MetroAccess: Change is good

“You can’t expect to meet the challenges of today with yesterday’s tools and expect to be in business tomorrow.” 

That famous (but unattributed) quote is what I thought of when our MetroAccess staff gave a progress report to our operations and planning committee this month.

We have been systematically reinventing the service over the past two years, and the progress report showed dramatic improvements in terms of cost savings, consistency and quality of service. The biggest indicator is the improvement in our customer service metrics, which have been mostly exemplary for the past few months.

There’s one major change on the horizon, a new eligibility process, which will be implemented in November of this year. Here’s a video preview of that change:

I’ll go through all the changes and the compelling results in a moment, but first, a quick refresher on the service itself. MetroAccess is an on-demand, shared-ride, door-to-door service for people with disabilities who are unable to ride the fixed-route bus system. In the industry it’s called “paratransit” because it is a parallel service to the bus system.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires paratransit within ¾ of a mile of regular local bus routes. It’s also important to note that the existence of a disability does not qualify someone for this service. It’s how a disability affects your ability to use the fixed route bus system that determines eligibility.

Here’s a look at the changes and progress:

No-Show Penalties

Old Way: If you booked a trip but cancelled at the last minute or weren’t home when we arrived, we charged you twice the fare for the trip.

Problem: We had an average of 2,800 no-shows per month. That was a huge waste of resources since those vehicles could have been picking up someone else. And the penalty of having to pay twice the fare wasn’t much of a deterrent.

New Way: Effective November 2009, four or more no-shows in a month result in a four-day suspension of service. Continued monthly violations result in increased length of suspension periods. 

Results: Now we average about 1,800 no-shows per month, a 36 percent improvement. Not only is the system more efficient, but now our resources are more readily available for customers needing rides.

Pickup Window

Old Way: We had a 15-minute pickup window. If your trip was scheduled for 3:15 p.m., you had to be ready for the vehicle to arrive between 3:15 – 3:30 p.m.

Problem:  Our on-time performance rate was 89 percent, and frequently we had to call customers to reschedule their rides.

New Way: Effective November 2009, we have a 30-minute pickup window. If your trip is scheduled for 3:15 p.m., you have to be ready for the vehicle to arrive between 3:00 – 3:30 p.m.

Results: Our on-time performance rate this year is 95 percent. Yes, having a longer pickup window makes that easier to achieve, but the real benefit is that we rarely have to reschedule customers’ rides at the last minute now. In other words, customers can rely on us more readily for their important appointments and trips.

Open Returns

Old Way: If you booked a roundtrip with an uncertain return time, we issued an “open return” and waited for you to call us when you were ready.

Problem: Customers sometimes had to wait a long time to be picked up after their appointments because available vehicles were not always in the same part of town. Plus, we were keeping too many drivers and vehicles “open” which means they were (unproductively) waiting around for possible return trips when they could have been serving other customers.

New Way: Effective December 2010, customers must give us an estimated return time for open return trips. MetroAccess will reschedule the trip on the day of service without penalty if the estimated time does not end up working for the customer.

Results: Most customers are ready around the time of their estimates, which means they are getting picked up faster after their appointments without needing to make a call for the trip. Likewise, we’re able to schedule more efficiently by using a higher percentage of our service to provide trips rather than having vehicles waiting around unused.

Call Center Operations and Advance Reservations

Old Way: Prior to November 2009, our customer service call center was open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends, and customers could schedule rides up to eight days in advance.

Problem: Our abandoned call rate was as high as 17 percent before we changed this policy. That means 17 percent of callers hung-up before we could help them because it took too long for us to answer. Additionally, a significant number of the trips reserved between four and eight days in advance ended up being cancelled, which further tied up the phone lines and contributed to inefficient scheduling or “wasted” trips. In November 2009, Capital Metro modified its call center hours (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends), and changed the advance reservations policy to six days in advance. However, we still struggled with long telephone hold times and too many late-cancelled rides.

New Way: Effective February 2011, our customer service call center is open from 7 a.m. to  5 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to  5 p.m. on weekends. Reservations can be made up to three days in advance. Plus, you can book or cancel trips online or through the automated phone system 24/7 and up to six days in advance.

Results:  The abandoned call rate was just 2.7 percent last month (even better than our goal of 5 percent). Having shorter hours means we have more agents on duty at the same time to answer calls faster.

Paratransit Service Area

Old Way: We provided service to a limited group of “grandfathered” customers outside the required ¾-mile corridor.

Problem: This was unfair to new customers, stretched our resources thin and made it more difficult to accommodate trips inside the required corridor.

New Way: Effective February 2011, we limited the service area to the required corridor but gave customers several months of notice before the change took effect this month.

Results: This allows MetroAccess to provide the same level of service to all customers by treating everyone equally. We have been working with the 15 customers who were affected by this change to adjust their trips, find alternative service providers, and/or provide an extension of service while customers plan to move within the service area.

Vouchers-on-Request

Old Way: Customers could request taxi vouchers for their MetroAccess service and call cab companies directly to book trips.

Problem: We had limited oversight of the quality of these cab trips and couldn’t ensure that the trips were being used for the times and locations booked. Also, it was less efficient in many cases to cover the operating cost of single-passenger cab trips compared to shared-ride trips on our fleet.

New Way: Effective May 2011, we stopped issuing vouchers-on-request and hired a private contractor so we can accommodate more shared-ride trips. We still use taxis for “overflow” trips when our own resources are maxed out.

For those customers who liked the convenience of being able to call a taxi for service, we also introduced a new, non-ADA service called Access-a-Ride. This 24-hour, on-demand cab service is available to MetroAccess customers, including those with non-transferable mobility devices. The costs for the ride are shared between Capital Metro and the customer. Read more about Access-a-Ride.  

Results: It’s too soon for a detailed assessment, but we’ve been able to significantly reduce our dependence on taxi service, while ensuring we are able to maintain the quality of scheduled service you expect from MetroAccess.

Eligibility

The last major policy change to be implemented will be a new MetroAccess eligibility process, to begin later this year.

Old Way: Customers only complete a paper application with a medical professional’s certification in order to be deemed eligible for MetroAccess service.

Problem: Without any controls in place to accurately and consistently determine eligibility, the number of MetroAccess riders was skyrocketing, stretching the limited resources of the program too thin. The entirely paper-based process does not provide a good orientation to the program and leads to inaccurate eligibility determinations.

New Way: Later this year, we’ll implement a new MetroAccess eligibility process. The new process includes an application, professional medical verification, and an interview and orientation by staff for new and existing customers. An assessment of the customer’s functional ability to use public transportation under differing circumstances may also be required when more information is needed.

There’s a great summary of this change online. This is a biggie, and like the rest of the changes, we’re doing a heavy amount of community outreach before it starts.

Stay tuned. We’ll continue to track the progress of the MetroAccess changes closely and report back to the board regularly. We know that change can be difficult, but based on the results so far, it looks like the hard work by staff and difficult but responsible decisions by the board are making a difference in the quality of service we provide.

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