Transit agencies can partner with taxi firms to serve people with disabilities

By Guest Columnist JOHN KEYS, transportation consultant on mobility management

Transit systems in many areas of the country successfully build cooperative, cost-effective, partnerships to deliver service. Partnerships are used to provide quality transit service at cost savings and to maintain vehicles and facilities with workers frequently hired through community organizations served by the transit system.

In these systems, the use of partners ranging from private companies to non-profit agencies, from transit unions to volunteers and faith-based groups, enables them to deliver customer-focused, tech-based mobility management. Everyone works together to meld numerous transportation options into a system benefiting all, and frequently under leadership that embraces problem-solving rather than turf-guarding.

In just a few examples of partnering with the private sector, transit systems in Denver, Chicago, and Portland have built solid working relationships with their region’s taxi companies to fill service gaps or meet unmet needs to serve their disability customers. San Antonio’s VIA system, formerly headed by MARTA General Manager Keith Parker, is about to embark on a similar effort.

What about MARTA, where an average one-way actual paratransit trip costs taxpayers and the authority $50 (according to the KPMG audit done for the authority last year)?

John Keys

John Keys

For starters, MARTA is allowed to receive by federal law only $4 of this actual paratransit trip cost, so we know right off the bat that MARTA cannot maintain existing service delivery models using solely its in-house paratransit operation to serve disability riders.

What MARTA has rejected in the past, but hopefully will embrace in the future, is adopting taxi company-partnering ideas that are successful in the cities named above.

How does this work elsewhere?

Denver’s program is one of the best in the nation in terms of providing quality service at a reasonable price.

Private cab companies bid and contract with the Denver Regional Transit District (RTD) to meet a mobility need for paratransit customers. The program allows American Disability Act (ADA) certified disability passengers to access private cabs, separate from the system’s regular paratransit service (which requires a 24-hour advance reservation).

The program was implemented after the initial cost analysis showed that outsourcing the service would be more cost effective than continuing to pay overtime to in-house drivers. When overtime pay equals a large number of positions, it’s time to bid these dollars out to others (or let the in-house union bid on continuation of the status quo while knowing that this option is being considered by management).

This RTD service option allows for same-day trip mobility, which allows disability community riders to have quicker access for trips (for which they pay higher rates), and it saves RTD a more costly paratransit trip.

Under this program, RTD’s private taxi company partners charge less per trip for this service, which is subsidized through federal funds. Vehicles are generally owned, inspected, maintained and dispatched by the taxi company, and they are leased to independent contractors (drivers). The local taxi industry is assured a volume of business, which helps it prosper while serving RTD customers.

Denver has had this program since 1997 and continues to refine it every day. The three cab companies participating in the program periodically bid on continuing as program partners and must meet performance and customer service standards monthly – which keeps everyone sharp, including the RTD’s in-house paratransit operation.

A side benefit to this partnership in Denver is that the region has a high number of wheelchair-accessible taxis in service in their region (at least 50 funded through just one of several federal programs available to accomplish this goal). The Atlanta region, by contrast, has a total of four wheelchair-accessible, privately-owned taxis in operation today.

But the notion of partnering doesn’t end with just using the region’s private taxi fleet to help open more transportation options to Atlanta’s citizens and visitors.

Entities such as Goodwill Industries, Jewish Family and & Career Services, Easter Seals, United Way organizations, and many others are frequently encouraged by the transit systems named above to bid on services such as cleaning vehicles, rail cars and buildings, and to staff “call centers” to serve the system’s customers.

Thus, members of the community who are frequently the most transit-dependent can benefit from job opportunities through the concept of partnering – if they win the bid on these job opportunities.

In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed has established a Taxicab Ordinance Task Force, which has been hard at work for well over a year. One of its goals is to put tools into place to get more accessible taxis in service in the private taxi fleet in the city. National studies consistently show that the best way to achieve this goal in any region is to have the local transit agency partner with the private sector taxi industry.

As chair of the Accessible Taxi Subcommittee of the Task Force, I can tell you without hesitation that four wheelchair accessible taxis in a metro area of five million people is not enough. We can do better, and we can do better by strengthening our private sector taxi fleet by partnering with metro transit systems – including MARTA, which already is at the table – to build win-win scenarios so all sides can benefit.

