meet the federal mandate of equal access to transit, while reining in the Metro Mobility operating cost. I call it Tethered Dial-a-Ride. Instead of allowing MM vehicles to roam freely, they would be assigned to a series of much smaller operating areas, each focused on a transit center with decent fixed route service. For example, someone living in Roseville would transfer to a fixed route at the Rosedale Transit Center. Edina residents would transfer at the Southdale Transit Center. There is a network of transit centers, including many light rail stations and the two downtowns, that covers most of the metro area and would make this strategy workable.

June 2014 System Map from Metro Transit (no longer available for download, but available on request).

The MM vehicle would have about 45-50 minutes to roam its designated operating area, returning hourly to the transit center to make timed transfers with the fixed route service. Handing off passengers to fixed route buses or LRT will dramatically lower costs. The fixed routes are already a sunk cost, and have the capacity to handle these rides without adding a penny of expense.

Having a much shorter route within a smaller service area will make it easier to dispatch the MM buses efficiently, with ride requests requiring less lead time. Instead of having to call a day ahead, it may be possible to shorten the call window to a couple of hours.

I realize that this won’t work for all disabled passengers. Some disabilities are too severe to handle transferring and one-seat rides for those people will have to continue. However, such medical conditions are a small minority of those registered for Metro Mobility.

There is the unavoidable political issue that making MM riders transfer will make it slower and less convenient. Instead of being a premium taxi service, it will now match the slower, less convenient reality of fixed route transit, where transfers are a fact of life. Creating real comparability between the two services will reduce the incentives that are fueling MM growth. It will restore some financial balance to the transit system and meet the letter of the law, but there will be plenty of controversy. There’s no getting around this being a political hot potato and many will claim the victimization of a vulnerable population. This is a tough decision that the Met Council will have to address in a period of economic scarcity.


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36 Responses to Curbing Metro Mobility’s Growth

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 20, 2016 at 9:28 am #

    Thanks for writing this, Aaron. Good context.

  2. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini July 20, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    :::Neoliberal shill alert:::

    With Uber/Lyft/etc being a thing, and their seeming willingness to compete with transit directly (even at an obviously huge loss), would it maybe be better to partner with these organizations? They seem to handle ride hailing on short notice pretty well, have a fleet of vehicles out there already that would probably meet the mobility needs of most disabled riders, and could charge a pretty high fare before equaling that $29/trip average cost. MM could maintain a smaller number of full vans for the people with disabilities you describe as severe enough that transferring to buses (or using standard Uber cars) wouldn’t be possible.

    Obviously, part of MM’s high cost structure is more than just vehicles and overhead – MM pays its employees better with actual benefits, etc. That’s something tricky about setting up a single or master contract with a variety of providers like Uber/Lyft/etc competing for rides. I’m not sure their employment model would be acceptable to a government agency. Anyway, it’s just an idea. If/when self-driving cars as a service become a thing, MM and Metro Transit should be well-prepared to be a part of a broader, market-based transportation system.

    Are there other transit agencies doing something like this? Does it end up saving the transit provider money while still meeting the federal mandate?

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini July 20, 2016 at 9:44 am #

      I should clarify, I understand Metro Mobility is contracted out by Metro Transit, but I’m not sure what that means in terms of pay, costs, etc. Does MT have similar requirements to state contracts for construction (prevailing wages, etc)?

      • Nathanael August 8, 2016 at 7:13 am #

        Uber refuses to even provide basic wheelchair-accessible taxis. They’re being sued over it.

        By contrast, all London taxis have been wheelchair-accessible since *1989*.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary July 20, 2016 at 9:48 am #

      Don’t feel too guilty. I had similar “free market!” thoughts. It happens to the best of us…

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs July 20, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

      Metro Mobility buses are designed to handle wheelchairs, probably a rarity with Uber/Lyft. MM drivers receive considerably more training in how to handle persons with disabilities, also not part of the Uber/Lyft deal. It would be possible to divert persons with lesser disabilities that don’t require such specialized equipment and training.

    • Rosa July 20, 2016 at 9:26 pm #

      The disability community regularly reports Uber & Lyft drivers in various cities refusing to take passengers with service dogs, not being outfitted for wheelchairs, etc.

      I would also seriously worry about vulnerable people – elderly, mentally ill, cognitively disabled – being one on one with an ever-shifting parade of 1099-contractor drivers. The potential for abuse with no institutional accountability seems really high.

  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary July 20, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    My understanding is that the baseline requirement for Metro Mobility is that you have a disability, physical or cognitive, that prevents you from using the fixed-route bus system. The inability to walk from your front door to the bus stop is likely a barrier that prevents many, but that would be only a fraction of the physical disability. I guess I’m skeptical that there are that many MM users for whom that is the only barrier.

