SOLANA BEACH — Solana Beach resident James Walker, 19, knows his public transit — since graduating high school, he has used a hodgepodge of Amtrak, Coaster, and North County Transit District bus services to get to work, college and physical therapy.
But when NCTD cut the FLEX bus service from Solana Beach to MiraCosta’s San Elijo campus last year, Walker — who has a mild form of autism and non-verbal learning disorder — and his mother, Mary Turk, were stuck with few options for getting Walker to his classes. Turk, who was studying at the time, couldn’t drive Walker to school, and other local services or transit options were either too inflexible or too expensive.
Turk was able to get in touch with City Councilwoman Jewel Edson, who is on the board of directors of Facilitating Access to Coordinated Transportation. Edson recommended that Turk try RideFACT, a service built and managed by FACT.
FACT is the San Diego Association of Government’s designated Consolidated Transportation Service Agency — tasked with maintaining a database of transportation options to recommend to callers in need of service. But in 2010, FACT went one step further and developed a “dial-a-ride” service for seniors, persons with disabilities, veterans and the income disadvantaged. Labeled “RideFACT,” the service has partnered with more than a dozen different transportation vendors, now including Yellow Cab and Lyft. In 2012, they were able to expand the program to all 18 cities in San Diego County.
RideFACT has purchased about twenty, wheelchair-accessible vehicles to provide to vendors. Vendors are able to make use of the vehicles in exchange for providing three rides for RideFACT, which helps attract more drivers to the service. Courtesy photo by Budd Anderson
According to FACT’s executive director, Arun Prem, FACT is a “catch-all” for anyone who has “transportation barriers,” including people with disabilities who may not qualify for paratransit services.
Riders are able to call FACT and schedule trips seven days in advance. Fares range from $2.50 for short trips under five miles to $10.00 for trips over 20 miles. The cost is “heavily subsidized” by FACT, Prem said, with the average trip costing the nonprofit $12 to $13.
Originally a “bunch of activists” faced with what they saw as a gap in transit services, FACT employees built a program based on rising and falling demand — much like Uber but “less tech-based,” Prem said. They also don’t set the rate for vendors.
“We let them propose their rates because we want all of these (vendors) to compete against each other.”
When a rider calls the center to request a ride from say, Solana Beach to Chula Vista, RideFACT uses a “glorified spreadsheet” to calculate the rates of various vendors willing to make that particular trip, and find the cheapest one by default. As a result, they can serve more riders, more efficiently.
“It’s very cost-effective,” Prem said. Prem, who has worked for a number of transportation agencies, said there’s nothing quite like RideFACT in San Diego, or the nation for that matter.
For Turk and Walker, RideFACT was a “lifesaver,” allowing Walker to get from home to school, school to physical therapy and back with few glitches, for $2.50 per leg. Among their only qualms with the program is having to plan a week in advance.
According to Prem, RideFACT is limited in its spontaneity, both because of a lack of funding, and an increase in demand — which has risen by 24 percent in the last year.
“We’re at capacity,” he said.
RideFACT, which is based in Oceanside, is funded by a pair of competitive two-year grants administered through SANDAG — a Federal Transit Administration grant for Enhanced Mobility of Seniors & Individuals with Disabilities (Section 5310), and a Senior Mini Grant derived from the county’s TransNet sales tax proceeds. However, the program does not run on any “sustainable,” long-term funding, according to Prem.
As a result, RideFACT has branched out in order to help augment its funding source, partnering with Tri-City Medical Center in 2016 in order to pick up patients after discharge and transport them to their homes using Lyft. They have also purchased some vehicles and allowed vendors to use them free of cost in exchange for doing three rides for RideFACT — which ultimately helps lower cost by attracting more drivers.
Prem, who knows many of the program’s frequent riders by name, said RideFACT gives self-reliance to many who formerly had few to no other transportation options beyond family or friends.
Turk calls her experience finding transit options for Walker a “real education,” but said that RideFACT was “a hero” for filling the missing niche in Walker’s transportation routine.
“It gives him a really strong sense of independence, that he’s doing it on his own,” she said.