The General Assembly is considering legislation, House Bill 264, that initially intended to require MARTA to privatize some of its operations. Privatization is one approach, but these examples show that a combination of approaches and partners, including the private sector, is already a success in the nation’s top-notch transit systems.

If state law is deemed to be needed to move transit in this direction, the General Assembly should require partnerships among the numerous transportation providers which are delivering transportation options in our area, not solely privatization.

Note to readers: John Keys has worked in the area of public revenue policy and transit advocacy for more than 30 years. Before consulting on mobility management in Georgia, he worked for MARTA and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in legislative policy positions and served in leadership roles in several transit associations. 

11 replies
  1. Steve Byrd says:

    In some areas, transit systems use taxi firms to provide certain shared-ride services to able-bodied people, particularly in “low demand” or “after hours” situations. Ann Arbor, Michigan is a prime example of the latter.Report

  2. John Keys says:

    That’s what I have in mind Steve. However, getting MARTA to open to partners from the outside remains a challenge, since many folks in our area still think it’s all about public transit systems doing it all alone. Denver’s system also allows for sharing as you suggest Ann Arbor does, and with technology being what it is, all this is do-able — and it WORKS.Report

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Steve Byrd, April 15, 2013 at 10:15 am-
    John Keys, April 15, 2013 at 12:05 pm-

    Mr. Byrd, Mr. Keys, partnering with the private sector to deliver increased transit options both to the disabled and the able-bodied is an EXCELLENT idea.

    Mr. Keys, you make an excellent point that too many in our area think that it is all about public transit systems doing it all alone, which is unfortunate because there are clearly so many areas where the delivery of public transit service can be enhanced through partnerships with the private sector.

    America has a very-robust private sector which is used to successfully deliver many other services to the public, why should the delivery of public transportation be exempted from that supremely-successful public-private partnership model that has been utilized to the benefit of the public in so many other areas?

    Especially when public transit in the Atlanta region seems to be struggling through such an extreme state of decline.Report

    • Joe Rubino says:

      Mr. Keys:

      In all due respect, you have written this column without knowing the entire situation in Atlanta. As you know, one of the major methods of creating successful beyond-ADA taxicab services is via the New Freedom program. Yet, it appears that your Atlanta colleagues have provided you with little to no information about what has actually occurred on the New Freedom front over the past few years. In a word, Mayor Kasim Reed’s Taxicab Ordinance Task “Force” is a “farce.” Here is some background.

      Through the joint effort of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the largest taxi industry group, the Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association (TLPA), I, along with two other consultants, was hired in 2008 to perform a series of seminars around the country teaching taxicab companies, MPO’s (like the Atlanta Regional Council-ARC), transit agencies (like MARTA) and other local stakeholders about New Freedom funding and the opportunities it offered to assist in the deployment of wheelchair accessible taxicabs. The three of us, along with several other consultants, were also engaged to perform follow-up assistance to taxicab companies that wanted to explore these grant funding opportunities.

      The result? After 5 years of hard work, there are now literally thousands of these wheelchair-accessible taxicabs on the street of American cities, providing low cost transportation to wheelchair riders via local Dial-a Ride programs for the disabled, largely funded by New Freedom. I have personally worked on more than 150 wheelchair-accessible taxicab projects in 70-some cities across the United States, and have helped our nation’s taxicab companies be awarded more than 400 accessible cabs through New Freedom funding.

      Using these vehicles to create local Dial a Ride services, the playing field is now much more level for disabled folks. A $10 cab for you and me, is a $10.00 cab for the wheelchair rider. For perhaps the first time in their lives, local wheelchair riders pay the same fare, and get the same service as you and me. This is a significant enhancement over the current system of having to use local ADA services restricted by both time, geography, and local regulations. Affordable taxicab fares are also a major improvement over private lift-van services, which currently charge upwards of $50.00/75.00 to transport a wheelchair rider one-way.

      However, despite the availability of funds in Atlanta and a local willing private company, Checker Cab, ARC has turned down Checker’s request for funding 3 years in a row. Why, you ask? Was it due to a substandard application? No, in fact, each application was prepared by me, according to FTA guidelines. Was it because we proposed a poor concept for our program? No! In fact, what we proposed would blow the public away if they were allowed to see it.

      The reason it was rejected was because ARC wanted Checker Cab to have its drivers discount the fares to riders. In other words, it wasn’t enough that the passenger could pay $10.00 or $15.00 each way, as opposed to the above-mentioned $50.00/75.00 each way, ARC demanded that the driver offer an additional discount to the rider.

