Making mass transit accessible to the masses

Posted on January 18, 2012 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.”

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