    My grandma is a Metro Mobility user. The ironic thing about this situation is that she chooses Metro Mobility for the cost, despite being less convenient than the alternative. For example, she can take an Uber from downtown to her home for $11 — she chooses Metro Mobility, most of the time, because it costs her only $3. Although MM provides a higher level of service than Uber, — walking door-to-door, buckling in, etc — it does feel ironic that MM is slower, less convenient, and costs society much more.

    In most of her trips, the travel time is comparable to fixed-route bus travel time. She took me on as a guest to go to Orchestra Hall last weekend — with two other stops, it took nearly exactly as long as the 18 would have taken. Maybe she’s just drawing the short straws compared to the typical user.

    • Rosa July 20, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

      I don’t think she is. Some of my volunteer work serves a fair number of Metro Mobility users and the hassle is pretty bad – MM buses are often late, scheduling has to be fairyl far in advance, if anything takes longer than expected they can lose their ride home, etc. When people choose to use MM over regular buses, it’s because bus service they would need is outright terrible.

  4. Matthew Steele July 20, 2016 at 10:00 am #

    While this is a good thing, I think we can also identify land use changes as a root cause of this issue.

    Can Car-Centric Suburbs Adjust to Aging Baby Boomers?
    http://www.govtech.com/fs/Can-Car-Centric-Suburbs-Adjust-to-Aging-Baby-Boomers.html
    “One study estimated that spending on public transit would have to increase 81 percent, to $8.6 billion, by 2030 to meet the needs of seniors who want to stay in their homes.”

    Maybe many of the homes are in locations that are too disconnected from goods, services, socializing, and other needs?

  5. Steve Brandt July 20, 2016 at 10:32 am #

    It sure would be great if Metro Mobility bus drivers were instructed that parking in the bike lane is illegal under Minnesota law (M.S. 169.34)

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller July 20, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

      If you’re going the instructing, can you also get every MPD officer in there too?

  6. Jeb Rach
    Jeb Rach July 20, 2016 at 10:46 am #

    Mobility customers are eligible for $0.75 fares on all fixed-route buses and light rail (including express) 24/7 (there’s no peak period upcharge or express bus surcharge.) That’s 3-5 times lower than dial-a-ride fares for MM, and an unlimited monthly pass is available for $31.50. Are there a lot of people using MM that could use fixed-route service with the lack of monthly fare card for MM and the much higher base fare cost?

    Maybe it’s possible to incentivize something like this as well mixed in with Transit Link for those who are otherwise able to use transit but simply can’t walk to the stop.

  7. Patty Thorsen July 20, 2016 at 11:31 am #

    While I have great respect for the quality and range of information you address, your portrayal of Metro Mobility is truly unfortunate at best, and a disservice at worst. As a Metro Mobility user, who knows many others who use the service, let me clarify a number of items. First, Metro Mobility is a shared ride service. It is misleading to portray it otherwise. The number of passengers in a given ride depends on a variety of factors: the number of individuals who have requested a ride for a given time, and destination; the number of riders who are able to walk [ambulatory], and those who use mobility devices of some sort [wheelchairs, scooters, etc]. While it is possible that there may be only one individual rider, such is not necessarily the norm.
    While it is possible that a ride may be It is used by people to get to work, the grocery store, doctor appts, church, and other destinations that everyone else takes for granted that they may get to using their car. Access to Metro Mobility enables me to get to the medical professionals that enable me to remain a contributing member of society. As for the use of Metro Mobility in addition to the light rail, and the mainline bus system, it is an oversimplification to try to equalize the rides that a Metro Mobility-certified user takes [light rail, mainline bus service, or Metro Mobility]. Just as the driver of a car uses different routes to get to the same destination, for a variety of reasons, so too is true of the individual certified to use Metro Mobility.

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs July 20, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

      I realize that MM is a shared ride service, but the average of only 2 passengers per bus hour (source: the federal National Transit Database, to which MM supplies the numbers) clearly indicates that most of the trips carry only one person.

    • Shawn July 20, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

      Thank you for your comments Patty – I share your sentiments but don’t have the first hand experience.

      Disabled folk, especially the non-ambulatory, physically cannot adjust to the rigors of life. This proposed hub and spoke system has merit on paper, but I’d like to know how some of these concerns would be addressed:

      Environmental conditions: they can’t just “run inside”, and you can’t leave them on a platform in winter for 15 minutes awaiting the next transfer. So all the Hubs will need to be indoor protected facilities.

      How many vehicles are needed in the coverage zone to meet demand? Is it more or less than we have now?

      Have transfer times been factored in? Especially considering the non-ambulatory.

