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Disability rights advocates decry Metro Transit’s Call-A-Ride as unreliable

A MetroLink bus drives by the Grand Station on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A MetroLink bus drives by the Grand Station in January 2022.

A cyberattack on Metro Transit froze its Call-A-Ride van service this month and left people in St. Louis and St. Louis County’s disability community without transportation for about three days.

Local disability rights advocates say the recent disruption reflects long-standing issues that make paratransit services – which are required by law – inaccessible and unreliable.

“People with disabilities should have the right to have a barrier-free life and have a full and happy life,” Jeanette Mott Oxford told St. Louis on the Air. “Transportation is absolutely essential to that.”

Oxford, a former Missouri state representative who now serves as the public policy and advocacy manager at the disability advocacy nonprofit Paraquad, said the paratransit service is failing many riders.

In April, Metro Transit eliminated service for some areas in St. Louis County to help deal with a shortage of drivers. A Metro spokesperson also said the changes were necessary to meet service needs for anyone in the federally required service area.

In a statement, Metro Transit said the agency is committed to extensive outreach with Call-A-Ride customers. “We want to continue to have real conversations with our customers with disabilities and their allies,” the statement read. “We are working hard to make our planning and implementation processes more inclusive.”

Advocates like Etefia Umana, who is blind and has used the service for the past nine years, say they want Metro Transit to meaningfully include people with disabilities in decision-making.

“After the continued reduction of the routes, reduction of basic quality of services, people are getting together now and saying something must be done,” Umana said. “The consequences of this are severe, but they could even become deadly.”

Jeanette Mott Oxford and Etefia Umana join St. Louis on the Air
Ulaa Kuziez
St. Louis Public Radio
Jeanette Mott Oxford and Etefia Umana join St. Louis on the Air.

In March, a coalition of employers and advocacy organizations filed a complaint to federal agencies against the Metro Call-A-Ride program.

The complaints allege the transit agency has “failed to comply with the complementary transit requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Inflexible scheduling, long wait times and high route denial rates are some of the concerns detailed in the complaints.

For its part, Metro Transit said that its goal is not to deny any rides and that its Call-A-Ride service is improving. Usage data provided by the agency shows that in the 10 weeks prior to the cyberattack (July 24 to Oct. 1), the agency denied 17% of rides and provided nearly 5,700 trips. That’s compared to a 39% denial rate and about 5,100 rides from Jan. 30 to April 9.

Elton Thomas, a manager at the nonprofit Lighthouse for the Blind, said when there is a call or ride cancellation, people miss planned medical appointments, workdays, social events and opportunities to engage in their communities.

“We're preparing adults [and] youth to live their lives to be employed, to be a part of that community and then they run into transportation issues because our paratransit system is so unreliable,” Thomas said. “[It’s] something that keeps me up at night, thinking about my brothers and sisters in the disability community that are suffering because of transportation.”

Related Event 
What: Metro Transit Hiring Event
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Illinois MetroBus facility, 801 N. 47th St., East St. Louis, Ill. 62205

To learn more about why Call-A-Ride is a critical service to the disability community and how advocates want to see ongoing issues with the transportation service addressed, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Customers and advocates want to see Call-A-Ride service improve

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.