The New York City MTA is starting a paratransit pilot program whereby it seeks to control skyrocketing Access-a-Ride costs by basically handing out unlimited vouchers for cabs for handicapped residents traveling below 96th Street in Manhattan, who would only have to pay $2.25 for each ride. I’m no fan of enormous and amorphous unfunded mandates like the ADA in the first place, and it does seem very unfair to force cities to offer huge public transit subsidies to the elderly and disabled, while not forcing towns without transit to do a damn thing to increase mobility for those who can’t drive. (I should note that the pilot program only applies to the 75% of Access-a-Ride users who aren’t in wheelchairs.)
But if we’re going to have these mandates, it seems to me that a better way to achieve mobility for those who cannot climb steps or walk long distances is to simply hand out cash grants. This pilot program brings us closer to that ideal, but there are two main problems with it: the scope of alternatives offered, and the unlimited manner in which they’re offered.
Let’s start with the unlimitedness. This was clearly already a problem with Access-a-Ride, as its costs have been exploding ever since it was implemented, but it will be an even bigger problem when using the subsidies becomes even easier. My understanding of Access-a-Ride is that it’s unreliable and difficult to use – while not an ideal rationing device, at least this gave people an incentive to limit their use of it. But when claiming the subsidy is as easy as hailing a cab, I can foresee some definite abuses and overuses. The current program is incredibly expensive ($49 for each door-to-door ride!) compared to estimates for taxicabs ($15/ride), so it probably won’t become more costly any time soon, but the goal should be to reduce costs, not just to stop them from rising.
But I think the more fundamental problem is that while cabs might at first blush look like good substitute for transit and paratransit, the truth is that people given cash grants could, oftentimes, think of much better and cheaper ways to spend the money. You could substitute some grocery store trips with walks to the nearest bodega, where you could spend a little more for your food. You could spend the money on rent to live in a place that’s more accessible. You could spend the money on having things delivered to your door from local stores, or shipped by internet-based retailers. And I know the city obviously can’t openly suggest this, but you could use it on cheaper gypsy cabs or informal drivers – something that is apparently already quite popular among Queens retirees, according to my great aunt Sylvia.
Welfare state paternalists has traditionally been averse to giving out cash grants, preferring instead to earmark money (housing vouchers, food stamps, etc.), or provision goods directly (public housing, government cheese). For welfare recipients, the argument was “otherwise they’ll spend the money on crack,” and who knows what they think seniors would spend it on (TV infomercial products?). But there are small signs of change – vouchers have been gradually replacing direct provision in the US, and economists’ perennial calls to “just give them cash” (from Milton Friedman to development economists) are finally being heeded in countries from Brazil to the UK. If New York City would just get over its aversion to mailing checks and handicapped groups would stop making the perfect the enemy of the good, the city could solve its paratransit problem at a fraction of its current cost.