Getting to work, to school, to medical appointments, and to countless other destinations in metropolitan Washington can be a challenge for people with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency, workers with low incomes, and for senior citizens who have limited mobility. A new website and call center launched in late 2011 by the Transportation Planning Board offers individuals with specialized transportation needs a new and easier way to find the transportation they require and to find providers that serve their area.
Since the TPB launched the "Reach-a-Ride" website and call center in December 2011, more than 1,300 searches of the online database have been made, and nearly 180 phone calls have been received on the toll-free hotline, which users can call during regular business hours for assistance from a live agent.
"Reach-a-Ride" is the first resource of its kind in the Washington region, bringing together in one place information about all of the private and public providers of transportation services for residents and visitors with specialized needs. Such services range from ramp- or lift-equipped taxis for users of mobility devices to "door-through-door" escort services for people with significant physical or cognitive limitations.
For people who need specialized transportation services, finding the right provider that serves their area can be difficult. Many other regions around the country are now undertaking similar efforts to collect and consolidate information on specialized transportation providers, as more and more options become available but information remains fragmented and difficult to find.
The TPB's "Reach-a-Ride" database includes the name, phone number, website (if applicable), and detailed information about service areas and available services for all known providers in the region. Users can search the database online or with the help of a call center representative to find providers that serve their origin and destination, and that offer the service they need.
In order to ensure that the website was easy to use and was accessible to people with visual impairments, the TPB held focus groups with users from the website's target audience and collaborated with the American Foundation for the Blind. A Spanish-language version of the website was also created to serve the region's largest group of non-English speakers.
To spread the word to people for whom "Reach-a-Ride" would be most helpful, the TPB used innovative marketing strategies, including distributing pharmacy bags to reach older adults and distributing pamphlets via check-cashing stores to reach lower-income individuals.
The TPB launched "Reach-a-Ride" using a 2008 grant under the Federal Transit Administration's Job Access and Reverse Commute program -- or JARC -- which supports initiatives to improve access to job sites and job-related activities for people who are transitioning from welfare to work or for others with limited incomes. A related FTA program -- New Freedom -- supports initiatives to expand transportation options for people with disabilities.
The JARC grant to launch "Reach-a-Ride" consisted of $467,000 in federal funds from FTA and $117,000 in contributions from local agencies. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) provided the majority of the local matching funds. Providing the public with better access to information about alternatives to WMATA's heavily-subsidized MetroAccess paratransit service could help reduce the number of people who rely on the service simply because they are not aware of other options.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT), the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) also contributed to the project.
Six months after being launched, the TPB's "Reach-a-Ride" website and call center are making it easier for people with specialized transportation needs to find the services they require and to find providers that serve their area. Access to such information should make it easier for these people to gain access to the employment, education, healthcare, and other opportunities available to them in the Washington region.