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Public Transportation Mon Feb 08 2010
Editor's note: This article was written by Sofia Resnick. Multimedia slideshow by Chris Neary.
Starting this week, getting around on city buses and trains will be challenging to those who value efficient and reliable public transportation. If they're to believe the Chicago Transit Authority's promise for 18 percent less service on buses and 9 percent less service on trains, riders can expect to wait longer for even more crowded buses and trains. Who knows how many riders will abandon public transit for the warmth and comfort of their cars, the speed of their bicycles or the self-reliance of their own feet.
Not every commuter in Chicago has the luxury of choice when it comes to transportation.
People with disabilities who depend on an alternative door-to-door service — what's known as paratransit — can't alternate their plans when service plummets or fares climb, as they did at the end of 2009. Pace, the transportation agency most people associate with suburban buses, runs Chicago paratransit. As with the CTA, a troubled economy has driven Pace's budget so far into the red, riders have become accustomed to almost yearly declines in efficient, affordable service.
One paratransit rider, Dr. Ayo Maat, has a plan to bring affordable, reliable and eco-friendly transportation to Chicago's disabled community. Maat is proposing an alternative to the current paratransit system that would bring independence to riders with disabilities, by having them run their own service.
Green Paratransit Think Tank
Maat, 61, founded the Green Think Tank for Disability Community in February 2009 to build on an idea she's nursed for several years to create a rider-owned paratransit system. At the core of her plan is a fleet of eco-friendly vehicles to be owned and operated by people with disabilities.
"We need our own [paratransit system]," Maat says. "If riders controlled it, we could do a better job. We want to be self-sufficient."
What began as an idea has grown legs in the past year. Last year, Maat presented her green paratransit concept at Chicago's Green Festival. There she met Doug Larson, a mechanical engineer from River Forest who had been working on a green initiative of his own — to bring solar-powered neighborhood vehicles to the Chicago area.
The two have since fused their ideas to create a project that's been unofficially named Soular Car, a term Larson coined because he says a such a vehicle "is not only good for the environment, it can also be good for the soul."
The first prototype of the Soular Car is a four-passenger, solar-powered electric golf cart Larson purchased in 2007 from Cruise Car, Inc. Larson's working on a design that is safe for people with disabilities to ride on city streets and that conforms with Chicago's neighborhood vehicle ordinance [PDF], which states that neighborhood vehicles must have doors. The current model is doorless, which Larson needs to fix.
"You're going to see a lot more individuals with disabilities coming out of the Baby Boomer scene." Larson says. "People like Dr. Maat with non-age-related disabilities are going to lead the way."
Maat has applied to present at the next Green Fest in May. By then, she and Larson hope to have come up with a solid pilot project so they can spend the next few years funding and developing it. Maat wants to get this plan off the ground so she can give people with disabilities jobs.
"We want people to give back, pay taxes and feel good about themselves," Maat says. "We want them to have sustainable employment and a higher quality of life."
Perpetual Paratransit Crisis
Maat is motivated to create independent, cheap transportation not just for herself but for people like her, people whose disabilities prevent them from riding city buses and trains.
Since Pace took over paratransit from the CTA in 2006, it has raised fares twice and last year canceled the monthly pass option. The latest fare increase (from $2.25 to $3) was an emergency measure to patch a $28.9 million deficit in the paratransit budget for 2009. Patrick Wilmot, a Pace spokesman, says it costs an average of $38.98 per ride to run the service.
Riders barely dodged another fare increase in 2010 — to $5. In November, Gov. Patrick Quinn announced he would move a new pool of state funds to the Regional Transportation Authority to cover Paces's deficit for the next two years. But the possibility of further fare hikes and service cuts in 2012 looms over paratransit riders, who are at the mercy of Springfield budget battles with every new state budget.
Alderman Emma Mitts of the 37th Ward is among city officials who have been approached by paratransit advocates for help. "People are scared for the future of these services and frustrated, because for a great many lower-income and disabled riders, they have no ready access to cars, and the para-transit system is their only means of getting around with a relative degree of independence," says a statement from the alderman's office.
According to Mitts' office, 48 percent of paratransit riders have an annual household income below $10,000; 16 percent have an annual household income below $5,000; 58 percent are seniors; 80 percent are African-American; and 78 percent have no household vehicle.
The biggest difference between Chicago's paratransit and public transit, Maat says, is not cost, but attitude. The current system does not serve riders with disabilities in the same way public transit serves riders without disabilities — like customers.
"If there is a bus that you miss, you catch the next one, right? According to the paratransit, if you're at home, and you miss your ride, it's up to them if they're going to come back," Maat says.
And if a ride is not deemed essential, such as to work or to a medical appointment, it might not be guaranteed if rides are backed up.
"No trip should be any more important than another," Maat says. "When you get on the bus, the bus driver does not ask you where you're going and give you better service because you're going to work or the hospital. Even if you're just going to look at the moon, that's your business, not theirs."
In the coming years, Maat hopes to make it her business to ensure that Chicagoans with disabilities get to where they need to go, wherever that might be.