June 16, 2019
I am doing this because I discern, from attending a number of “Listening Sessions” sponsored by The Partnership for Prosperity, that there is considerable interest among those who depend on the Winston-Salem public transportation system in having alternative choices to fixed-routes and times that would cut the time they spend riding buses.
For years, “dial-a-ride,” also known as paratransit, has proven a valuable service for special-needs riders and such services are available in Winston-Salem. The challenge is to expand such service to help those who travel to medical appointments, employment, schools, or “even just buying groceries.”
To be of genuine service, a “dial-a-ride” system must be an “on-demand, door-to-door or curb to curb transportation system” and even wheelchair-compatible. Most, if not all, “dial-a-ride” transit services are priced at a cost comparable to that of a regular transit service and, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are certain qualifications for the use of an on-demand service financed by federal funds, usually a demonstrated inability to use regular transit. Also, true “on-demand” systems are those that can be hailed from anywhere enroute.
While there are many true on-demand services, many “dial-a-ride” services require that advance reservations be made and that rides be shared. Often, “dial-a-ride” services are “supplemental or complementary to regular fixed-routes” and “may be constrained to areas within a specific distance of fixed-route coverage.” There are, however, private companies operating flexible “dial-a-ride,” services, which can affect pricing and convenience. The challenges of cost-containment and service standards are constant and complex and safety regulations pose particular problems because success of ”Jitney” type systems in other parts of the world depends for the most part upon little or no regulation and can be dangerous. Most American cities outlawed jitneys decades ago (although, as late as 2013, Pittsburgh still allowed them.).
The Winston-Salem Transit Authority has, as far as I can ascertain, favored a fixed-route system that emphasizes providing faster, connection-free service to high-employment sites, such as the Hawthorne hospital complex. Providing a more frequent on-demand service would inevitably add to the cost of operations because it is the labor costs that make up as much as 70 percent of the costs. Certifying and regulating private contractors would not reduce costs. Private operators serving particular types of businesses or employers might work out cost-sharing arrangements and many cities are studying such opportunities.
In short, “dial-a-ride” services do work, but they require a certain mass of likely riders and their costs may or may not be subsidized by local, state, or federal government. One concern that needs to be examined is whether the employment pattern in a city can ensure a significantly high volume of usage and, if so, what routes would be used.
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