Public transit woes hit low-income families hardest
By Aliya Kaufman-Daniel
Transportation woes - the late buses, the derailed trains, the often-unreliable Metro system, even the crowded streets - are more than an inconvenience for low-income families and those with family members who struggle with mental or physical illness or a combination of both.
It can be the difference between earning money or not for people who rely on the Metro bus and rail system as their primary source of transportation, notes Bill Mosley, a former public affairs specialist for the U.S Department of Transportation, who is now a public transportation advocate. In recent years, Metro has been cutting many routes while also increasing charges to its customers, notes Mosley. Routes that get cut are often in lower-income areas, where Metro is already the sole source of transportation, either public or private, he says
Improvements are not likely to be forthcoming soon, at least from Metro. How come? Because the D.C. region remains one of the few American metropolitan regions that doesn’t have a dedicated funding stream, Mosley says. Metro usually thinks, “'What can we cut back?' rather than moving forward,” he says.
MetroAccess, Metro’s door-to-door transit service that serves people whose disability makes it impossible for them to get around on their own, illustrates Mosley’s point. MetroAccess works like most of Metro’s other services. It keeps the same hours as the regular Metro bus, it charges a fare. It’s a shared ride and covers the same areas as a regular Metro bus. The program was set up to drive the disabled almost anywhere they needed to go for a flat fee. But a recent budget driver cut has restricted MetroAccess. Now it can only be used for rides to work or doctor appointments.
Most people who use MetroAccess buy Smart Trip cards or bus tokens paid for by Medicaid, the federal health services plan for low-income Americans. But these services are only available to people who are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) These people must have a disability that is defined by the ADA or be unable to get to and from a bus stop or rail station because of a disability. MetroAccess customers have to re-certify for these services, which requires them to check in a Transit Accessibility Center to have their disability validated. It’s complicated.
One such facility is the McClendon Center, whose literature says it "serves the needs of adults diagnosed with serious mental illnesses through our Core Services Agency, Day Program and other services.” While clients are at the McClendon Center, they must take classes, including therapy and group therapy sessions.
When a client comes into the McClendon Center, staff members put in a request for them to be assessed so that they can become eligible for their services.
Rachelle Mobley, who has been the office coordinator for the McClendon center for five years, talks about the process in which they must go through to get transportation for a single client.
If a client is declined services, the McClendon Center investigates and finds out why. Mobley says the process she must go through to get transportation for a single client can be long and tedious. It involves dealing with another bureaucracy, Medical and Transportation Management (MTM), which oversees transportation for the disabled, including carrying out assessments required under the ADA to determine the level of need.
Even after they jump through hoops to qualify for MetroAccess and services under MTM, riders have other issues - the shaky quality of the service.
Transportation people are lazy and always late.” said James Taylor, a senior citizen who goes to the McClendon Center, when asked about his transportation experience.
That can be a real problem for McClendon Center clients, whose mandatory therapy and other classes must be repeated if they are late or miss a session because of transport troubles. Most clients who go to the McClendon Center use MetroAccess to get to and from the center. There are other problems, too.
“Sometimes when I have a doctor’s appointment, MetroAccess doesn’t want to take me,” said Diane Mayo, a D.C. resident and McClendon client, in November. “Yesterday, they didn't show up to take me (to the doctor), and I missed my appointment.” Mayo lives in a “private separate area”, which makes it difficult for her to get around, especially when she can't get a ride from MetroAccess. This can be problematic because clients like Diane need to go to the doctor every week to maintain their health. Utilizing mass transit can be problematic for an even more basic reason - the fear of violence, Even though one might live near mass transit, it can seem worlds away when you’re in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Myra Jackson, 16, lives in Kenilworth Courts, a public housing development. Jackson has witnessed many horrific things, especially shootings by the police and others.
She usually stays inside because of what she calls the “negativity” outside. She hears gunshots all the time, but two months ago, they were so close that she rushed to the window. There was a body just feet away, and it lay there for the next seven hours. Jackson couldn’t walk on the spot for weeks thereafter.
Incidents like that make the nearby Deanwood Metro station seem so far away. Jackson doesn’t want to walk the short distance because of the potential dangers being outside in her neighborhood holds. The Metro system also allows an influx of people to go to different sections of the area that they normally wouldn’t be able to reach, including those with criminal intent, experts say.
Ashley Williams, a community support specialist with the McClendon center, has a 19-year-old client who is nine months pregnant, but who can’t get all the support she needs. She is eligible for transportation services, but because of previously mentioned cutbacks, she is limited in the services she can access. Her main issue is being able to travel to pregnancy and nutrition support agencies, including Bread for the City, since Medicaid-funded transportation will only pay for doctor and therapy appointments. If she needs to get to supportive resources such as housing, a food pantry, the Department of Human Services, or the Social Security Office, she is not able to receive assistance from Medicaid transportation. The most that the McClendon Center can provide is a reduced fare card to lower the cost of her travel. However, there are times in which those appointments back-to-back can become costly.
But the advent of private, commercial ride-sharing companies may point the way toward a solution - a public/private transportation partnership. Transportation advocate Moseley thinks Metro’s overall “lack of reliability” is hastening that day.
Lyft, a U.S based, rapidly growing ride-share company, has begun partnering with many insurance companies across the country to make it easier for consumers covered by Medicaid managed care to make it on time to their medical appointments. In late November, Cigna-HealthSpring announced a plan to partner with Lyft in certain counties in seven states, including D.C. and Maryland, to provide rides for non-emergency but important situations, such as medical appointments.
Some successful all-volunteer solutions may also be on the horizon. Shepherd’s Glen, a non-profit ride service based in San Diego, CA, relies on volunteers, usually patients themselves, to drive persons with transportation issues to medical appointments, therapy sessions, and the like. Shepherd’s Glen furnishes the ride-sharing software to local consortiums of religious organizations and civic groups, who then recruit drivers. Shepherd’s Glen ride groups are currently active in Fairfax County in Virginia and in Montgomery County, Maryland. The Montgomery group has begun to pick up riders in D.C., but a more concerted effort is needed to start a D.C.-based Shepherd’s Glen group that could pick up the slack when it comes to providing transportation to underserved health care consumers.