New Yorkers who rely on Access-A-Ride to get around the city were left stranded over 31,000 times in 2015—and the MTA's Paratransit division has failed to correct such widespread problems with the service, according to an audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer's office.
The MTA subcontracts Access-A-Ride to a number of providers, most of which must pick up passengers within 30 minutes of the time given when a passenger calls for a ride (subcontracted livery cabs have just five minutes leeway). If providers are later than that more than 8% of the time each month, they're subject to penalties or corrective action from the MTA. But this audit found that providers had manipulated their own records in 2.5 million of 9.3 million pick-ups and drop-offs to make it like they'd arrived earlier than their GPS data indicated.
The audit found that in 31,492 cases, drivers simply didn't arrive to pick up a passenger who had requested a ride. In many cases, providers have apparently been reporting driver no-shows as customer no-shows—a serious mistake, given that a customer who accumulates too many no-shows can be suspended from using the service altogether. And the MTA has been relying on this self-reported data, rather than monitoring their subcontracted providers, according to Stringer's office.
Citing "widespread mismanagement, waste, and service failures," Stringer said that "Access-A-Ride is absolutely essential for thousands of people to get around New York City every single day, yet this program stranded thousands of people, wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and caused untold harm and distress...After years of mismanagement, it's on the MTA to take action now."
News of Access-A-Ride's failings doesn't come as a surprise to disability rights advocates. Michelle Caiola, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates' New York office, said that for years, Access-A-Ride's poor service has been one of the top complaints she hears from constituents.
"This is a service that many people rely on for general independence," Caiola said. "The freedom to travel where they need to get to, and beyond that, it's just absolutely crucial for them to be able to hold down jobs or get to medical appointments or any sort of meeting—attending school events for their child, and so on. So often, people are left stranded."
When Access-A-Ride doesn't show, there isn't always another option for someone with a disability: less than a quarter of the city's subway stations are accessible, and only a fraction of the city's taxis are accessible. And the city's buses, which are all wheelchair-accessible, aren't always the best option, either.
"You have to think about different elements," said Shakeya Britton, who lives in Clinton Hill and relies on Access-A-Ride to get to Manhattan for school and to other parts of Brooklyn for doctor's appointments. "When it snows or rains, it's hard for people who use wheelchairs to access bus stops." Britton, who is in her mid-twenties and studying for her Master's in disability studies, said Access-A-Ride is often excessively late, once so much so that she was two hours late to a final exam.
When a driver is a no-show, she said, Access-A-Ride tells her to take a taxi, pay out of pocket, and apply for reimbursement later—but that can pose a hardship.
"Myself and other users live on limited income, so we can't pay out of pocket for taxi, which may cost $40 or $50 one way," Britton said.
Ridesharing services also aren't always good options for many people with disabilities: earlier this year, Dustin Jones, founder of United for Equal Access New York, filed a complaint with the city's Human Rights Commission, alleging that Uber discriminates against people with disabilities. In a statement, Jones said that while he applauds Stringer's audit, he hopes the Comptroller will similarly audit Uber, as "Uber would provide an important alternative to Access-a-Ride if it stopped discriminating and started providing 100% accessible service."
Caiola said that Disability Rights Advocates' New York office has been looking into Access-A-Ride for quite some time, looking to take action, but was running into difficulties pursuing action: "Legally, it's been very hard to prove these cases because you have to have people show a very high percentage of no-shows and late and delayed travel experiences," she explained. "This audit just shows us why getting that all together has been so difficult, because there have been contractors dropping the ball, and the MTA hasn't been providing the appropriate oversight for these contractors."
Stringer's office said that on April 29th, they asked the MTA's Paratransit division to formally respond to this audit by May 13th, but they never heard back. Similarly, the MTA did not respond to our request for comment, but we'll update if they do.