      Now, it should be known that this New Freedom funding offers what is called “operating funds” which can be matched locally and federally at 50% each. In other words, ARC, through MARTA or any other local eligible organization, could have put up, say, $50,000.00 in funding, which would have been matched by $50,000.00 from the feds. This would have provided $100,000.00 in fares to be used to pay taxicab fares for any rider that ARC deemed fit. In addition to this group of subsidized riders, Checker would have also transported various members of the public that would have used the service and paid cash, not to mention any commercial clients of Checker Cab (hotels, hospitals, medical clinics, nursing homes, senior centers, non-profit agencies). I believe that many, if not all, of these entities would have leaped at the chance to purchase inexpensive wheelchair transport for their clients.

      Yet, ARC, in its wisdom, or lack of it, told Checker that if the company would not discount the fares (meaning, of course, that the cab drivers would be paid less than the meter) that ARC would not approve the application. Here is an excerpt from their response to Checker Cab:

      “A more feasible approach, which ARC has attempted to facilitate, would be for Checker Cab to partner with a taxi authority, local government, transit operator or non-profit organization to offer rides at a reduced rate. ARC remains willing to work with Checker Cab and/or any partnering entity to expand cost-effective transportation options that are manageable for all parties.”

      Telling Checker Cab that they would be eligible if they would only have his drivers lose money is hardly facilitating anything.

      Of course, this demonstrates ARC’s real intention, which is obviously to offer discounted taxicab rides to the public. In other words, ARC wants to take a federal program that is designed to serve the disabled, and change it to a program designed to serve the indigent. New Freedom has never been intended to serve the indigent. There is a program for the indigent and it is called JARC. There is another program for the indigent and it is called Medicaid transportation. That is two programs for the indigent. One to take folks to and from their jobs, and the other to take folks to and from medical appointments. Taking funds designed for disabled folks and then using that money to serve indigent folks is not what the FTA had in mind when they created this funding stream.

      This is madness enough, Mr. Keys, but I have more. Upon Checker receiving a rejection letter for the 3rd year in a row, I sent all this information that I am telling you now to every top Executive in ARC, to the Mayor, and to every Atlanta city council member. I also sent this to the Atlanta Constitution, to various TV and other media outlets. Guess how many responses I got? NONE!!! Not one member of your local government and/or media was curious enough to respond to me and request additional information, or to confirm the veracity of my statements. To top it off, here you come with your article today, which, though well-intentioned, makes you look a bit silly.

      Here’s what I wrote to all the officials above back in March:

      “Once again the disabled population of Atlanta is denied a basic transportation service offering available throughout the rest of the USA. As the federal transit consultant who assisted on this New Freedom proposal as well as on its predecessors, I am very disappointed for not only Checker Cab, but for the disabled population of Greater Atlanta. ARC has chosen to not award funding for a demand-response, 24/7/365 wheelchair-accessible taxicab service, using vehicles powered by Compressed Natural Gas which Checker Cab proposed to create for the elderly and disabled citizens of Greater Atlanta. To make matters worse, this is the third time that ARC has turned Checker down, which is astonishing in my opinion.

      These brand new wheelchair-accessible taxicabs would have been entirely funded by Checker Cab and the federal government, with ZERO local government match required!! Under our proposed service, Checker Cab would have been fronting upwards of $100,000.00 of the company’s own money, and local disabled folks would have had to pay only the standard taxicab fare for a ride just like everyone else in town.”

      As you mentioned in your article, Mr. Keys, MARTA’s ADA program costs taxpayers something like $50.00 per trip. Checker Cab’s service would have cost taxpayers about $1.35 per trip. This is not a misprint. Taxpayers would have paid $1.35 per trip if these wheelchair-accessible vehicles were operated for the industry-standard 8 years that our program projected.

      So Mr. Keys, despite the opinion put forth in your column today, the fact is that the powers that be in Atlanta seem to have very little concern with supplying affordable demand-response transportation to elderly and disabled citizens in wheelchairs. As I mentioned earlier, successful New Freedom funded Dial a Ride programs give disabled residents freedom of mobility like they have never before enjoyed. With MARTA’s ADA program, disabled Atlanta residents may only travel to where local transit bus routes go, and trip requests have to be placed days in advance. With Checker Cab’s proposed program, a disabled resident of Greater Atlanta could have gone WHEREVER they wanted to go, WHENEVER they wanted to go.

