Honolulu’s Handi-Van users have endured excruciatingly long hold times in years past when calling the reservation line to book a ride. Now, the problem is back – and transit officials say that Covid-related absences among the paratransit service’s reservationists are largely to blame.

New steps are underway to solve the latest call-time woes and hopefully fix the issue for good. Still, a key part of that effort — to give users the option to book their own rides directly — is at least two years away, the city’s top transit leader said.

“It has been a perennial problem to answer the phone in a reasonable time,” Department of Transportation Services Director Roger Morton said last week. Morton also called the recent record for answering calls in a timely manner “unacceptable” during testimony before City Council members earlier this month.

“They just can’t get through,” he said of the approximately 5,000 senior and disabled island riders who access the Handi-Van vehicles across Oahu.

Handi Van parked at the Kalihi Transit Center.
Handi-Vans line up at the Kalihi Transit Center. Covid-related absenteeism among the fleet’s reservationists at the call center there have led to a resurgence this year in long calls spent on hold. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Handi-Van users previously grappled with extreme wait times in 2019, when software glitches and crashes were largely to blame. Their wait times started to increase again in May, according to figures released by DTS. By September, the average hold time for the senior and disabled island residents who rely on the paratransit service had reached nearly nine minutes.

Just 36% of all calls that month were answered within five minutes, according to the DTS figures.

“It’s repeating itself. You can’t continue like this anymore,” said Donald Sakamoto, a longtime paratransit rider who has pushed for better Handi-Van service for those living with disabilities on Oahu, of the persistent call issues.

Sakamoto filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Civil Rights in 2019. Last week, he said that he hasn’t received an update on that complaint. Investigators won’t provide that until the process is finished, he said.

Meanwhile, during the recent council hearing, Morton said that the city has been in talks with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding Handi-Van service, but he didn’t want to provide details. In a recent interview, he declined to say whether those talks pertained to Sakamoto’s 2019 complaint.

Keeping Their Distance

Prior to Covid, Honolulu’s Handi-Vans, along with the local taxis contracted to provide rides, were one of the nation’s most heavily used paratransit services per capita. Morton said it’s unclear how Handi-Van compares now to other systems, after passenger counts plummeted nationwide due to the pandemic.

The drop in demand in recent years has allowed the service’s on-time performance to vastly improve. Vans now arrive on-time for more than 90% of the rides in the past year, according to city figures.

But while van arrival times have gotten better, call wait times have gotten worse.

A key culprit is a shortage of available workers, caused by the “excessive” Covid-related absenteeism among the Handi-Van’s 34 or so reservationists, according to Morton and Robert Yu, president of Oahu Transit Services, the nonprofit company that runs TheBus and Handi-Van for the city.

This graph, released by DTS, shows that the timely call answers on the Handi-Van’s reservation line started to drop precipitously in May. The service has rebounded a bit but is still below pre-May levels. Department of Transportation Services

The call center is located in the Kalihi Transit Center. It’s open seven days a week and contains 14 reservationist stations, according to Morton. It’s also extremely cramped and close-quartered. Despite the city’s installing plexiglass barriers, some reservationists earlier this year were exposed to Covid. Others have stayed home to avoid exposure, he said.

In September, their attendance rate was just over 50%, according to DTS figures.

At the City Council hearing earlier this month, council member Calvin Say asked whether outsourcing to call centers abroad would be a potential fix. Morton replied that Handi-Van’s reservationists need to have a familiarity with the local street system on Oahu. “It’s not all about computers,” he said.

The city, he said, is looking into technology that would allow local reservationists to work remotely, reflecting their desire to work from home and avoid cramming into the call center. The city is also working to boost the total pool of reservationists from 34 to 39, he added, and an option to work remotely would help with that recruitment.

Finally, the city is pursuing new software that would enable Handi-Van riders to schedule their rides directly using a smartphone, tablet or computer, Morton said. Such an application would likely reduce the phone calls by 25% to 30%, taking a big strain off the call center, he said.

That user-enabled system would probably cost about $500,000 to develop, and the city aims to use federal Covid relief funding to help cover those costs, he added. However, the user system likely would not be ready until 2024 because it would require significant upgrades to the Handi-Van’s existing Trapeze scheduling software, according to Morton.

For years, riders have complained about Trapeze’s performance. A former Handi-Van official once called the software “crappy” because it required expensive patches to run on top of the base cost.

Morton said Monday that Trapeze is used predominantly by U.S. paratransit systems, and that there’s no guarantee that the handful of competing software systems would do any better handling the Handi-Van’s enormous scheduling challenges.

Any “front-facing” software for users to schedule their own rides would also have to go through Trapeze as long as that’s what the city and OTS use, Morton said.

Figures provided Tuesday by the city indicated that the call center’s performance improved in November. From Nov. 1 to Nov. 20, reservationist attendance was up to 71%, plus 61% of the calls were answered within five minutes, according to DTS.

Still, the latest situation has left Sakamoto frustrated. He’s observed the Handi-Van performance fluctuate over the years.

“We’re still doing the same thing,” Sakamoto said. “We’re going backwards, not forward.”

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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