Accessibility

Despite Progress, True Public Transit Accessibility Remains Elusive

Posted on November 15, 2018 by Susan Schruth

Signed into law July 26, 1990, the ADA remains one of the country’s most ambitious and far-reaching civil rights initiatives.
Valley Metro
Signed into law July 26, 1990, the ADA remains one of the country’s most ambitious and far-reaching civil rights initiatives.
Valley Metro
In the 28 years since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights law that bars disability discrimination, U.S. transit agencies have made significant progress in improving accessibility on bus and rail systems.

However, truly integrated public transportation remains elusive. In many areas, getting from place to place is neither easy nor seamless. Buses, trains, and stations may be accessible, but bus stops and paths to stations often are not. Improving urban systems built a century ago is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Quieter suburban stations not prioritized for improvement 28 years ago have become heavily used hubs. And, demand for paratransit, an intended safety net for those not served by fixed transit routes, has increased, with over 75 million trips reported in 2016.

Signed into law July 26, 1990, the ADA remains one of the country’s most ambitious and far-reaching civil rights initiatives. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to governmental programs and services.

As ADA approaches the 30-year mark, transit agencies are evaluating the improvements made and what still needs doing, while also eyeing a future that provides integrated, accessible public transportation for all.

Providing ‘Equal Access for Everyone’
The cover star for this issue is a Spirit of Equess low-floor cutaway built by ARBOC Specialty Vehicles LLC. In keeping the with company’s “Equal Access for Everyone” mantra, the vehicle includes 1:8 slope ramp and a 39-inch entrance door opening for passengers in need of extra assistance and wheelchair accessibility.

The Equess is equipped with a Cummins engine and an Allison transmission, with a compressed natural gas option. Additionally, the company expects to have an electric option available in the near future.

The low-floor vehicle can accommodate up to 33 passengers and six wheelchairs. It is Altoona-tested for 10 years/350,000 miles and meets all applicable FMVSS regulations.

The company recently received an order from Arkansas-based Ozark Regional Transit for 40 low-floor, medium-duty Spirit of Equess transit buses.

Bus Accessibility
Progress in bus accessibility has been outstanding. Today, 98.97% of fixed-route buses are accessible, following years of systematic retrofitting and redesigning.
Getting to and from buses remains challenging in some communities. While transit agencies are responsible for buses’ condition and accessibility, bus stops and pathways often are the local municipalities’ purview. Stops may lack sound and levelled pads, and shelters may predate the ADA and lack clear floor space for people who use wheelchairs. Pathways may not be sound or level, or a lack of curb ramps can prevent those with mobility issues from navigating them.

“Inaccessible bus stops and pedestrian connections, and a general lack of pedestrian infrastructure, can impede access to fixed routes for people with a variety of disabilities,” says Selene Faer Dalton-Kumins, acting associate administrator in the Office of Civil Rights at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

David Capozzi, executive director of the U.S. Access Board, agrees. “Lack of bus stop accessibility is a challenge,” he says.

Agency-municipality coordination, and more planning that includes those with disabilities, are crucial. “A coordinated approach that considers all of the pieces that go into an accessible fixed-route system not only benefits the disability community by increasing their transit options, but also benefits the local public transit agency, which can see a decrease in paratransit use and associated expenses,” Dalton-Kumins says.

Station Accessibility
Considerable progress also has been made in making rail stations accessible. New rail stations, those designated as “key” stations and where substantial station facility alterations have occurred, must be made accessible. The results of the ADA are clear. Today, America’s 71 light rail, rapid rail, commuter rail, monorail, and inclined-plane systems now have 2,472 accessible stations out of a total of 3,447 (72%), and the nation’s rail fleet is 88% accessible, according to the FTA’s National Transit Database. However, more than one-quarter of America’s rail stations, and 12% of its rail fleets, remain inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

In the early 1990s, agencies were required by the ADA to identify and make accessible existing “key” rail stations. Key stations were those that exceeded average passenger boardings, functioned as transfer stations on or between rail lines, were major interchanges between modes of transportation, or were “end” stations. Also considered key were stations serving “major activity centers, such as employment or government centers, institutions of higher education, hospitals or other major health care facilities, or other facilities that are major trip generators for individuals with disabilities.”