      In addition, ARC seems to not understand, or even care to understand, the current taxicab model in the United States. Taxi drivers lease their vehicles from the company for a fee, and then the drivers keep the fares. Therefore Checker Cab’s taxicab drivers would be subsidizing ARC’s program. That will not work. Do you want local taxicab drivers to subsidize rides? How is that fair to the driver?

      The New Freedom program was created to meet unmet needs. Is there a human service agency in Greater Atlanta that will pick up a member of the general public (note: the general public, not one of the agency’s clients) who is wheelchair-bound on a demand-response basis? Will that human service agency pick them up at 3:00 AM? Will they pick them up on a demand-response basis on a Sunday afternoon?

      Those are all the types of activity that are currently un-served, and that is what New Freedom is supposed to do. Now, the only business model that does all those things is a taxicab, and that is why the FTA has been so helpful to the taxicab industry. Meanwhile, back to ARC. Have they read their own Coordinated Plan? ARC’s most recent Human Services Coordinated Transportation Plan mentions funding for taxicabs 27 separate times, including on Page 7 where it says the following:

      New Public Transportation Alternatives Beyond the ADA. The following activities are examples of projects that are eligible as new public transportation alternatives beyond the ADA under the New Freedom program:
      * Purchasing vehicles to support new accessible taxi, ride sharing, and/or vanpooling programs.

      That means that of all the options for New Freedom funding, the very first one mentioned is taxicabs. Those are ARC’s words, not mine. Why does ARC mention taxicabs 27 times as “unmet needs” in its own coordinated plan when they obviously have no intention of actually doing what they say they will do.

      There is a lot of lip service going on in Atlanta right now by people who are trying to make themselves look good yet have no intention of actually doing something about what they are talking about.

      Mr. Keys- please don’t join that group. Use your platform to get something done about this.

      Yours Truly,


      Joseph M. Rubino
      J. M. Rubino Transit Consulting
      [email protected]

      Joseph M. Rubino has worked on projects involving ground passenger transportation in 40 states. He is a featured columnist in the Transportation Leader, the Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association’s (TLPA) quarterly magazine, and has also spoken at every TLPA convention since 2000. He has published more than 400 articles on the transit industry and has made more than 200 industry speeches or presentations.Report

  4. Tom Grushka says:

    A few points about Denver’s program:

    * RTD’s taxi program is called “access-a-Cab,” and is ONLY available to customers who have been accepted into the access-a-Ride program. access-a-Ride is ONLY available to disabled passengers who CANNOT ride the fixed route system and who live within 3/4 of a mile of a fixed route bus STOP or transit center (not just the route itself). Last year, RTD cut our services by over 8%, over $12 million, leaving hundreds of blind and otherwise disabled passengers without either fixed route or access-a-Ride service.

    * When making an access-a-Cab reservation, the passenger must choose between Yellow, Metro, or Union Cab companies. The call center cannot inform the passenger on which company has the closest vehicle available.

    * access-a-Ride passengers do NOT pay a lower fare! We pay the standard mileage rate paid by any other taxi passenger. RTD pays only $12 of the trip. The disabled passenger pays the first $2, RTD pays the next $12, and the disabled passenger pays any remaining. Thus, access-a-Cab is really only good for very short trips.

    * The taxi companies often penalize drivers 5% of their voucher for processing (higher than most credit card processing fees), and drivers can wait up to 45 days for payment. For the cab companies who do so, this is both a disincentive for drivers to accept access-a-Cab trips, and a wrongful punishment on drivers who do so as a matter of good will.

    * Wheelchair customers must wait TWICE as long, up to 2 hours for a cab, as opposed to the one hour wait for non-wheelchair customers. The number of wheelchair vehicles stated in the article is spread out over the three cab companies, and the passenger has no way of knowing which company has one available at the time a trip is needed.

    * Certain cab companies are more responsive than others. Saturday, I needed to take an access-a-Cab trip with a friend who is a wheelchair user. RTD dispatch told us that Yellow Cab had more wheelchair vehicles available. I tried Metro, because they are subdivided by geographic area, and often arrive more quickly for me. However, we needed a lift vehicle. Metro gave me a courtesy phone call very soon after I made the reservation to state that the available wheelchair vehicle was on the way to the airport and would take an hour and a half to get back. I canceled the trip and then tried Yellow Cab. After 30 minutes, I phoned Yellow to check on the status, and they told me that NO vehicle had even been dispatched! While Yellow may have more vehicles, Metro’s customer service so far has been superior to Yellow’s.

