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January 18, 2012

Making mass transit accessible to the masses

by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

When Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) opens its Accessible Travel Center in February, it will mark more than the unveiling  of another facility — SEPTA will celebrate helping people with disabilities experience the freedom of traveling on public transportation independently.

Located in a formerly vacant storefront in SEPTA’s Suburban Station in downtown Philadelphia and funded in part by a $140,000 FTA New Freedom Grant, the center is designed to help disabled riders learn how to use and navigate SEPTA’s system in a low-stress environment. For example, simulated subway and regional rail platforms will allow passengers, as well as their aides and companion animals, to practice safe boarding procedures without the pressure of inconveniencing other passengers or the operator. And by using innovative audiovisual teaching materials, such as virtual tours of SEPTA’s vehicles in the Center’s classroom, passengers can familiarize themselves with all SEPTA vehicles and modes before heading to the station or bus stop.

The centerpiece of the facility is the front one-third of  a ramp-equipped SEPTA bus, complete with fare box, wheelchair berths, stop announcements and realistic graphics to make it appear as though the vehicle is traveling on a  Philadelphia street.

A worker installs a mural of SEPTA's 13th Street Market-Frankford Line Station.

A worker installs a mural of SEPTA's 13th Street Market-Frankford Line Station.

SEPTA is the first East Coast transit agency to have an accessible travel training center of this kind. The center was established due to high demand — SEPTA bus ridership by wheelchair users has increased five-fold since 2004, and the need for bus boarding practice and system orientation by customers with disabilities continues to grow.

“Supporting independence and mobility is our goal,” said Cynthia Lister, SEPTA regulatory coordinator. “Travel training enables passengers with disabilities to use public transportation for specific trips on their own and gives them more personal freedom.”

Rod Powell, chair of SEPTA’s Advisory Committee for Accessible Transportation, adds, “There is no part of our society more dependent on public transportation than people with disabilities. Unemployment is almost 80 percent in my community and we depend on transit to get to jobs and services. The ability to use public transit opens the door to opportunities for employment, increased independence and mobility, more access to community activities and additional independent living skills.”

The new center will make SEPTA’s travel training more user-friendly. Previously, boarding practice was hindered by limited vehicle availability; weather, as sessions were held outdoors; and concerns of privacy, on-street distractions and other passengers’ impatience. Participants need intensive, uninterrupted and repetitive individual practice sessions. At SEPTA’s Accessible Travel Center, for the first time, instruction can be offered by advance appointment, Monday through Friday, during regular business hours, to individuals or small groups, rain or shine. The Center will also be available by appointment for use by professional travel trainers, orientation and mobility instructors and service animal trainers from agencies throughout SEPTA’s service area. 

Providing accessibility training not only helps passengers with disabilities gain confidence, it can also spur a region’s economy and ease the burden on paratransit services that are already operating at maximum capacity.

“Travel training benefits the regional economy because it opens the door for people with disabilities to join the workforce,” said Powell. “When people learn to take the bus to the shopping center on their own rather than using separate transportation exclusively for persons with disabilities, they ride with others to job sites. And, because they can use regular SEPTA service rather than ADA paratransit, which requires day-before reservations, they set their own transportation schedule. They can decide to work extra hours or meet friends after work — the choice is theirs.”

With the opening of the Center, SEPTA is also celebrating more than 30 years of providing accessible transportation.

“SEPTA has invested over a billion dollars in programs to make its vehicles, facilities and services accessible to and usable by all our riders,” said Lister. “The authority currently has 97 ADA-accessible stations and will soon have more than 100. The Accessible Travel Center is just the most recent example of how SEPTA continues to listen to its passengers with disabilities and works to meet their needs.”

Heather Redfern

Public Information Manager, SEPTA


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  • Bob R[ January 18th, 2012 @ 1:39pm ]

    all talk, there are 7 routes in Phila that have ZERO accessibility (10,11,13,34,36,101 and 102) and no immediate plans to make them accessible.