      Maybe there’s some sort of technology solution to optimize hubs, routes and schedules to facilitate this solution — but I question whether the human costs to the riders are worth it as well as whether it’d actually save any money, and if that money is significant next to other aspects of transit that have bloat.

      • Aaron Isaacs
        Aaron Isaacs July 20, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

        “other aspects of transit that have bloat”

        Excuse me, but what other bloated aspects of transit would those be? Thanks to decades of underfunding, the Twin Cities transit system is one of the leanest in the country.

  8. Thomas Mercier July 20, 2016 at 12:07 pm #

    “I realize that this won’t work for all disabled passengers. Some disabilities are too severe to handle transferring and one-seat rides for those people will have to continue. However, such medical conditions are a small minority of those registered for Metro Mobility.”

    Any evidence for this or is this pure speculation? I unfortunately have to question Metro Transit staff’s ability to adequately assess individuals’ capabilities due to past experiences so I would hope any evidence wouldn’t be anecdotal.

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs July 20, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

      In order to use Metro Mobility, a doctor has to certify the medical condition and this is part of the documentation MM keeps. Unless their practice has changed since I saw it last, each rider is assigned to one of a large number of categories ranging from almost fully ambulatory to extremely disabled. I saw the counts of those categories years ago and only a small minority were people such as wheelchair bound quadriplegics or others with similar conditions who could not be expected to transfer buses.

      Many of the seniors are not disabled at all–they simply live outside of convenient walking distance to the nearest bus stop.

      • Shawn July 20, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

        “I saw the counts of those categories years ago and only a small minority were people such as wheelchair bound quadriplegics or others with similar conditions who could not be expected to transfer buses.”

        I don’t mean to be critical, but this sounds exceptionally callous, and Patty’s comment above addresses this:
        “As for the use of Metro Mobility in addition to the light rail, and the mainline bus system, it is an oversimplification to try to equalize the rides that a Metro Mobility-certified user takes [light rail, mainline bus service, or Metro Mobility].”

      • Rosa July 20, 2016 at 9:21 pm #

        “Convenient” or “possible”? Especially in winter, with the giant heaps of snow blocking most curb cuts and random icy patches all over, it’s terrifying just to watch the seniors getting to the bus stops on my bus route (the 14 – which has amazing, helpful bus drivers who often help people on and off the bus).

        • Monica Millsap Rasmussen
          Monica Rasmussen July 21, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

          I agree with Rosa. Just because someone isn’t a “wheelchair bound quadriplegic” doesn’t mean that he or she is physically or cognitively able to safely get to a regular bus stop and wait for that bus or even effectively transfer. It doesn’t even have to be a snowy day with heaps of snow on sidewalks. Disabilities aren’t always visible to the outside observer.

  9. David Markle
    David Markle July 20, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    It would be interesting to be able to analyze the relationship between Metro Mobility use along the University Avenue corridor and the reduction of No. 16 bus service (both in frequency and extension into Minneapolis) that took place when the Green Line began operating. The Green Line does offer greater frequency and greater ease of entry and exit for the disabled, but not nearly the number of access points. The Minnesota Council on Disabilities stonewalled on this issue when it was still in the planning stage.

    Of course this would be but a very tiny close-up in the big picture presented by Mr. Isaacs, and hard to isolate meaningful data.

    I can observe anecdotally that the present No. 16 bus ridership appears very scanty, suggesting that the former riders now use the Green Line–and other means.

    As for the Metropolitan Area as a whole, if we had a first-rate rail network there might be some savings on the Metro Mobility side of the equation. But there’s also the ongoing land use issue mentioned by Matt Steele.

  10. Dick Thorsen July 20, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

    Why not consider upping the prices per ride to, say $5 and $6?

    • Jeb Rach
      Jeb Rach July 20, 2016 at 4:13 pm #

      Can’t. Legally the fare has to be no more than twice the price of a full-fare passenger. They could up it to $3.50 and $4.50, but that would be as high as they could legally go.

      It’s worth noting that Mobility customers are given extra incentives to use fixed transit when possible. It’s only $0.75 for a Mobility customer to use fixed transit (and this includes rush hours and express buses) and monthly passes are only available on fixed transit (at $31.50/month, reflecting the discounted rate.)

  11. David Markle
    David Markle July 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

    I wonder if the remnant of the No. 16 bus service exists because of the possibility of an action under ADA concerning reduction of services to the disabled. Perhaps Mr. Isaacs has an insight here.

    The Metro Mobility issue reminds me of another issue that has come before me while a friend with Parkinson’s recovers from an injury; He has remained in a well-regarded nursing and rehab facility for six months following his release from the hospital. His lodgings, food, and the very good attention (only a minimal amount needed) he receives costs upwards of $300/day. It seems pretty clear that most of the cost for the hundreds, possibly thousands, of patients housed by this state-wide privately owned non-profit network is paid by Medical Assistance, meaning public funds. What has struck me is the institution’s reluctance to get my friend back into his own apartment where he could receive minimal but adequate daily attention from a visiting service at much lower cost.

