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.
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.
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.