The J4500e reaches highway speed and reliability targets in first round of test runs.
As American society ages with healthier generations living longer, the number of people over the age of 80 will more than double by 2032. In tandem, medical advances and mobility improvements are enabling disabled citizens to move about like never before.
For operators, these two trends are spurring an ever-growing market segment for chauffeured transportation, as there will always be a growing subset of clients preferring private sector, and even, luxury paratransit service.
Packed with potential
Paratransit — defined as non-emergency medical and disability related transportation — is a diverse niche that generates $3 billion in revenue each year nationwide, with 75% of service provided by private contracted operators and the rest by public transit agencies themselves, says Hal Morgan, executive vice president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) since 1994.
Paratransit consists mostly of a public sector component spurred by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) which requires paratransit public transportation service for anyone living within three-quarters of a mile of a bus stop who can’t access standard public buses. Much of that is contracted through brokers in 31 states, who act as middlemen to private providers, Morgan says. “The law is you have to provide it, so every person on Medicaid can get to doctors.”
Private paratransit primarily serves hospitals, nursing homes, workmen’s comp claim clients, and insurance clients, Morgan says, but the biggest potential growth area is what is loosely called the aging-in-place client market of seniors who can live independently at home with regular caretakers and get around with assisted mobility.
“People do not want to give up their autos; they want to drive as long as possible,” Morgan says. “But you have to give up at some point. Look what it costs [to drive] in insurance and maintenance. It might be as much as $1,000 per year.” When factoring in gas and car payments, the specter of rising transportation costs can help seniors to think outside the box when the time comes to hand over the keys, he says.
Chauffeured transportation companies can step into the breach and sell safety, convenience and quality of life — at a pricing level that would either equal or build affordably on the cost of self-driving. The limousine industry already has the inbred advantages of knowing how to operate safe, clean, reliable, quality, luxury vehicles on time with professional chauffeurs — at a profit.
“People are living longer and they want to be mobile,” says Thomas Arrighi, owner and CEO of A&A Metro Transportation in Bridgewater, Mass., which has run a paratransit and medical transportation division since 1992. “They’re not homebound and can get around and go places. Before, it was a little tougher with not as many vehicles out there providing this service. Non-ambulatory transportation is now growing with the aging of the population.”
Three avenues for clients
Morgan outlines three ways limousine operators can explore and expand into paratransit service:
One major advantage of private chauffeured paratransit service is that it provides dignity to clients, with the same professional chauffeurs, on-time safe service, and clean vehicles that are the hallmarks of traditional limousine service, Arrighi says.
Arrighi runs one of the most experienced paratransit operations in the U.S., now going on two decades. It has 30 wheelchair-accessible vehicles, including vans, minibuses and a motorcoach, in its medical transportation division. A&A overall has about 125 chauffeured fleet vehicles.
Much of the clientele needs to be taken to medical appointments and for non-emergency procedures at hospitals. The company also contracts with local public transit authorities and Veterans Administration hospitals. Other demand comes from wedding clients who need paratransit service for aunts, uncles, grandparents, or other relatives traveling to and from airports.
Paratransit clients are often generated through luxury black vehicle clients who have friends, relatives or neighbors that need paratransit service, Arrighi says. “We get business from people who use us and know people and pass it on to them. It’s amazing how many soldiers are coming back from the Middle East and needing a lot of chair cars.”
A&A paratransit chauffeurs are all certified in CPR and First Aid. “We take care of the clients so they are not being pushed into a vehicle like mass transportation,” Arrighi says.
Like Morgan, Arrighi advises operators interested in providing paratransit service to get involved with different groups, such as the TLPA, local transit authorities, nursing homes, and even word-of-mouth clients, most of whom likely know someone of limited physical mobility.
A company started in Chicago in December 2011 is gaining stature as a model private paratransit provider, with its new fleet of six MV-1 vehicles built by Vehicle Production Group. The MV-1 evokes the look of a London-style black taxi cab.
Q Transport is based on a single-ride, single-client limousine business model as opposed to the shared ride model more common to public ADA-related paratransit.
“Always providing more attention and care and quality is what led us to see the opening for Q Transport,” says 27-year-old Justin Rakestraw, President of Q Transport. His company is a division of Chicago-based SCR Medical Transportation, a family business started by his parents, Stan and Pam Rakestraw, that runs about 300 vans, minibuses and minivans.
Q Transport now has about 150 clients and charges hourly rates of about $60 to $80, and $55 for direct one-way trips. “Q is our method of doing the same service but in a more polished fashion that makes riders feel like celebrities,” Rakestraw says. “It’s amazing to hear some of the feedback. When they ride in these vehicles, they are thrilled.”
Giving clients dignity
Q Transport clients don’t just use the service for medical reasons; they lead full lives with trips to airports, theaters, special events and nights out on the town. About 75% of Q Transport runs are leisure related, with the rest medical. Many clients are survivors of vehicle accidents, with varying degrees of disability, including paraplegics. Others are coping with sports or gunshot injuries.
“It is enlightening to meet so many people,” Rakestraw says. “There was a young man shot in the back (in July) and on his fourth day in a wheelchair he was so happy to see us providing this service. He said, ‘I feel like my life isn’t over.’”