  • Jay Furlong[ January 21th, 2012 @ 8:37am ]

    I believe Septa has been in the vanguard of providing accessiblity for its passengers. For example, in the late seventies a fleet of buses had been purchased which had lifts. This is long before the ADA. To date they have continued to strive for accessibility. Septa's operational staff has always been committed to being accomodating.

  • mikez[ January 26th, 2012 @ 5:49pm ]

    Many of SEPTA's stations are not accessible http://septa.org/maps/system/index.html Inaccessible stations require capital investments. Without $ nothing happens. When capital is available you see ADA issues being addressed there are plenty of examples in the last few years. The 2-year Dilworth Plaza renovation will be yet another example. The entire bus fleet is accessible and there is also paratransit service http://septa.org/service/cct/index.html An outreach program is a great way to say "This is the state of the system. We, like you, wish it was prefect. But knowing that it's not, let us help you learn your way around." This is a very customer driven approach to empower them to the face the real state of system.

  • Doesn't Matter[ January 26th, 2012 @ 10:04pm ]

    The lines mentioned are all limIted access routes (trolleys) would you rather have had them trash the trolleys and upgrade them to ADA accessible for a small percentage of the routes (and riders) or have them make ALL BUSES which intersect with all trolley routes at numerous points ADA compliant? Think about it and give SEPTA props where they deserve it while continuing to fight to have ALL ROUTES ACCESSIBLE at some point....have CCT take you to a bus accessible location if need be.....the train doesn't come to my doorstep either, I must get to the station of my own accord....if you read the article and know of the steps that have been taken to accommodate ADA folks you will note they have a ways to go but have also come a much futher way along than alot of agencies....SEPTA did not makeyou

  • Doesn't Matter[ January 26th, 2012 @ 10:09pm ]

    SEPTA did not make you ADA reliant......let/help them to make you transient. Stop beating them for what they have yet to do and praise them a 'bit' for what they are trying to do occasionally.

  • Josh[ January 31th, 2012 @ 11:00am ]

    How about making every stop on the Broad Street Line handicapped accessible? It's one thing to preach about access, it's a whole other world when you actually practice it.

  • Gerson[ July 28th, 2012 @ 1:57am ]

    Hi Jennifer,Fantastic series. As a fomerr school psychologist turned law student, I can attest that you have a pretty good understanding of the “nooks and crannies” of school decision making processes. I would also add, parent groups can be great sources to identify individuals who sway opinions from behind the scenes, within a district. Sometimes, just narrowing in on a “behind the scenes staff member” changes the path of a district’s resistance. It is hard to pinpoint these people, but a good start is using seniority as an indicator. Also, individuals that hold dual roles, or have dual specialties/certifications tend to fit this mold as well. An example of this is the special education teacher/case manager who previously was the guidance counselor, or served as an interim special education director within the district. Bottom line, look for people with deep roots. Parent groups can also be sources of identifying school staff where there is always a steady flow of parents who have had problems with one individual. Lastly, once you have an idea of who this person is, don’t assume that their peers necessarily support them. I have found that these individuals tend to affect staff the same way as they affect parents.

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Author Bio

Heather Redfern

Public Information Manager, SEPTA


Marcia Ferranto

President/CEO, WTS International

Marcia Ferranto is President/CEO of WTS International.


Scott Belcher

President and CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America)


Joe Zavisca

Joe Zavisca is an independent consultant specializing in paratransit service.


Paul Mackie

Communications Director, Mobility Lab

Paul Mackie is communications director at Mobility Lab, a leading U.S. voice of “transportation demand management.”


Rob Taylo

Founder/CEO SinglePoint Communications

Rob Taylo is founder/CEO of SinglePoint Communications, an exclusive U.S. distributor of WiFi in Motion.


Joel Volinski

Director, National Center for Transit Research at CUTR/USF


Brian Antolin

Consultant, Transportation and Travel Industry


Zack Shubkagel

Partner/Creative Director of Willoughby Design

Zack Shubkagel is partner and creative director for the San Francisco office of Willoughby Design, a strategic branding and design firm.


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