To date, 674 of 680 key stations have been renovated. Work on the remaining six will be completed by 2020, bringing them into full ADA compliance.

This noteworthy milestone, however, may not go far enough. Many stations that did not meet the “key” criteria 25 years ago now are busy hubs that play larger roles in their systems, and should be accessible.

Older stations have inherent challenges. Their age, cramped environments, depth underneath streets and buildings, and lack of uniformity in their design and construction make upgrades difficult and expensive. Adding elevators, for example, can be difficult or structurally impossible, especially where platforms are several stories under streets, building foundations, bedrock, utilities, and even other rail lines.

“Older lines aren’t cookie-cutter,” says Michael Venuto, chief engineer at the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates the PATCO high-speed transit line connecting South Jersey and Philadelphia. “We are currently installing elevators in six stations, and these jobs are never easy.”

Progress in bus accessibility has been outstanding, with 98.7% of fixed-route buses now accessible, following years of systematic retrofitting and redesigning.
Valley Metro
Progress in bus accessibility has been outstanding, with 98.7% of fixed-route buses now accessible, following years of systematic retrofitting and redesigning.
Valley Metro
Paratransit
The ADA-required paratransit service to ensure accessible service while fixed-route bus and rail systems were upgraded, and to ensure that people whose disabilities prevented the use of an accessible fixed-route system would not be left without service.

In general, paratransit provides service comparable, or complementary, to fixed routes. Specifically, paratransit must be provided within three-quarters of a mile on either side of the fixed route, cost no more than twice the fixed-route fare, and mimic the route’s schedule.

Today, paratransit remains highly used, and plays a major role in an agency’s operations and budget. To curb costs, meet demand, and offer flexibility, some agencies are using independent Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), such as taxis, Uber, and Lyft to provide on-demand paratransit.

Kansas City is among several cities piloting on-demand paratransit. Ride KC Freedom On-Demand provides transportation without the day-before lead time and 30-minute arrival windows. “What is new is the ability to download and use an app, or to call a dedicated telephone number, to summon a taxi in real time,” says Robbie Makinen, CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

“With Ride KC Freedom On-Demand, we’re providing mobility as a service,” he adds. Makinen, who is blind, knows firsthand that mobility is key. “Someone like me, who is ‘diverse-able,’ as I call it, needs [transportation] options and access to stay competitive.”

The program is open to all, with reduced fares for diverse-able patrons. Those who aren’t diverse-able pay a bit more, which helps fund the reduced fares, Makinen explains. The program is extremely popular. “We did 70,000 trips in the first year,” Makinen says.

The Future of Accessibility
ADA has shaped the way we travel and will do so long into the future.
Innovations, including the use of TNCs for on-demand paratransit, will require close supervision as they evolve, Dalton-Kumins explains, to ensure that they “are meaningfully accessible, safe and usable.”

Automated, or driverless, vehicles and their role in public transportation also are being studied. Passengers in San Francisco and Pittsburgh already are using Uber automated vehicles, and Lyft will soon be debuting its own driverless fleet in the Bay Area.

Recent advances in independent wheelchair securement, mechanisms allowing those who use wheelchairs to more easily secure themselves and their wheelchairs in transit vehicles, will continue to be implemented nationwide. Those same mechanisms will be needed in automated vehicles, Capozzi notes.

New thinking can be as impactful as new technologies. “With emerging technology and systems, designs are often created for ‘most people,’ then modified to accommodate people with disabilities. That approach, that mindset, is one of the biggest obstacles to full integration,” Dalton-Kumins says. “It is also important for all of us to keep in mind that technological innovations cannot alone solve the gaps in the accessibility of transit networks. Transit agencies and municipalities must continue to push for greater access by expanding rail access and bus stop accessibility.”

Makinen agrees. “We need to start with the diverse-able community, and build out from there,” he says.

“People are at the core of what we do,” Makinen adds. “I tell my staff every day, ‘our business isn’t about vehicles; it’s about people. You have the ability to positively impact more peoples’ lives in a day than most people can in a lifetime.’”

This “people first” commitment is a transit industry hallmark. As universal design gains popularity, combined with the undergirding of the ADA, key decisions about transit service, construction and rehabilitation will move all of us closer to the goal of a truly integrated and accessible public transportation network.

Susan Schruth is an HNTB National Transit Practice Consultant and senior technical resource.

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