Rakestraw was motivated to start Q Transport after observing firsthand how paratransit helps clients. “When I graduated from college, I was not sure if I wanted to commit my career to the family business,” says Rakestraw, now in his third year of working for SCR. “I did try it, and after about the second year, my grandmother fell ill. I was responsible for having to coordinate a lot of her trips. I realized that this isn’t just a trip; this is someone’s mother, grandmother, or father we are transporting. It didn’t really click until someone I loved was part of our service.”
Q follows its parent company’s core mission of 25 years of going beyond and above what clients expect, Rakestraw says. “ADA requires curb to curb but Q makes sure service is door to door and the clients are inside safely,” he says. “It’s very important in extreme summer weather and snowstorms in winter. The clients have the option to ask drivers to wait for them outside.”
Chauffeurs must know how to secure wheelchairs and handle clients, skills a company should provide training for, Rakestraw says. Paratransit providers need to be thorough in choosing and hiring drivers, finding candidates who not only have a passion for service but are safe and experienced, he says.
Rakestraw emphasizes that the motives for getting into paratransit service should be the same as those for chauffeured transportation. “You have to care in this industry. If you are in paratransit to make a quick buck or be profitable, it’s not always going to work out for you. We’ve seen that with competitors. Our primary focus is to hire people who care and know someone personally who has a physical challenge. Those will always be your best drivers.”
MV-1 Leads Luxury Paratransit Market
A common complaint about paratransit vehicles is that the typical cutaway vans are not visually appealing and difficult for seniors to step up into, says Hal Morgan, executive vice president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA).
As a result, there is a strong market for lower floor accessible vehicles such as the MV-1, a specially designed paratransit vehicle built by Vehicle Production Group of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Ford Motor Co.’s Transit Connect vehicles, he adds.
The MV-1 is gaining ground in this market with companies such as Q Transport in Chicago offering more customized private paratransit. “It’s quite an investment, and interesting to see how companies put them in service, how they operate and how the vehicles hold up,” Morgan says.
The MV-1 also makes sense for public transit agencies. “People hate seeing empty buses riding around,” Morgan says. “That drives people crazy. A public transit agency can justify paying for a VPG MV-1 if it gets more efficient use of them.”
Q Transport President Justin Rakestraw, who bought six MV-1s in late 2011, admires the unique features of the model that makes it specifically designed for wheelchair clients. “The MV1 is very smooth and drives like a very sturdy truck but is not too big. Inside is spacious. The ramp that comes out from the floor of the vehicle is the most talked about feature.”
Robert Legacy, VPG regional sales director for the Midwest, says VPG will come out with a luxury limo “LX” version of the MV-1 in October. As of this writing, VPG offered base ($40,000) and deluxe versions ($41,950) of the MV-1.
Legacy predicts many cab fleets will go with the base model because it has a manual ramp, whereas the deluxe model is geared more to consumers with its power ramp. The LX, to hit showrooms this month, will take amenities to a higher level, offering leather seats, full-grained wood appointments, and creature comforts common to limousines, Legacy says.
Since the company is just emerging onto the market, it does not release sales numbers. Production on 2013 models started this fall.
“What is being recognized about the MV-1 and mobility market is that it’s purpose built,” Legacy says. “It’s not a conversion, not a modified vehicle, and not one that a company has bought from a manufacturer, cut apart, and put back together.”
The MV-1 was designed and built from scratch to suit the needs of paratransit clients, Legacy says. “That is important because you have increased reliability and durability.”
The MV-1 is covered under a 3-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty by the selling dealers. As a fully equipped ADA vehicle, the MV-1 has the potential to bring limousine and taxicab services into full compliance with the ADA. “If you go to any town and state all around the country, you see cab companies that do not have wheelchair accessible vehicles,” Legacy says. “They’ve been given a waiver over the years because nothing was available for them to buy. Now there is.”
Paratransit Enhances Life For One Client
For Auti Angel, the MV-1 paratransit vehicle run by Q Transport offers a new level of mobility and comfort. The professional actress, musician and dancer from Torrance, Calif., stars in the “Push Girls” reality show on the Sundance Channel.
She has performed with a host of well-known hip-hop artists, including N.W.A., Kid ‘n Play and LL Cool J. Early in her career, she branched into choreography and music and joined an all-female Latina hip-hop group that was given a recording contract by Columbia “Ruffhouse” Records.
Auti Angel’s career changed after a life threatening auto accident in 1992 caused by a drunk driver that snapped her back in half, severing her spinal cord and leaving her paralyzed from the waist down, according to her Sundance biography. After a difficult seven years that included losing her mother to cancer, depression, drug abuse and jail time, Auti rededicated her life to God and began to rebuild it. She returned to dancing, becoming the first hip-hop dancer to continue her professional career in a wheelchair, her bio says. She started a hip-hop wheelchair dance group, Colours ‘n’ Motion, in 2003 and has performed in Ludacris’s hit video “Stand Up.”
“I was transported by Q Transport during my entire stay while in Chicago for a special appearance,” Auti Angel told LCT. “I am Los Angeles based, but will use Q Transport anytime I travel to Chicago. We need their services in Los Angeles. I love the space to have my chair tied down, and for me and a guest to travel while I transfer into the back seat.”
Ground transportation providers overall can better serve physically challenged clients by making sure they have the exact same opportunities that the general population has, Auti Angel says. “I love that Q offers a limo type of service to our community. It’s the first of its kind anywhere in the world!”
How To Get Public Sector Paratransit Business
The J4500e reaches highway speed and reliability targets in first round of test runs.
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