NJ Transit has six months to start improving its Access Link public ride service for people with disabilities, after the U.S. attorney's office found a pattern of late trips and excessively long rides.
Gothamist found a similar trend in a review of more than five years of ridership data provided by NJ Transit, and in interviews with longtime passengers. Gothamist additionally joined a rider with a brain injury for four trips last summer. One time, the driver arrived four hours after the appointment window. During another time, the driver got lost.
NJ Transit agreed to improve measures of its reliability, like how often it picks up riders later than scheduled, in a settlement with the federal government in December. But advocates and riders say if Access Link wants to substantially change, it’ll need far more drivers. Yet the number working for the service has been on the decline over the last few years. Access Link had nearly 700 drivers in 2019 but that number dropped by hundreds during the pandemic, NJ Transit records show. In the last few years, the rate of late trips also ticked up.
“People with disabilities shouldn't have to wait hours upon hours to get the service,” said Javier Robles, a Rutgers University professor and chair of the NJ Disability Action Committee. Robles is quadriplegic and uses the service.
The Access Link network of vehicles takes people with disabilities anywhere within a three-quarter-mile radius of an NJ Transit bus or rail stop. It works much like an Uber Pool, except customers make requests days ahead of time and are given limited windows when drivers are available.
But a one-month review by the U.S. attorney’s office found drivers arrived after the pickup window 13% of the time and dropped passengers off late during almost 40% of the trips. It also found a quarter of the trips were excessively long — or more than 20 minutes longer than if the passenger would have used NJ Transit’s general-purpose fixed bus and train routes.
NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith said the agency is committed to making all public transportation more accessible and touted a number of recent improvements to Access Link, including a new mobile app and new online features, like the ability to prepay online and submit complaints.
While he acknowledged the system is struggling with a national driver shortage, he wouldn’t say if service had been affected.
“Our time as people with disabilities is just as valuable as everyone else’s is,” Robles said. “When society doesn't value us in a way that we should be valued, doesn't value our time, it makes it more difficult for us to get out there and work and do everything we need to do.”
‘It's like they've forgotten about me’
On a hot afternoon in August, 53-year-old musician and ShopRite worker Matthew Gross stood outside the supermarket in Wyckoff, waiting for his Access Link ride home. His shift ended at 2 p.m., but the only available rides were after 4:30 or 5 p.m.
As he waited, he wandered the ice cream aisle, ate dinner, talked on the phone and watched cars pull into the parking lot outside.
His phone rang with an automated message from Access Link informing him his ride was arriving shortly and reminding him to bring $1.45 in exact fare. A few minutes later, Gross jumped into a white Sedan, emblazoned with the orange wheelchair Access Link logo.
“Do we have any pickups?” Gross asked as he buckled his seat belt in the back, behind a plexiglass divider.
The driver headed to pick up another passenger in the opposite direction of Gross’ home, but got lost as his GPS device sent him the wrong way. He pulled over on the side of Route 23 twice, eventually looking up the destination on his iPhone instead. He eventually reached the other passenger, but nearly dropped her off at the wrong place, relying again on the GPS. She told him where to turn and got out.
The driver then headed toward Gross’ apartment in Hawthorne, almost driving in a full circle from where the trip started. The 5-mile trip home turned into a 45-mile ride and took 1 hour and 6 minutes.
Gross said he’s used to these long rides. At his previous job, which was 14 miles from his home, “I would do a ride at 6:30 in the morning to get there at 10 a.m. and sometimes I'd be late,” he said.
On one of his commutes home from ShopRite this summer, Gross said, he got a call at 3:41 p.m. saying his ride would be arriving soon.
“I waited outside in the beaming sun for almost an hour,” he wrote in an email. But he said the driver never showed.
He eventually booked another ride for 7:30 p.m.
“I called them up and the person on the phone said that I was a no-show. I got a little angry and I said that I was outside the whole time and the driver didn’t show up,” he wrote.
Gross plays the guitar, sings and composes music for his band, The Bushpilots. In 1997, he was shot in the head on the Empire State Building's observation deck. The gunman killed Gross’ friend and bandmate, Chris Burmeister, and then fatally shot himself.
