It began with low rates, but Uber-style service for disabled riders became too popular

KCATA's Uber-style on demand car service under criticism from disabled riders for high fares

Last year the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) launched an Uber-style on demand car service for disabled passengers. But higher-than-forecast demand forced KCATA to raise its fares, causing bitter protests.
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Last year the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) launched an Uber-style on demand car service for disabled passengers. But higher-than-forecast demand forced KCATA to raise its fares, causing bitter protests.

For Mary Carter and about 8,000 disabled passengers who relied on the notoriously unreliable ride-sharing system run by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, the agency's launch of an Uber-style on-demand service last year was great news.

It promised an alternative to traditional paratransit, which requires riders to call a day in advance to schedule trips. It promised an end to being stranded, or bounced for an hour while other passengers were dropped off.

It promised mobility.

"People want to connect with their community," said Carter, a social worker in her 40s who uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. "They want to go out and experience the same things as the average person."

But the new app-based service, RideKC Freedom On-Demand, has wobbled in its first year, in some respects a victim of its own success.

KCATA officials said they planned for about 2,600 passenger trips a month. Instead, the agency was overwhelmed by the response to what was supposed to be a pilot program. The monthly average has been close to 7,000.

The transit agency said the popularity has been a budget buster. Last month, it hiked the fares.

RideKC Freedom On-Demand is pricier than the traditional ride share, Ride KC Freedom, formerly known as Share-a-Fare, which is $3 each way. But Carter, who lives with her cat in a small apartment near Kauffman Stadium, was willing to pay more for her 10-mile commute downtown.

The original fare for the on-demand service was set at $3 for the first 8 miles, with $2 for each additional mile. But last month, KCATA raised the rates to $5 for the first five miles, and $2 per mile after that.

It meant that Carter's $14 round-trip ballooned to $30. Visits to the doctor are even more. She still uses on-demand for work, but the price has restricted her ability to run errands and see family.

"They did so well trying to create this new service to help people," she said. "Then they started to take it away."

The rate hike was a nasty surprise to Merle Long, 64 and blind since a 1987 accident. His nine-mile ride from south Kansas City to 75th and Prospect and back went from $10 to $26.

"What about folks on fixed incomes?" asked Long, who has gone back to the traditional ride share.

The increase sparked anger in the disabled community. Sheila Styron, a blindness and low vision specialist at The Whole Person, a midtown organization that connects the disabled with resources and helps them to live more independently, said RideKC Freedom On-Demand was "a bright spot on an otherwise dismal record." The fare hike is especially frustrating, she added, "after they've had a taste of reasonable, reliable transportation."

KCATA officials say KC Freedom On Demand is a work in progress and that they are attempting to find the right price point.

"We're trying to find that middle ground between budget and service," said agency president and CEO Robbie Makinen. He's blunt-spoken and passionate about the fledgling system, in no small part because it's personal.

A former chief of intergovernmental affairs and economic development for then-Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, Makinen, 54, lost his sight five years ago when the flow of blood to his optic nerve cut off, a condition known as ischemic optic neuropathy.

Forced to use what was then known as Share-A-Fare, Makinen was appalled by the level of service. When he became agency chief in 2015, one of his answers was RideKC Freedom On-Demand — and he said he didn't want to wait.

"I didn't want to hire a bunch of consultants. I was going to put it on the street and see if it works," said Makinen, whose talks about "diversabilty" instead of "disability."

KCATA officials openly acknowledge that the traditional ride share service, mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act, is barely adequate.

"It gets a D grade. The lowest passing grade," agency vice president Jameson Auten said recently at a community meeting held at The Whole Person.

Paratransit is expensive. KCATA must provide service for all eligible passengers who live within three-quarters of a mile of a regular bus route, and can charge no more than twice the standard bus fare. It represents about two percent of KCATA's total trips but claims 18 percent of its $96 million annual operating budget.

A trip on RideKC Freedom On-Demand costs the agency about 40 percent less because it is partnering with a private contractor instead of using its own dedicated fleet and drivers.

But best intentions have been complicated by several factors. Hoped-for federal funding never came through. Agency officials anticipated that its on-demand customers would come from traditional ride-share, lowering that service's operating costs. They were planning to market on-demand to the general public, which would pay more. Five percent of that fare would go to funding paratransit.

Instead, the lure of Uber-style service at less-than-Uber prices (KCATA says an analysis shows it is cheaper than Uber up to the 12-mile price point) kindled a latent demand. Instead of a crossover, the service was getting new disabled passengers who'd either given up on KCATA or were otherwise not inclined to use paratransit. Marketing to general public hasn't started yet.

"Even though the cost per trip is much lower the demand takes your budget out of whack," Auten said.

Still, officials consider RideKC Freedom On-Demand the future of 21st century paratransit. The proportion of Americans 65 or older in the U.S. will increase from 15 percent to 20 percent by 2030. Many of them will be unable to use regular public transportation. Boston and other cities are piloting on-demand paratransit in partnership with Uber and Lyft.

Makinen proudly points to other improvements on his watch, including free regular bus service for veterans.

He and Auten said they plan to hold stakeholder meetings as part of working out the cost issues. When they do, they're likely to hear from Debra Marino, 65, a blind south Kansas City resident who lives eight miles from her job at Alphapointe, a company that provides employment and educational opportunities for the blind and visually impaired.

Marino's monthly transportation costs have gone from $96 to $ 224. She said she will show them her receipts.

"I want to prove to them what they're doing wrong to us," she said.