Detroit officials and residents with disabilities say paratransit services have improved since the city ditched a controversial vendor but some riders say there’s still a ways to go.
The city launched a new transportation strategy in January, weeks after Detroit City Council voted 4-4 to reject a five-year contract with the French company Transdev to provide 70% of Detroit’s paratransit services. While the vote was in response to a flood of community complaints, losing access to the service would put Detroit at legal risk, so Mayor Mike Duggan penned emergency contracts with four companies to keep services at full capacity while the city issues bids for a long-term vendor.
Two months later, Department of Transportation Director Mikel Oglesby told reporters that the new partnerships and a set of administrative changes that shifted some responsibilities to the city have resulted in more reliable service, better-trained drivers and an overall positive experience for Detroiters. Riders who spoke with BridgeDetroit said they’re seeing some improvement, but their comfort with the city’s paratransit service hinges on what happens after the emergency contracts expire.
“We’re still under an emergency situation, but I’m proud to say we’re performing a lot better than a lot of people expected,” Oglesby said Tuesday. “We’re really excited because people are happy with what we’re providing, and we’re saying: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’”
A $5.8 million deal struck last December will keep 70% of Detroit’s paratransit services running for six months with four companies: Detroit-based Checker Cab Co., Texas-based Big Star Transit, LLC, Oak Park-based Moe Transportation, and Detroit-based Delray United Action Council.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) assumed responsibility for scheduling rides, dispatching vehicles, processing applications for riders to use the service, handling complaints and other administrative duties. Paratransit Manager Michael Staley was hired last year and oversees the new system. He said there’s a simple motto guiding the work: “Be nice and make it better.”
“What we tried to do during the first month, January of 2023, was basically stabilize the system, and also to instill best practices that we’ve learned over the years for first-rate quality paratransit services,” Staley said. “We were successful in doing that. During the month of February, what we wanted to do was make the service safer, more reliable, more on time, more customer-oriented and more cost-effective.”
Staley said the efforts are bearing fruit. He said 87% of rides offered by Transdev were on-time, but that dropped to 82% in the last six months of 2022. Staley said 90% of rides offered by the new contractors were on-time throughout February and the city has a goal to hit 95%.
The average caller was on hold for five minutes before being able to book a trip under Transdev. The wait time has been cut in half, Staley said, but they’re working toward a wait time of a minute and a half.
Detroit is required to provide complementary paratransit services to residents under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city issued a request for proposals this month seeking qualified firms to replace the four companies when emergency contracts expire on June 30.
The remaining 30% of Detroit’s paratransit services are provided by People’s Express under a $16 million, five-year contract with the Whitmore Lake company approved last year.
Staley said 20 prospective bidders have expressed interest. Proposals must be submitted by March 17 and the city hopes to award a bid by July 1.
“I would love to have multiple service providers,” Staley said. “There is something of a chronic driver shortage throughout the United States, including paratransit services. Having a number of different companies with different strategies, different pay and benefits structures, gives us a better opportunity to make sure we have enough drivers to operate the service.”
Oglesby said Transdev, which has a dismal reputation among Detroit’s ADA community, has not expressed interest in the new bid. He said the city will choose the “best, most-qualified company.”
“We have a lot of new things in the requirements that have not been in (the request for proposals) before,” Oglesby said. “The condition of vehicles, the quality of drivers, background checks and training; there’s a lot more to it. We’re doing well with this cabbage patch version, but when we get to the finale in July, we will be showing you exactly what we promised.”
Lisa Franklin, founder and CEO of Warriors on Wheels of Metro Detroit, said a lot of riders are still “traumatized” by Transdev’s poor service. ADA advocates reported long wait times, missed pickups and dropoffs, inadequate accommodations for people who use wheelchairs and allegations of abuse by Transdev drivers.
Franklin hasn’t used the city’s paratransit since last year. She said “people are making other plans.”
“We’re waiting to see how this bidding process goes,” Franklin said in an interview. “We’re still concerned about the (driver) training. We’ve requested to be included in the training because of our expertise and lived experiences but that hasn’t happened.”
Kathy Washington told BridgeDetroit she relies on the free service to get to a senior center and to medical appointments up to four days a week. Washington said drivers haven’t always picked her up on time, but generally she vouched for the quality of drivers.
“I had a driver a few weeks ago, they were right on point, helped me to the van and helped carry my bag,” Washington said. “I’m not 25 anymore, so I don’t get around like I used to. I appreciate the help. Sometimes I get (to my destination) a few minutes early and they will sit with me so I’m not left by myself.”
Stephen Handschu, a member of the National Federation of the Blind, said he’s experienced “significant improvement” in DDOT’s paratransit service over the last two months. Handschu said he’s particularly impressed with Staley’s work.
“I really do have to say the answering times are vastly improved and training of the people who answer the phones is significantly improved,” Handschu said. “My biggest concern is this contract. I don’t want us to go backward.”
However, Handschu also said he’s had concerns with the behavior of some drivers and filed complaints with DDOT customer service in January.
Richard Clay, a board member for the Detroit chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, said he’s noticed a “real honest effort” to improve service. Communication between riders and drivers has improved, he said, complaints are responded to more quickly and he’s overall experienced “definite improvement.” But that doesn’t mean all issues are in the past.
Clay said he’s heard from riders who are still experiencing late pickups. In another example, Clay said a person who uses a wheelchair was picked up by a vehicle that didn’t have a chair lift.
“You can’t tell that paratransit rider that things are better,” Clay said. “When problems come up, and there are problems coming up, it’s hard to get those affected clients to understand that this is a new system. There are definitely going to be glitches and we are, as rational people, trying to give them time to work out these glitches.”
Thank you for this story. Well written and keeps the fire burning. You are appreciated 💛
Thank YOU, Lisa Franklin, for all you do! As a former DDOT ADA passenger, who was mistreated, disrespected and abandoned alone in cold darkness so often that I felt I dared not TRUST DDOT under (infamous) Transdev, I am happy to see that union-busting entity has been ousted and good old, local Checker Cab is one of DDOT’s current suppliers!
AS AN ADVOCATE MYSELF WE STILL NEED TO HOLD THEM ALL ACCOUNTABLE IT WILL TAKE SOME TIME TO “” TRUST “” AS WE MOVE FORWARD…
Thanks a lot for your accurate reporting and really good civic journalism. Let us all stay vigilant on this developing issue and continue to make progress on the long journey to creating good paratransit service in Detroit.
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