What exactly is “paratransit”?

In my experience working in the transportation industry, I have heard my professional colleagues use the term “paratransit” in reference to specialized door-to-door transit services for people with disabilities, such as Wheel-Trans. At one time, I ignorantly assumed that the prefix “para” is short for “parallel”, meaning that it operates parallel to conventional transit services, much like how the Paralympics occur parallel to the “regular” Olympics. Alf Savage, the general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) between 1981 and 1987, used this erroneous way of thinking to defend the lack of accessibility at Toronto’s subway stations during his time. He said, “Can you imagine a wheelchair in the rush hour at Bloor and Yonge? That’s why we have a parallel system for disabled with WheelTrans” (Bateman, 2013).To people like Savage, there is a separate transit service for disabled people, while so-called “able-bodied” people ride the conventional system. In contrast, others have used “paratransit” as an umbrella term that includes a wider range of flexible transit services that do not operate on fixed routes or schedules. Robert Cervero (1997) defines paratransit as “a type of service which relies on small vehicles which are frequently privately owned and operated, and which may not work on a schedule.” So basically, UberPool, Bridj,and RideCo can all be considered paratransit. Likewise,Wheel-Trans is simply another first/last mile solution connecting commuters from their door to a higher order transit station. It does not give us a cop-out for failing to make conventional transit universally accessible. Fortunalely, the TTC has since come a long way. It now offers the Family of services, which encourages Wheel-Trans riders to make multi-modal trips by transferring to conventional transit services at accessible bus stops or subway stations. This more recent approach treats paratransit as a means of accessing conventional transit rather than segregating it from the rest of the system. It just puts greater importance on making our conventional transit system fully accessible pursuant to the AODA, as planned. The world has moved on from people like Alf Savage. Maybe it’s time we rethink our language too.

Note: I am cognizant that there will always be those who require door-to-door transit services due to the nature of their disabilities that prevent them from using conventional transit services without putting their safety at risk. As such, I am not in any way implying that all users of specialized door to door services should be forced to use conventional transit or Family of Services.

References
Bateman (2013). A brief history of the Scarborough RT. BlogTO. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.blogto.com/city/2013/07/a_brief_history_of_the_scarborough_rt/

Cervero, Robort (1997). Paratransit in America: Redefining Mass Transportation. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Press.

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