Cost-effective ADA service

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Public transit providers are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to provide comparable paratransit service for people with disabilities who cannot use the fixed-route transit system. Service is considered to be comparable based on the following criteria:

1) ADA paratransit services must equal fixed-route services in terms of service area and days and hours of service; 2) Fares cannot exceed twice the fixed-route passenger fare; 3) Reservation systems should allow for next-day service; and 4) Trip purpose restrictions and capacity constraints should be eliminated.[1]

A Fresno paratransit vehicle waits outside one of Fresno's libraries. Source: Federal Transit Administration

Paratransit is almost always more expensive to provide than traditional fixed-route transit because it requires more labor per passenger and it generates minimal passenger revenue. On average, paratransit makes up about 1 percent of total ridership, but about 9 percent of operating costs.[2] In part because it is so much more expensive to provide paratransit service, it is very common for transit providers to contract out to private companies. Contracting transit operations is most effective for demand-responsive services.[3]

General Provision Strategies

Transit providers have a variety of options for providing paratransit service. They may choose to use one of the below strategies or a combination. Coordination between transit agencies has also been found to be a cost-effective way to provide paratransit service.

In-House Operation

Some agencies find it to be more cost-effective to directly provide paratransit service, rather than contracting out.


There are a variety of contracting arrangements that public transit agencies use. They could choose to use a single private contractor, to contract with multiple private partners through a brokerage system or a user-side subsidy. Brokerage systems centralize travel requests and assign trips between several providers. User-side subsidies offer passengers the choice to use a voucher with a variety of providers, often taxi or shuttle services.[4]

Other Practices to Improve Efficiency

Incentives for Using Fixed-Route Service

Many transit providers try to attract paratransit users to fixed-route transit to reduce costs. Features that paratransit riders named in a survey that could help them switch to fixed-route service are: low fares, no major barriers to access a bus stop, stop announcements, and no transfers.[5] A 2008 study found that most paratransit providers said that they offer some type of incentives for paratransit riders to switch to fixed-route transit.

Fare Incentives - These include free or reduced fares and other types of improvements to make vehicles and information more accessible to people with disabilities. The types and amount of programming also varied by the size of the paratransit operation.[6]

Marketing and Education- Marketing, such as targeted advertising, and education or ‘travel training’ are another strategy for helping paratransit passengers make the switch. ‘Travel training’ involves teaching passengers to use the fixed-route transit system in group trainings, or they can be a one-on-one peer training. The cost of providing these incentives to attract paratransit riders must be balanced with other concerns, such as the best practices for bus stop spacing and location and fare reform. [7]


Additional Reading

Transit Cooperative Research Program. "TCRP Synthesis 74: Policies and Practices for Effectively and Efficiently Meeting ADA Paratransit Demand.” 2008.

This recent study, sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, is specifically written to illuminate common policies and practices for providing cost-effective paratransit service. It includes case studies and the results of a survey of providers. It also offers some promising solutions for providers that are not yet widely used, like contracting with taxicab companies or collaborating with other human service agencies to provide paratransit.

Transit Cooperative Research Program. “TCRP Synthesis 31: Paratransit Contracting and Service Delivery Methods.” 1998.

This 1998 report, sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, offers an overview of provision of paratransit in the U.S. with some historical background. This was written shortly after the ADA paratransit requirement went into effect, and it offers a basic understanding about how transit managers made decisions about providing paratransit at the time.

Transportation Research Board. “Attracting Paratransit Patrons to Fixed-Route Service.” 1996.

This report focuses specifically on the incentives used to incentivize paratransit users to switch to fixed-route service. It identifies the paratransit passengers most likely to use fixed-route transit and the most effective strategies for making fixed-route transit attractive and usable for people with disabilities.

Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida.. “Creative ways to manage paratransit costs.” 2008.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Research and Special Programs and the Florida Department of Transportation, this guide describes a variety of detailed strategies for managing the costs of providing paratransit. It specifically addresses best practices for controlling costs in areas of practice such as maintaining a reservation system, using technology, and using volunteers. This report also includes a sample guide for riders using paratransit services.

Reyes, David. Los Angeles Times. "OCTA looks at flaws in service for disabled." 2007. This brief article outlines some of the complications that Orange County Transportation Authority in contracting its ADA paratransit service with Veolia Transportation. At the time, Veolia was the OCTA's lowest bidder - $13 million lower than the next bidder - but service suffered under their management.