Melody Williams, a legally blind paratransit rider in Detroit, wakes up every morning at 3 a.m. to get ready for her 4:30 a.m. ride to the dialysis center for her appointment. While the paratransit services eventually get Williams to her location, it’s not often without a bump in the road she says. Under the city’s former paratransit services, provided by Transdev, riders might be dropped off at the wrong location, picked up late, or not treated with care.
Williams wasn’t alone in her criticism of MetroLift, the Detroit Department of Transportation’s paratransit service, either. The paratransit services faced enough scrutiny that in November 2022 Detroit City Council members voted against a contract extension for Transdev, and in December Mayor Mike Duggan used his emergency powers to ensure the city still offered paratransit services under the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT).
Since then, DDOT has continued to fill the paratransit services with temporary contractors as they search for a long-term provider. At the same time, the Department of Justice is looking into if the city has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing riders with disabilities.
One Detroit contributor Bryce Huffman sat down with Williams to learn more about her experiences as a rider and what she hopes to get from the new service provider. Plus, Huffman talks with Mikel Oglesby, executive director of transit for Detroit, about what the future holds for Detroit’s paratransit services.
Bryce Huffman, BridgeDetroit, Reporter: It’s half past four am on East Ferry Street. The roads are nearly empty on this early Friday morning, but Detroiter Melody Williams is up and waiting for the paratransit van to arrive.
Melody Williams, Legally Blind Paratransit Rider: Getting up this early is just part of her weekday routine. Today, she’s using it to get to her dialysis treatment. On Mondays, I do dialysis, so I get a one-way trip. My day start at 3:00 in the morning and my ride is from 4:30 to 5:00.
Around about 10:00, I’m off the machine and then my family members come and pick me up and then I go to work. And then in the afternoon, I get off about 2:30. So I have another ride scheduled for MetroLift. That’s on Monday. And on Tuesday from 9:00 I go to work and Wednesday back to dialysis. Thursday, work again. And then on Fridays I do dialysis.
Bryce Huffman: The van picks up and drops off other passengers on the way to Williams treatment. Like many people using the service, Williams is visually impaired.
Melody Williams: It’s considered as legally blind. So I have vision, but not clarity. Like if you put a Ziploc bag to your eye. That’s what I see.
Bryce Huffman: Williams has been legally blind since 2010. She spent ten months in Kalamazoo learning to navigate life without full vision. That included learning how to catch the bus now that she couldn’t drive herself.
Melody Williams: When I came back to Detroit, I wanted to continue that. So I wouldn’t be stuck in the house and dependent on my girlfriends or my aunts or my sons or my friends. You know, different people… my neighbor, to take me backward and forth. I signed up for MetroLift.
Bryce Huffman: MetroLift, is Detroit’s Paratransit service. A transportation option specifically for people living with disabilities or other mobility challenges. William’s has been using the service since 2017. How do you make the decision to schedule or get a ride from someone else?
Melody Williams: When I do dialysis on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, when I get off that machine about 10:00, I be extremely sick and weak. So therefore, if I take MetroLift, there is no telling when I might get home and how I will make it. So therefore my family members will come and pick me up on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Everybody got a certain day.
Bryce Huffman: In November, City Council voted against a new contract for Transdev, the company that operated the Paratransit service. Riders who use the service often complain about how unreliable the company was. Williams said drivers would leave passengers in the wrong locations, pick them up late, and sometimes not pick them up at all.
Melody Williams: It’s sometimes frustrating. But we don’t have no other choice. How are going to get the doctors. How are we going to get to the grocery store? How are we going to get to our treatments? Cancer patients and stuff they do. They use MetroLift as well. They’ll be own on scooters. It’s horrible.
Bryce Huffman: Detroit’s Paratransit service could look very different by summer, however. At the Detroit Department of Transportation office, we sat down with Mikel Oglesby. He’s the executive director of Transit for the City.
At the end of last year, obviously, there was a little bit of debate about if there should be a contract extension or approval for Transdev. A lot of folks in the 88 community weren’t fans of them. Could you briefly describe just kind of how that resolved itself from when the contract was rejected to where we are now?
Mikel Oglesby, Executive Director of Transit, City of Detroit: Sure. It’s pretty straightforward. We put out an RFP, a request for proposal for service. There were two providers that responded. One was Peoples and one was Transdev. The end result was that the 30% People’s Express were approved and the other 70% was not.
Bryce Huffman: In December, Mayor Mike Duggan used his emergency powers to make a temporary fix to the problem.
Mikel Oglesby: I was really excited that he gave us the tools to do our job and that was to move forward with additional providers to be able to fill that gap.
Bryce Huffman: The city started seeking out new bids for the long-term contract last month. Now that DDOT runs the entire system… What sort of changes have you noticed as the person in charge of running the system and what have you been hearing from the people who use the Paratransit system?
Mikel Oglesby: Well, I will tell you, we took it over the beginning of the year and the response has been like night and day. They like the customer service. We’re providing professional service. We are handling complaints expeditiously. And the overall general response is very positive.
Bryce Huffman: But what do people who rely on the system, like Williams say about the new companies providing service, and how does she compare it to Transdev? You rode with People’s Express today. If you could rate them out of ten, what would you rate People’s Express and then what would you rate Transdev out of ten?
Melody Williams: Okay People’s… They always have good drivers and therefore one thing I like about People’s now they have cars. So therefore a lot of seniors that cannot get up in those high vans can get in a lower car. So I say service for now… I give them about an eight, eight and a half.
Bryce Huffman: Okay, that’s pretty good. And what about Transdev?
Melody Williams: Zero.
Bryce Huffman: And as for the long-term solution, six months from now, what do you want to see happen? What would you like to see DDOT do?
Melody Williams: I would like to be consistency. With our driver’s, consistency. A clean van. Take care of your seniors. Get out of the car and help them when you know they’re handicapped and they barely can get in. Definitely be on time. I know sometimes it’s hard to do that because when you’re working with a large city, it’s more than one client. It’s over 1,000 rides a day.
Bryce Huffman: The Department of Justice is now looking to ensure the city isn’t violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing disabled passengers.
Melody Williams: So, I understand it’s hard, but they need a better system, a much better system than what we have now.
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