Lifelong transit rider Sheila Smith would have had to walk 15 minutes to the 177 bus and transfer to the 762 from her Dumont home to get her first COVID-19 shot at the Valley Health System’s vaccination center in Paramus.
But Smith, who is 81 and can’t drive, said she has stopped relying on the bus now that she uses a cane. Luckily, a friend volunteered to drive her to the appointment Wednesday.
Steve Gruzlovic, who has cerebral palsy and uses a powered wheelchair, also got lucky because one of his healthcare providers was able to drive him in a wheelchair-accessible van to get his shots.
But Gruzlovic, who is the transportation chair of the New Jersey Independent Living Council, said he has heard from others who haven’t been able to get to the vaccine, in part, because of transportation issues.
For the transit-dependent population — which includes people with disabilities, seniors, those who can’t afford a car, or those who can’t drive — getting to vaccination sites can be a challenge.
“There’s still areas of public transit that are not accessible, there are several train stations that are not accessible and some of the megasites are very difficult to get to via public transit,” Gruzlovic said.
From his home in Robbinsville, Gruzlovic said getting to the Moorestown Mall megasite in Burlington County would have taken 2 hours and 43 minutes via public transit, with several transfers between buses and light rail.
The state-run paratransit service, Access Link, is also an option. But pick-ups and drop-offs must be within three-quarters of a mile from certain transit routes, you have to call more than 24 hours in advance to get an appointment, and then wait potentially hours to get the return van home depending on how long the shot process takes. For someone with a compromised immune system, waiting that long in a crowded indoor facility or outside if the weather is bad could be a health risk, he said.
New Jersey has hundreds of COVID-19 vaccination sites, and while some are transit-accessible grocery stores, medical centers and pharmacies, a growing challenge is how to reach people who don’t have cars or have other mobility concerns.
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Cassie Mahadeo, a stay-at-home mom from Dumont, has booked 300 appointments for relatives, friends and now volunteers to sign up seniors or others who had troublefiguring out the state’s appointment system.
But Mahadeo said she is having trouble booking an appointment for one person who doesn’t have a car.
“I’m trying to get the CVS around the corner, but they haven’t dropped an appointment in two weeks,” said Mahadeo, who sets a daily alarm at 4 a.m. to check for appointment openings.
Tackling accessibility, equity vaccination issues
David Peter Alan, the now-retired chair of the Lackawanna Coalition transit advocacy group and who also can’t drive, has suggested making transit centers vaccine sites.
Alan said he got his first shot in downtown Newark, which he could get to by taking the train, but had to walk 15 minutes from the city’s train station, which could be cumbersome for someone with mobility challenges.
“Many of the vaccination sites are either not transit-accessible at all or else they’re only accessible with some difficulty,” he said. “They’ve been putting sites in places like malls, lots of drive-throughs, very auto-centric and people who don’t have access to an automobile don’t have a convenient way to get there.”
Stewart Mader, the inaugural customer advocate at NJ Transit until leaving the role last fall, said making transit trips free could also help address widespread equity issues, and at the same time encourage people to return to public transportation.
“You’re going to get people vaccinated faster, you’re going to reduce sickness, you’re going to reduce death and in the end we shape the way people think about transit,” Mader said.
Those in lower socioeconomic classes were among the most reliant on NJ Transit for work and non-work related travel during the height of the pandemic. More than 85% of NJ Transit bus customers, who were surveyed by the agency about their travel from June 22 to July 3 last year, own one or no personal vehicle, and about the same percentage of these riders earn less than $75,000 per year.
More on vaccines:How NJ officials are now helping seniors get COVID vaccines
Diverse populations are also being vaccinated at a disproportionately slower rate.
The available data about the more than 6 million vaccines given in the U.S. in the first 30 days showed that 60% of doses were given to people who identified as white, 11.5% were Latino, 6% Asian and 5.4% Black, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Jersey’s vaccination data almost mirrors that of the CDC with 60% of doses distributed to white people, 7% to Asian, 6% Latino and 4% Black.