Because of the brain injury he suffered, Gross can’t clearly see objects right in front of him if he’s looking straight ahead until his eyes adjust. He can’t get his driver’s license. So for the last 15 years, he’s relied on Access Link to get to work.
But Gross said he’s tired of constantly fighting with the phone operators and waiting for cars that never show.
“It's like they've forgotten about me,” he said.
He’s even written a song about his experience with Access Link. While waiting for one ride, he strummed on his guitar and sang, “You were supposed to pick me up. But you left me there. You're supposed to pick me up, baby, but you left me there.”
Transforming the service
Disability rights advocates say riders have suffered delays and inconsistent service for years. NJ Transit records show riders have lodged about 20,000 complaints since 2017.
The records cover more time than the U.S. attorney’s office's review, and show the rate of late rides has been on the rise. From 2017 through 2020, an average of 8% of completed trips were late. In 2021 and the first seven months of 2022, that increased to 12% each year. NJ Transit hasn’t yet provided Gothamist with figures for the remainder of 2022.
Ride requests dropped during the pandemic, at the same time the number of drivers was shrinking, the data shows. In 2019, Access Link completed more than 1.6 million rides, with nearly 700 drivers working for the system. The service’s use dropped off substantially amid lockdowns and other coronavirus restrictions in 2020 — with about 964,000 rides, and just over 550 drivers.
But even as ridership crept upward in 2021, the number of drivers continued to drop.
From January through July 2022, Access Link had already completed nearly 715,000 rides. If that pace continued, it would put the service on track for more rides than in any previous year of the pandemic. Yet there were still fewer than 500 drivers working with the service at that point.
“Access Link’s service providers, like all transportation providers, are competing for the shrinking available pool of drivers with commercial licenses with a variety of other businesses like delivery, trucking, and school bus companies,” Smith said in an email.
NJ Transit handles scheduling and customer service in house but outsources its drivers to two third-party vendors, Easton Coach Company and First Transit, Smith said. Neither company returned calls nor email requests for comment this month.
Steve Gruzlovic, the transportation chair for the NJ Statewide Independent Living Council, said the lower number of drivers means long hours for existing staff, and contributes to the challenges disabled people face trying to use the system. The council is a governor-appointed body that does planning and advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities.
Access Link’s service providers, like all transportation providers, are competing for the shrinking available pool of drivers with commercial licenses.
It’s hard enough to work with the system even when it’s working as designed, he said.
“The fact that you have to book at least 24 hours in advance and up to seven days in advance is really frustrating. Because you could have an emergency and need to go now,” Gruzlovic said.
Under the settlement, Access Link has six months to meet certain benchmarks, such as ensuring 88% of pickups happen within a 30-minute window of their scheduled time every month, and no more than 2% of trips are missed every month.
The agency must also meet one-and two-year milestones, such as making sure no more than 10% of trips are excessively long 24 months from now. If it fails to meet certain measures, the U.S. attorney’s office could file a civil action against the agency.
But Robles said Access Link needs to do a better job of promoting its conventional bus and train system to people with disabilities, and make them feel comfortable using those services, to relieve the demand on Access Link. It also needs to leverage new technology to better route the rides and give drivers the most up-to-date GPS systems that are connected to Google Maps, he said.
“When I turn on my Google or my Waze, I pretty much can be assured that I'm going to end up exactly where I need to be. So why aren't we talking to these corporations?” Robles said.
Smith said it’s uncommon for drivers to get lost. He said the agency receives about three complaints a month. Still, he said, NJ Transit is looking into new GPS systems and other tech upgrades.
NJ Transit reached a separate settlement with the U.S. attorney’s office in October to make accessibility improvements at five rail stations. Those include making improvements to platforms, waiting areas, parking lots and restrooms.
Gruzlovic said without good transportation, people can’t make it to medical appointments or family functions.
“Transportation is one of the major keys besides housing and employment for a disabled individual to live a functional life,” he said. “It is probably the biggest barrier we have.”