Commuting in Greater Houston: When You Have Disabilities and No Private Vehicle

July 26 is the 34th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This article is dedicated to continued progress in public accommodations.

In Greater Houston, well over 90 percent of households own cars. With a large population scattered across a large area, and with few to no zoning requirements, most households have doctors, therapists, jobs, schools, and shopping “sprinkled” over more square miles than can fit into a bus route.

Unfortunately, side effects go beyond traffic jams and commute fatigue. The majority of residents without private transportation are also disabled, or low-income, or both—and they need extra commutes for extra services.

What’s Available—And Is It Enough?

Once private-transportation options are exhausted, there are three primary alternatives.

Taxi-type services. These days, that usually means a rideshare such as Uber or Lyft. Though popular, they have two major “cons”:

Local public transportation. Harris County’s METRO serves the heart of Greater Houston, has its own RideMETRO app, and operates fully accessible vehicles with wheelchair lifts. Its main drawback is that it covers only about two-thirds of the Greater Houston area. Plus, for riders with mobility impairments, there may be challenges getting even a few blocks to or from a bus stop.

Special disability transportation. METRO also offers METROLift for reserving door-to-door rides. Commuters may register if their disabilities preclude using regular METRO transportation.

However, even disability-specific transportation has issues.

How It Works (And Sometimes Doesn’t)

The most common complaints about METROLift and its kind:

  • You have to make reservations far in advance.
  • Delays and misleading ETAs are frequent.
  • Many services lack separate apps. Alejandra “Ale” Gonzalez, BridgingApps Digital Navigator, says of METROLift: “The only way you can schedule rides is through the website, or by calling.”

Fort Bend County, to the south and west of Houston, has a Demand Response Service with similar frustrations. Says Tara Rocha, BridgingApps’ Digital Learning Specialist, “My father-in-law often uses Fort Bend Transit for medical and other services. One big headache is that there’s no app for scheduling. You have to place a phone call 1–2 weeks in advance, and sometimes they’ll ask for all the information—you have to specify pickup places for both directions—then they put you on hold, and when they come back, they tell you nothing’s available for that time and place. So it all turns into a lot of back-and-forth, and might take hours.

“An app could also help us find the best pickup place for the ride home, especially when that ride is late. As it is, we have to spend time on Google Maps trying to decide on a good location, and that doesn’t always work out. Like the time I sent my father-in-law to a Walmart where I thought there was a McDonald’s inside, and he wound up waiting out in the heat, with only his walker to sit down on.”

And a METROLift regular’s perspective, from vision-impaired BridgingApps client Hoan Mai: “I’ve waited two hours for pickup, and I’ve been up to an hour late for appointments. Plus, the 10-minute reminders we’re supposed to get aren’t always reliable, which makes it hard to be ready for leaving.”

Getting Out and Getting Active

By now you may be wondering if public transportation/rideshare is ever worth the trouble, and if you should just stick to virtual appointments and socializing. Zoom, telehealth, and their kind are of course wonderful innovations to be used whenever needed. However, staying home 24/7 would mean missing out on other benefits:

  • Change of scenery
  • Real face-to-face relationships
  • Three-dimensional, full-sensory, in-real-life adventures

And despite their imperfections, disability-transportation programs do provide generally satisfactory service. When you have suggestions for improving it, they’re also open to public input. (You can send METROLift-related comments to the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities——or go through the METRO website.)

Some additional tips:

  • No matter how annoyed you are, don’t let a customer-service contact turn into a rant.
  • Review all the information provided by your local service: they may have options you didn’t see on first glance. Tara Rocha notes: “Fort Bend Transit lets disabled passengers bring an attendant, which does mean paying for two people, but it’s still a lot cheaper than Uber.”
  • Leave plenty of extra time when scheduling trips.
  • Focus on the positive. Remember the “gratitude principle”: appreciating what you have improves your chances of finding more. Keep moving forward!

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