RideKC Freedom rider Toni Adams boards one of the paratransit buses provided to riders with disabilities. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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Toni Adams uses public transit nearly every day, but you’ll never see her at a bus stop. The 66-year-old lost confidence in her driving after a stroke left her with vision problems. But she still has places to be — like her regular dialysis appointments and her family’s convenience store, where she works.

So Adams relies on RideKC Freedom, the city’s public transportation system for people with mobility and other issues who can’t access regular bus routes. The pandemic forced the paratransit service to retool its existing program to safely serve people like Adams.

Some changes have been popular, like over-the-phone mobility assessments. Others, like limits on the number of passengers, have created new headaches. As the Kansas City area reopens, RideKC Freedom is grappling with what changes to keep and how to fix ever-present problems.

Getting paratransit appointments over the phone in Kansas City

In a normal year, getting approved for RideKC Freedom involves an in-person mobility assessment. There, applicants meet with a mobility specialist and answer questions related to their disability and how it impacts their access to the fixed-route system. 

When the pandemic hit, in-person meetings came to a grinding halt. RideKC instead opted to conduct assessments over the phone. 

“We still get a paper copy (of the application) and certification from a medical professional, and then someone from our team does a phone call,” said Lisa Womack, the director of mobility services at KCATA.

They’re discussing making the change permanent, Womack said. Having to arrange transportation to an in-person assessment can pose another barrier for people who already have difficulty getting around, and the meetings can end up feeling like another task to complete. Despite the convenience, she said there are still some benefits to an in-person assessment.

“If you can see a person and see facial expressions and see how they can mobilize, that’s always better,” Womack said. “In-person gives you the advantage of being able to say, ‘Hey, let’s go take a walk outside and see if you’re able to navigate down a curb or not,’ whereas you can’t do that over the phone.”

Applications for paratransit services were down compared to previous years. In 2019, there were 2,224 applications across the four geographic service areas, according to data provided by KCATA. In 2020, there were only 1,299. Womack said many outreach and education events had to be canceled or held remotely for safety reasons, meaning fewer people were familiar with the service. 

The Whole Person, a disability advocacy organization that connects people with services, faced the same issues. Education about resources is essential to making sure people know how to access them, said Kendra Burgess, The Whole Person’s public policy coordinator.

In 2019-2020, the majority of people served by The Whole Person were women, and a little over half were Black. Burgess said the numbers reflect a larger systemic issue across the U.S.

“When it comes to people with disabilities, they tend to be people of color, minorities, those with  lower incomes, and those individuals who typically tend to fall into those categories are often women,” Burgess said. 

Kansas City paratransit resources stretched during pandemic

Outside of RideKC, there are few other paratransit service providers in the Kansas City metro area. Jewish Family Services, a comprehensive service agency, offers its JET Express program for people 60 years and older, but riders must either not use a wheelchair or be able to have their wheelchair be put in the car’s trunk.

The Whole Person also provides transportation for people with disabilities who are on Medicaid, a cheaper option than private transport. 

MO Rides, an organization dedicated to helping people find accessible transportation in Missouri, reported an increased percentage of its calls coming from Jackson County during the pandemic. In 2019, calls from Jackson County made up 3.8% of their total; in 2020, that number jumped to 9.4%. People calling MO Rides reported an increased need for transportation to medical services and shopping, and a decreased need for transportation to work.

As the need for transportation increased with people getting the vaccine, accessing it became more difficult. On March 26, 2021, RideKC sent out a notice informing riders that it was experiencing a large increase in paratransit trips. For safety, the program had temporarily limited the number of people allowed in a vehicle to one during the pandemic, making it difficult to get to everyone who needed services in a timely manner. 

As vaccinations have increased and city regulations have relaxed, RideKC Freedom vehicles have gone back to full capacity.

Burgess said many of the people The Whole Person helps have missed medical appointments because their transportation was late in picking them up during the pandemic. 

“Issues that were already present before the pandemic have been exacerbated,” Burgess said. “A lot of it is that (RideKC) is trying to find more drivers to staff transportation. They’re facing industry difficulties that a lot of employers and service providers are having across the country.”

Adams has been using RideKC Freedom for the last five to six years. She rides almost every day, including to work at her family’s small business, to attend her dialysis appointments, and to go grocery shopping. Her only complaint about the service is the wait times.

“Sometimes (the drivers) will get here an hour late, because they’ve been sent all the way up north,” she said. “They’ll tell me, ‘Ms. Toni, I was right next to your place, but they had me drive to pick up someone else on the other side of town.’”

Kansas City paratransit riders slowly return

Most transportation providers have seen a gradual increase in ridership as vaccines become more available, said Kim Cella, executive director of the Missouri Public Transit Association. She said providers are hopeful their services will help people as they transition back to in-person work.

“There are still protocols in place, there’s still a federal mandate that you must wear a mask in a public transit vehicle, and those are not going anywhere in the near future,” she said. “Sept. 13 is the current deadline but we will see, depending on what Missouri looks like moving forward, that could also be site-dependent.”

Other safety precautions, like free hand sanitizer, will likely stick around for some time. 

Womack said KCATA is now getting closer to its ideal staffing ratio, but driver turnover is a constant. Cella said the issue isn’t unique to Missouri.

“Driver shortages are an issue every day, both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic,” she said. “Attracting and retaining drivers is a challenge for most transit providers across the country.”

David Gover has been a driver for RideKC Freedom for the last three years. He relocated from Arkansas, put in an application online, and has continued since then. 

“I love what I do,” Gover said. “But all your doctors and nurses get, ‘Oh, heroes work here.’ We’re not getting recognized as that. We are in the medical field. We take them to their doctors and their dialysis appointments, and whatever they have scheduled. But we aren’t recognized as heroes.” 

David Gover, a RideKC Freedom bus driver, closes the door to one of the paratransit buses offered for riders with disabilities. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

The Missouri Public Transport Association works with Missouri’s 34 transit agencies. Cella said smaller providers have started to place job advertisements in their local papers, and larger providers, like KCATA, are hosting job fairs. 

The job can require long hours. Gover said often, drivers will call in sick or quit abruptly, leaving other workers like him to fill in the gaps. Overtime is common. During the pandemic, even the chance of being sick had people calling out. 

“The only time I’d take off (in a normal year) would be during flu season,” Gover said. “Now, I’m not going into work if I think I have any kind of fever.”

How to access paratransit in the Kansas City metro

RideKC Freedom: Provides door-to-door paratransit services. Requires a mobility assessment for approval into the program. Download a printable application in English or Spanish to get started.

The Whole Person: Provides paratransit services for people on Medicaid. Reach out to the Missouri office at 816-561-0304, or the Kansas office at 913-871-4188 for more information.

Jewish Family Services: Provides transportation for people 60 and older but riders must either not use a wheelchair or be able to put their wheelchair in the car’s trunk. Download the application to get started.

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.