    YMMV, but the burden, the headache, and the wait is on the disabled passenger, and the way the system is set up, there is little that RTD can do to help. In Colorado, taxi cab companies are governed solely by the public utilities commission, which is again entrenched with special interest influence. So there is also little the passengers or even cab drivers can do to improve things.Report

  5. Joe Rubino says:

    I posted a comment yesterday but I do not see it now, nor do I see the other comments to this column. Where is my comment please?
    Joe Rubino- Transit ConsultantReport

    • mariasaporta says:

      @Joe Rubino We have been having issues with our comments section this week. I apologize for any issues that may have arisen. We do welcome a free exchange of ideas as long as they are civil and respectful and don’t cross the line of becoming personal attacks. Thanks for your participation.Report

  6. Joe Rubino says:

    Your site has decided not to post my comments from yesterday, as they were, perhaps, embarrassing to Mr. Keys, the Mayor, the City of Atlanta, ARC, MARTA, and everyone else that I wrote about in a post that was first accepted, then deleted. OK, that’s the way you want to play this.
    Let me try a shorter version: I am a transit consultant who was selected by the FTA to work with taxicab companies all over the country on wheelchair accessible projects. I have worked on some 150 projects in about 75 cities and have gotten about 400 wheelchair-accessible taxicabs awarded to private companies and now operating on the streets of this country. For 3 consecutive years, Checker Cab of Atlanta has applied for this same government funding for wheelchair-accessible taxicabs, and for 3 consecutive years, the Atlanta Regional Commission rejected their application. Why? Because ARC wanted the Checker Cab drivers to accept less than the taxicab fare to carry indigent people.
    Here are some facts: The funds Checker applied for are designed to service DISABLED riders, not the indigent. It was not enough for ARC that Checker proposed a 80% discount over current commercial fares for disabled ($10.00/trip compared to $50.00/trip), or that Checker proposed a 97% discount to taxpayers ($1.35/trip compared to $50.00/trip). No, those discounts were not enough. ARC wanted the cab drivers, who struggle to make a living as it is, to give up a portion of their fares to carry indigent people on a program not designed to serve the indigent.
    Indigent folks have plenty of government programs available to them which supply transportation. The program that Checker applied for, New Freedom, is strictly for disabled folks. These proposed vehicles could have been hired by hospitals, nursing homes,. schools, hotels, corporations, insurance companies, as well as by private citizens, who would have been able to get wheelchair accessible transportation at a fraction of the cost currently available to local disabled riders. But ARC said “no”. If anyone wants more information, contact Joe Rubino at .Report

  7. John Keys says:

    Mr Rubino seems to think he is the only person
    who has worked in this subject area, and indicates that those of us who
    continue in this effort are wrong on the details of programs which help the
    disability community meet its transportation needs.
    This has not been his fight alone though, and
    he would do well to consider that working with entrenched bureaucracies that
    resist change is a tough challenge and needs to be encouraged so we can all
    move forward.
    For over two years, working with disability
    groups I have sought to help obtain federal grant funds to help cab companies
    put more wheelchair accessible cabs on the streets of this region. We have been
    rebuffed at every turn. We even tried to get Georgia state law changed to put
    in place incentives to get more wheelchair accessible taxis into service in
    Georgia. Our bill was killed by a taxi industry-hired lobbyist as it got close
    to being passed at the 2012 Session!
    Then we prepared and gave to Checker Cab a
    grant request to to submit to ARC for funding. ARC rejected it, making clear it
    would not fund grants to private taxi companies (though allowed under federal
    law). I then sought to get MARTA to work with taxi companies as partners in
    delivering paratransit service. However, the previous MARTA General Manager
    rejected such partnering, thus killing MARTA-cab company cooperative
    Following that, I wrote a grant request for two
    private non-profit agencies so that THEY might get funds to provide accessible
    vehicle shuttle service thru a third party provider. That ended when liability
    issues hung up those agencies’ participation.
    We now seek to assist the Atlanta Taxi Task
    Force to move this ball forward, pushing MARTA as well in the process.
    And we’ll keep on pushing, despite Mr. Rubino’s
    feelings on this subject.Report


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