Paratransit is an alternative mode of flexible passenger transportation that does not follow fixed routes or schedules. Typically vans or mini-buses are used to provide paratransit service, but also share taxis and jitneys are important providers. Paratransit services may vary considerably on the degree of flexibility they provide their customers. At their simplest they may consist of a taxi or small bus that will run along a more or less defined route and then stop to pick up or discharge passengers on request. At the other end of the spectrum -- fully demand responsive transport -- the most flexible paratransit systems offer on-demand call-up door-to-door service from any origin to any destination in a service area. Paratransit services are operated by public transit agencies, community groups or not-for-profit corporations, and for-profit private companies or operators.
Over the last three decades the word 'paratransit' has migrated and taken on two somewhat separate broad sets of meaning and application.
The first is the more general meaning as set out above, and which was extensively documented and demonstrated in projects starting in the early seventies with the publication by the Urban Institute of the 1974 book [Para-transit: Neglected options for urban mobility], ISBN 0-87766-121-9, followed one year later by the first international overview, [Paratransit: Survey of International Experience and Prospects], Eric Britton et al. EcoPlan International. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, 1975. These are still extremely important in many parts of the world.
By the early eighties and in particular in North America, the term began to be used increasingly to describe the second meaning, special transport services for people with disabilities, and in this respect has become a sub-sector and business in its own right.
Before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), paratransit was provided by not-for-profit human service agencies and public transit agencies in response to the requirements of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1972. Under the requirements of this Act, public transit entities in the United States were required to either make their fixed route public buses accessible to passengers with disabilities or to provide paratransit services for passengers with disabilities to destinations in their public transit service areas. Most transit agencies did not see fixed route accessibility as desirable and opted for the formation of parallel paratransit systems operating alongside bus systems. The expectation was that these services would be less expensive than fixed route accessibility and that they would not be highly used. Of the 10 largest transit providers in the US, only New Jersey Transit opted not to provide paratransit and instead made its public bus system accessible through the use of wheelchair lifts installed on buses. With the passage of the ADA, all US trasit providers are now required to provide "complimantary" paratransit to to destinations within 3/4 mile of all fixed routes and are also required to make all fixed route services accessible to passengers with disabilities through the purchase of accessible buses. The ADA requires that all new transit buses be accessible to people using wheelchairs (by lift or ramp) and have at least two spaces to secure wheelchairs in each bus. The ADA, as a US Civil Rights law, established these requirements which were applicable to all providers of public transportation services, regardless of how those services are funded or managed. Under the ADA, complementary paratransit service is required for passengers who are 1) Unable to navigate the public bus system, 2) are unable to get to a point from which they could access the public bus system, or 3) have a temporary need for these services because of injury or some type of limited duration cause of disability. The ADA spells out these eligibility rules in extraordinary detail, along with other requirements governing how the service is to be provided and managed. In the United States, ADA paratransit is now highly regulated and very closely monitored. Since the passage of the ADA, paratransit has been the fastest growing mode of public transit in the US.
After the implementation of the ADA in 1992, transit systems in the US were required to plan and implement ADA compliant services which had to be fully implemented by 1997. During this period, paratransit demand and services rapidly expanded and continue to expand to this day. This growth has led to a myriad of new approaches to manage and provide these services. Computerized reservation, scheduling and dispatching for paratransit have also evolved substantially and are now arguably among the most sophisticated management systems available in the world of rubber tire transit (non-rail public transit).
Following the implementation of ADA paratransit service, there is growing interest in service strategies that offer effective and efficient flexible services that can take the place of paratransit. Transit operators increasingly need to serve markets for which conventional fixed route bus and rail modes are too expensive, inefficient, or inflexible. Many operators are finding that flexible services have an important role to play in serving low-density areas, dispersed trip patterns, and travel by seniors and people with disabilities. However, the expense of serving geographically dispersed areas means that paratransit is often unable to meet the travel demand of persons unable to drive, leading many paratransit providers to require pickup appointments weeks in advance.
Most vehicles used in this form of paratransit today are specially equipped with wheelchair lifts or ramps to facilitate access. This service allows many people with disabilities to have jobs by providing transportation to and from their workplaces.
As the problems of transport and the environment in and around cities mount, and the old systems such as private cars and traditional public transport are starting to show their limits, the potential for more flexible small vehicle systems of many types is just starting to emerge.
Since (non-medical) paratransit systems in much of the world are often operated by individuals and small business who turn out to be much harder to control that traditional public transport operators, there is often a fair amount of tension between the operators and the public sector authorities. In the past, and in many of the developing countries today, there has been a trend to try to ban paratransit operators (on the grounds of combinations of poor vehicle maintenance, various forms of illegality, unsafe driving, practices that undercut the public carriers). More often than not however the paratransit operators win out since they offer a source not only of much needed services but also jobs and other forms of support for the local economy. But this battle continues to this day.
A movement to provide a more future oriented view of this class of services under the name xTransit has recently gotten underway which describes itself as follows. "xTransit: Getting people in and around cities in road vehicles, smaller than full sized buses, driven by real human beings, dynamically shared with others, and aided by state of the art communications technologies -- and all of that as no less than the only way to offer "car like" mobility in most of our 21st century cities without killing the cities themselves (the old mobility way)."
Flexible services are represented by a wide variety of innovative services now in use increasingly in North America and Europe. Intelligent transportation systems technologies, primarily GPS, mobile data terminals, digital mobile radios and cell phones, and scheduling, dispatching and call reservation software (such as Ecolane DRT, Trapeze PASS, CTS Software and NaviTrans), are used to help implement flexible services and to improve the operations of paratransit services of all kinds. It would seem clear that the key interface between these small vehicle services and their customers in the future is likely to be the mobile phone.