When is late – really late? Less than a quarter of pickups by Pace paratransit – a transportation service for people with disabilities or health conditions that prevent them from using public transit on fixed routes – occur within 10 minutes of their scheduled time, an analysis of Pace’s own data shows.
But under the standards set by federal law, paratransit services are allowed to be up to a half hour late and still be considered on time – a window that advocates and users alike say can be difficult to navigate in a world that demands punctuality.
NBC 5 Investigates analyzed every Pace paratransit bus pickup over two-and-a-half years, from January 2019 through May 2021: a total of 6,924,767 trips. Pace’s own data showed that just 23.7% of buses arrived within 10 minutes of their scheduled pickup times, meaning three-quarters of Pace paratransit’s pickups were at least 10 minutes late.
But Pace paratransit can still boast a 95.4% record of on-time arrivals, because the federal standard set by the Americans with Disabilities Act says a paratransit bus is considered on time as long as it arrives within 30 minutes of its scheduled pickup time.
“That’s a very hard system to build a life around,” said Charles Petrof, senior attorney at Access Living, a nonprofit organization focused on advocacy and support for people with disabilities. Petrof, who co-wrote a 2017 report on Pace paratransit’s on-time performance, said Access Living’s problem is not with Pace per se, but the standards set by federal law.
“Transportation is changing, but paratransit is still locked into the 1990s when the ADA was passed,” Petrof said. “The paratransit service across the nation has a standard of performance that, really, we believe makes it impossible to lead a normal life.”
Joey Frank is 23 years old and has cerebral palsy and autism. He rides Pace paratransit every weekday from his home on Chicago’s Northwest Side to his vocational program at Orchard Village in Skokie and back. His mother Lyndy Frank said he’s an enthusiastic rider.
"He loves the Pace bus," Lyndy Frank said. "He holds his ticket and he wears his ID and he gets ready and he's ready by 8:15 and he sits on the couch with his mask on. He's like, 'Pace bus is coming, Pace bus is coming.'"
But Lyndy Frank said the “vast majority” of her son’s Pace pickups each day are at least 15 to 20 minutes late.
"I can tell you some days of the week are definitely worse than others,” Lyndy Frank said. “And I tell him it rarely comes at 8:30, but he's ready at 8:30.”
For Joey Frank, a pickup that is 30 minutes late means he’s then a half hour late to his day program. Lyndy Frank said Orchard Village staff are understanding of the delays because most of the people who attend their day program use Pace.
But Petrof noted that a 30-minute window doesn’t quite cut it when trying to get to a scheduled doctor’s appointment or to work on time.
"Many of the people we work with had jobs and lost them simply because they were late too often under Pace's operating system," Petrof said.
Pace – which is in compliance with federal standards on pickup times – said the pandemic has wreaked havoc with the system’s scheduling and that they’re facing a roughly 30% shortage of drivers.
“It's a shared ride system,” said Melinda Metzker, Pace’s general manager. “So what we have to do is put out enough service for all the people who want the service. So in order to be exactly to the moment, we would have to probably double our fleet.”
“What happens is we don't have enough drivers to handle the loads that we have for the day, and the dispatchers have to start combining trips,” Metzker added.
But combining trips can create larger problems – like the handful of times that Lyndy Frank said her son was on a Pace bus for several hours for short-distance trips.
“The long trips are very concerning to me,” Lyndy Frank said. “You should not be on a bus to go three miles, three-and-a-half hours, as was the one case where Joey left Orchard Village at 2:30 and didn't get home till 6:08. That's three-and-a-half hours to go three miles.”
Metzker said Pace is pursuing new strategies, like new technology to track buses, as well as using Uber, Lyft and taxis to augment their services.
“We need to attract new ways for our customers to get around,” she said.
NBC 5 Investigates also analyzed all of the feedback users reported to Pace for that same 30-month period from January 2019 to May 2021: a total of 59,485 comments, compliments and complaints.
Nearly half of the issues that people raised with Pace paratransit involved rides that were too late (11,844), didn’t show up at all (10,884), or resulted in poor routing and excessive ride times (5,902).
But the fourth most common feedback item reported to Pace? Praise in the form of operator appreciation and commendation, with more than 4,000 compliments logged over two-and-a-half years.
For someone like Joey Frank, his mother said Pace paratransit has not only made a “tremendous difference” in his life – she said it’s opened up his world.
“The Pace paratransit has allowed Joey to go to this program and to come home,” Lyndy Frank said. “I really feel that when it works, it changes people's lives, gives them access to things they wouldn't have access to - a job, recreation - that they would not normally have access to.”
“When it works, it's the best thing in the world,” she continued, adding that she is very appreciative of Pace but wants those in charge of the service to “keep an eye” on issues like late pickups and long rides.
“If it’s not reliable, it’s not accessible,” she said. “And if it’s not accessible, then what’s the point?”