    Greater use of assisted home living ought to have the potential for considerable economy in dollars and a better outlook for many individuals who might otherwise remain in corporate institutions.

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs July 21, 2016 at 4:20 pm #

      A portion of Route 16 was retained because Metro Transit wanted to keep a local route on University Avenue to serve those passengers who were not conveniently served by the Green Line stations which are spaced at half mile intervals. Route 16 carries about 2000 passengers per weekday.

      • Jesse July 24, 2016 at 10:59 am #

        Then why were so many stations added to slow the train down? People want door-to-door service to the point where transit is excruciatingly slow for anyone just wanting to zip across town.

        • Alex Cecchini
          Alex Cecchini July 25, 2016 at 10:12 am #

          Honest question: If we assume the Green Line would still have run at-grade down University Ave, how much time would be saved by taking out those stations that were added in? Assume roughly a minute is added for each (deceleration, dwell time, acceleration). We’re talking 3 minutes extra for folks who want to zip across town. These decisions are mostly political, not technical, and it’s why we got the Green Line we did – the slightly slower trip time is worth it overall to grant access to the line for the people living in those neighborhoods.

          It’s my opinion that the final product we got strikes a good balance of cost, access, capacity, and travel time (which is faster than the Route 50 bus it replaced, and oftentimes faster end-to-end than the 94 bus which runs in a freeway trench and makes zero stops between each downtown). We could argue that grade separation could have upped the speed (no waiting for lights, fewer stops to take advantage of this) and capacity (longer trains and better frequencies possible), but they would have come at the expense of access and cost.

          • David Markle
            David Markle July 25, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

            And the official current travel time, end to end, for the Green Line is 45 minutes. For the former No. 50 bus it was 40 minutes.

            • Alex Cecchini
              Alex Cecchini July 25, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

              Dude, you need to stop saying this. Seriously. It’s simply not true. http://streets.mn/2014/05/16/travel-times-on-existing-central-corridor-routes/

              Rte 50 travel times were, at best, scheduled over 40 minutes from CBD to CBD, and during peak and midday pushed well into the mid 50-minute times. Anyone who rode the 50 could tell you it often exceeded that. The Green Line is scheduled for 39 minutes to/from the same locations (Nicollet Mall to Central Station) – rush hour or not, rain snow or shine.

          • Jeb Rach
            Jeb Rach July 25, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

            The ridership of the Green (and Blue) lines is very high for a light rail system; higher per mile than any other light rail system that doesn’t have a significant heavy rail system as well (Boston and SF are higher, but both of them have large heavy rail systems as well.)

            It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it feels as though a lot of the slow speeds comes from the turns around the U of M area and near the Capitol building. Unless we’d have skipped those on an I-94 alignment, I don’t see those problem spots easily going away. I’m also not sure how many other light rail systems have two large downtowns on their route, creating slow speed issues and routing issues. A signal preemption system instead of simply signal priority could also increase speeds should the demand come for faster speeds along the line.

            If there’s a large demand for quick downtown-to-downtown service, I think we’d be best served by increasing frequency and maybe aBRT’ing the 94 bus.

  12. Joe July 25, 2016 at 10:08 am #

    At my job 3 staff uses MM even though they can ride regular buses.They the have no problem walking and there job is demanding
    .The residents that are in wheelchairs and have severe mobility issuses use the regular buses to get around.Its times Met Council to address these abuses.
    I HAVE seem many riders with vision impairment using regular buses to commute .

  13. David Markle
    David Markle July 27, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

    Yesterday I saw two blind individuals waiting for No. 16 at a bus stop on University Avenue.

    Mr. Isaacs, thank you for raising this issue. I intend to forward it to several state legislators, along with my own more or less parallel concern about the apparent neglect of the home visiting services option for the incapacitated. I understand that an added complication for the latter issue is the shaky status of many such services, including low pay and lack of adequate training for the individual providers.

  14. james wallace July 30, 2016 at 11:52 pm #

    A point of clarification: I use a walker and cannot manage stairs up or down. I use Metro Mobility with a lift or a ramp for weekly clinic visits and occasionally grocery store shopping,
    I very seldom have a nonstop ride. Usually there are multiple pickups and dropoffs, and I have frequently been on the bus for an hour and a half to go to the clinic 12 mules from my home. This is not a luxury service. They currentlty serve as many as 3,000+ passenger trips a day, Not system gamers, but people who have no other means of living decent lives.