Gruzlovic said Access Link is often more expensive than the normal transit fare, which could be prohibitive for someone who relies on it and is contemplating getting the vaccine.
“When you’re on social security disability and you only get a certain amount of money per month, you really have to make that stretch,” he said.
Mader began a “VaxTransit” campaign on his own in December, tracking on his website transit services around the country that are offering free trips for people getting the vaccine. As part of a growing movement to make the shots more accessible, more than 265 transit systems in 40 states are now offering free transit rides to those getting a vaccine, according to Mader’s research.
But not NJ Transit.
Some municipalities and counties are filling the gap.
- Jersey City leaders secured a deal with Uber to offer free rides to 12,000 frontline workers and seniors over the age of 75, which Mayor Steven Fulop said in a statement would help those “residents benefit most from avoiding crowded mass transit or may not otherwise have the means to travel.”
- In Monmouth County, free rides to vaccine appointments for those 65 and up are being offered by the Special Citizens Area Transportation service (SCAT).
- Bergen County is also offering free rides to the Bergen New Bridge vaccination site for county residents over the age of 60 using its EZ Ride service, a grant-funded program that partners with Uber and Lyft to provide rides. Those who require wheelchair assistance can also get a free trip if they call the county Division of Transportation.
How NJ can help
Mader said he has worked to convince state government officials and transit agencies from around the country — agencies dealing with funding shortfalls due to low ridership in the pandemic — to get behind free rides. The concept is “a short-term change that can have a long-term benefit” because it could “help hasten a return to people using transit,” he said.
Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco is offering free return trips to those who get vaccinated at the Oakland Coliseum, which is accessible by several different train lines, saving residents a $7 ticket. In addition, the transit agency is providing wheelchair-accessible carts to help those with the roughly 0.25-mile walk from the station to the vaccination site in the stadium.
“Our customer data shows that during the pandemic nearly one in four of our riders wouldn’t be able to make their trip if it was not for BART,” said Christopher Filippi, a BART spokesman. “By providing a free ticket as an incentive for people to ride BART to the Coliseum we are directly addressing the potential barrier of cost that might make it more difficult for members of low-income communities to get vaccinated.”
Michael Zhadanovsky, a spokesman for the governor’s office, declined to comment when asked if any thought has been given to providing free transit rides to vaccines or making certain stations vaccine sites.
Mader said he got a similar response when he reached out to Murphy’s office about offering free vaccine rides.
Alan pointed to a couple of well-connected hubs that could be ideal vaccination sites, including Secaucus station, which is served by all of NJ Transit’s train lines (except Atlantic City and Princeton branches) and several buses, and the Trenton station that serves the Northeast Corridor train line, the River light rail line, Amtrak, SEPTA and buses.
NJ Transit board member James D. Adams said Alan’s suggestion was an “excellent idea” at February’s board meeting and asked the management team to look into the suggestion.
NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith referred questions on those ideas to the state Department of Health, but said the agency created a website for customers, njtransit.com/vaxride, that shows vaccination sites and what transit options are available near them. NJ Transit also recently launched an app for Access Link users to book their trips.
Asked whether there has been any discussion about making vaccination trips free, Smith said they have no announcements to make at this time.
Gruzlovic said making transit hubs vaccination sites would be a good start, but a game-changer for those who have disabilities is better door-to-door service.
“You still have a significant portion of our population who might not be able to get to those (transit) centers,” he said. “We, here in New Jersey, need some significant changes to the transportation structures and we need point-to-point, on-demand service for people with wheelchairs.”
Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, said the people who are transit-dependent have been “underserved throughout this pandemic” and need to be part of the planning process going forward.
“Running a bus once a week from a local vaccine site to group homes, to multi-family housing, that would certainly be a worthwhile endeavor,” Weinberg said. “These are all things that these bureaucracies should be able to figure out, how to serve the most people in the most equitable manner.”
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.