By Leslie R. White
Paratransit is the difference between being homebound or institutionalized and being able to live independently. It opens up the public transit system to those who wouldn’t normally have access to the service. Through funding from the 2009 Recovery Act, 22 new paratransit mini-buses with pioneering design features rolled onto the streets of Santa Cruz, CA in January. The 2011 Ford E350 raised-top VersaShuttles, retrofitted by Creative Bus Sales to the specifications of Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District’s (Santa Cruz METRO), vastly improve both the riding and driving the experience.
Specifically, the new vehicles feature a lower floor, a new Q-Straint runner configuration and a state-of-the-art fire suppression system.
Santa Cruz METRO’s ParaCruz provides door-to-door service, as opposed to curb-to-curb, the minimum required for ADA complementary paratransit systems, and believes strongly in its mission. The majority of transit systems are curb-to-curb, which means the bus pulls up and the passenger is expected to find a way to get there. Door-to-door service provides much greater access.
ParaCruz included feedback from passengers and drivers in developing new fleet specifications.
Operations manager Ciro Aguirre says incorporating these changes have made major differences in safety, capacity and comfort. Now the vehicles can get into tight areas and maneuver.
This is a much-needed capability in the rural and mountain areas Santa Cruz METRO serves.
A lot of work went into making sure we could fit as many passengers as possible while accommodating the need for oversized mobility devices. The VersaShuttles are large enough to accommodate passenger needs, yet small enough for door-to-door service.
The high floor in the old mini-buses was a disadvantage. It challenged wheelchair passengers, and made them feel crowded, as did the pocket lift that fit under the flooring. The hydraulics located in the passenger area made that space unusable, and the floor was four inches higher than in the new mini-buses.
We were able to get away from the pocket lift to a Ricon lift which raises and lowers automatically once it is pulled out. We can now carry and secure three standard mobility devices. Our ParaCruz Superintendent, April Warnock, says the new buses can also transport oversized mobility devices, and can fit up to two big devices, like scooters.
In addition to additional clearance and a hand-powered passenger door for loading, the VersaShuttles feature a novel Q-straint runner configuration down the middle of the floor instead of the standard 48 inches apart, which expands capacity. According to Dan Williams at Creative, a full-length track does not limit us to the 30-by-48-inch ADA standard. Doing it this way gives us a 30-inch wide space and plenty of track length for securing any length of chair. These features can be combined in a variety of ways. The vehicles also include a modern, affordable fire-suppression system.
The Fire Trace Automatic Fire Suppression System helps us increase safety. After witnessing buses going up in flames in less than three minutes, our operations manager expressed concerns about engine fires.
With this system, drivers only have to worry about getting passengers out safely. This was very important to ParaCruz staff. In the past, a driver would also have to deal with an extinguisher while trying to evacuate wheelchair passengers. Staff report that feedback has been positive, and the accessibility for ambulatory folks has been well-received, in addition to positive comments from wheelchair passengers.
The drivers love the new and more powerful buses, saying they are easy to handle.
Our existing fleet was designed for a duty cycle of five years, but we ended up keeping them twice as long. The retrofitted VersaShuttles have an estimated duty cycle of eight years.
Many people do not realize how expensive door-to-door paratransit service is to provide. The challenge we face in an anemic economy is the sustaining of life-critical transportation at a time when all of our resources are stretched. Yet, without it the alternative of institutionalization costs five times more than the cost of living independently and using an accessible transportation system. Instead of running two paratransit fleets—one with small vehicles to get to the rural, remote locations and the other of larger vehicles—we now have the VersaShuttles, which are a compromise between the two.
This is the final bridge-gap between a mini-van and a standard paratransit bus which has been missing for a long time.
Leslie R. White serves as general manager for Santa Cruz METRO, which incorporates the ParaCruz operations. He is a former APTA president and currently chairs the California Transit Association Legislative Committee.