Fixing MetroliftThis week we have an excellent guest post by fellow TEDx Houston attendee Katrina Moore, a long-suffering rider of Metro and the Metrolift system, with her insider's perspective and personal story of what's wrong and what's needed to fix it.
I have been a member of a unique class of Houston citizens for well over a decade. In the hustle and bustle of daily commutes, I am one of the forgotten plenty. If you have ever ridden the Houston Metro system for an extended period of time, especially outside of the inner city, then you have a pretty good idea of what I am talking about. Now stretch yourself a little and imagine the daily life of one of Houston’s disabled, often elderly, pedestrians. I am here to tell you that the story can be pretty complicated and bleak.
I will use myself as an example, though I know there are many worse scenarios. I finally qualified for services from Metrolift about eight years ago. Though legally blind and unable to drive, I was initially turned down because I did not appear ‘blind’ enough in my interview. Services entail the following: free Metro bus pass, access to Metrolift buses and discounted cab service. Receiving these services was definitely liberating and I was absolutely grateful to have them.
Four years ago, I was offered a job teaching photography at a local private school. I was absolutely terrified to take the job because, until that point, my experience with my Metrolift services had been difficult to say the least.
Option 1 – Metrolift Buses
There was a long waiting list for the Metrolift subscription service, which provides prescheduled transportation to passengers who are going to the same place every day. Non-subscription service was not a feasible option either. While there is no waiting list, these buses are notoriously late for pickup and drop-off, and being a teacher, I kinda had to be there on time, every time. Not an option.
Option 2 – Discounted Cab Service
The discounted cab service is an interesting set up. Metrolift pays the first $8 of your cab fare, which gets you about 1 ½ miles from your front door. To get to my job, the remainder of my fare would have been $7, which came to $14 a day. Since my job was very part-time, the cost analysis did not hold up. Not an option.
Option 3 - Free Bus Card
Free is good, don’t get me wrong. If you are an Inner-looper, you may not know that outside the loop, the bus routes can get a little hairy. This was my daily commute. Walk to the bus stop, only a few blocks away, no big deal. Wait for a bus that was often up to 20 minutes late. Take a bus 15 minutes to 34th and Antoine, home of the methadone clinic and a sketchy neighborhood, to say the least. Stand at the corner for 20+ minutes. Take another ten minute bus ride. Walk for 6 minutes. Get to work. Repeat.
I spent close to 2 hours a day commuting to a job that required my presence for 2 hours a day.
The next three years came with a shift in paradigm. My schedule became less part-time but required me to get to work much earlier in the morning. As I am a mother, my priority was to get my daughter to school in the morning, before going to work. Option 3, no longer an option. I, then, was forced to turn to Option 2, a discounted cab fare. With more hours came more money and a $200+ monthly cab bill.
Many of you spend at least this much on gas a month, so the expense may seem justifiable. The issues with the discounted cab idea are numerous. Cab drivers are not employees of Metrolift, of course, but rather private entrepreneurs hired by various cab companies. They sign up to be Metrolift providers but are not required to accept Metrolift fares. This means that if a better offer comes up on the board, they will choose that fare. I have been told by a plethora of drivers that most Metrolift customers just want to go to the grocery store. This means that compared to an airport trip, these customers are small potatoes. This also means that if a convention is in town or, God forbid, the Rodeo, Metrolift customers may wait up to an hour+ to get a cab. This has happened to me an unspeakable number of times.
Metrolift cab users also have some strange rules that make life even harder. For some reason, you are not allowed to put in an order in advance, a privilege for other cab riders. This puts you in constant, direct competition with every other fare. You are also not allowed to request a specific driver; you take what you can get. I am not sure why these arbitrary rules are in place at all. Also, none of the drivers are screened or trained to help you. Imagine that you are blind and going somewhere you have never been. You finally get into your cab, and the driver asks, “So, how do you get there?” You then sit quietly in a parking lot while the driver searches through a Key Map, often with the meter running.
After working for three years in the same location, I was able to work out some of the kinks. Some of the most amazing cab drivers memorized my ID number and did their best to scoop me up whenever they saw my trip. I still made sure to call in my trip 1 hour and 15 minutes early to get to work on time and to put my daughter in the car of a neighbor 1 hour and 15 minutes before her school actually began. I also often waited for over an hour to get a cab to go home. All of this while teaching Middle School and suffering Houston traffic.
The reason I am telling you all of this? Recently, I have been hearing a lot about development in Houston. The potential for this city is seemingly limitless in the eyes of many. I admire all of the work being done to make this city cutting edge in so many ways. We, the forgotten plenty, also want to be able to join in, be a part of Houston culture, and take advantage of what Houston has to offer. The scenario I have described is only to meet a need, to work, but what about to live? What about the 1 ½ hour wait at the grocery store while meat goes bad or ice cream melts? What about getting to the theater or local galleries or to a doctor’s appointment?
I see only two options: either a complete reform of the existing Metrolift system or the development of a private enterprise outside of Metro’s seemingly incompetent hands. Imagine a website, with an online scheduler and calendar, where patrons can plan and pay for trips in advance: a system where those who need assistance can communicate with a caring and professional staff and be driven by trained and vetted drivers. In a city such as Houston, bursting with possibility, is it truly so hard to envision?