All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for February 2004

SCAT service cuts back on 'convenience' trips

Recreational jaunts limited to three miles

Tue, Feb. 24, 2004
John Higgins
Beacon Journal

Once a month, Audrey Michaelian goes to her hairdresser at Chapel Hill Mall. Then she shops and eats lunch. It's nice to get out of her apartment near Highland Square, especially in the winter.

Michaelian, who turns 63 on Thursday, has multiple sclerosis and uses a three-wheel motorized scooter.

A day before her trip each month she makes a reservation with the county bus system, Metro, to use its curb-to-curb bus service known as SCAT. The special buses are a cross between a taxi and an airport shuttle.

But when she called SCAT to arrange a ride for her February hair appointment, she was told Chapel Hill Mall was too far away. New rule: SCAT will only take qualified passengers three miles for "convenience'' trips such as shopping or visiting a beauty parlor.

The rule change doesn't apply to "necessary'' trips to doctors, nursing homes, colleges or jobs. But sometimes Michaelian just wants to get out of the house and she doesn't want to make up a story about visiting an optometrist at the mall just to get a ride.

"There's not much you can do within three miles,'' she said. "Everybody would like to go to the mall once in a while.''

Metro blames the combination of increased demand and decreased funds.

"We needed to shorten the distance we were running so we could make more medical trips,'' said Metro Executive Director Robert K. Pfaff. "We contract with City Yellow Cab and they handle a lot of our overflow. The problem is we're bumping up on their capacity also.''

Sometimes Metro can find more than one rider heading the same direction, but often the little buses roll with only one passenger.

Metro has cut its overall services by 24 percent since 2001. State funding has decreased 56 percent since 2001, in part because legislators eliminated a fare assistance program for SCAT passengers that paid Metro to cut the usual $1 fare in half. A year ago, Metro had to double the fare to $2 for a one-way trip.

Each Special Citizens Area Transportation trip costs Metro at least $15, however, compared to $4 per trip for its regular bus line.

In 2003, Metro provided 247,922 SCAT trips to more than 6,000 passengers.

SCAT began in 1975 as a service for senior citizens. When the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, SCAT already was providing rides for people with disabilities who were unable to use the regular bus service.

Seniors 62 or older still can use the service, regardless of their ability to use regular buses.

Michaelian previously lived in a West Virginia community that had no comparable service.

"When I moved here to Akron in 1990, I thought, 'Oh wow, they have a SCAT bus.' I just loved it,'' she said. "I went to the mall, went to Kaufmann's and Sears, back and forth. I just went crazy, it was so nice.''

When she first arrived, she could use crutches and a cane, but MS has steadily eroded her mobility.

She can no longer get in and out of cars. On the SCAT bus, she could stay in her scooter, which is strapped into place. She could use a Yellow Cab bus, but she would have to transfer from her scooter to a seat and she can't do that. She could stay on her scooter and ride a regular line bus, but she's not sure if she has the energy to cope with that.

SCAT will take her three miles and then help her transfer to a regular bus line. The SCAT bus could also pick her up at the bus stop and bring her back home.

Metro picked the 3-mile distance because that was the average trip length for SCAT passengers, said Metro spokeswoman Molly Becker.

"Some people have already adapted to it,'' Becker said. "They've changed maybe where they get their hair done or they change where they do their grocery shopping. Last year we instituted grocery buses to help alleviate that so they don't have to use SCAT. They can now use a grocery bus that goes to key shopping areas.''

The grocery buses run Monday through Friday on fixed routes that link apartment complexes with most area grocery stores. For example, on Monday, residents in Saferstein Towers can take the grocery bus to Henry's Acme store. On Wednesday, the bus picks up shoppers at Nimmer Apartments and takes them to the Tops store on Howe Avenue.

Michaelian is already shopping for a new hairdresser closer to home. Metro will help her coordinate SCAT with a regular bus line, if she's up to it.

"I haven't tried that yet. I'll have to see,'' she said. "There seems like there's not much to be done about it.''

Copyright © 2004, Beacon Journal