Ed Necker gets up two hours before the bus leaves so he can be ready on time. After eating and preparing for the day, he rolls his electronic mobility device to the nearby bus stop. The driver helps him onto the bus and straps in his device safely. Then Necker rides five miles to his meeting. The trip takes more than an hour and a half, but for Necker, this is an effortless, mundane trip that he makes every day.
“If you think about what the car, or bike, or walking does for you, it’s the way you engage in community life, and when you take that away from people, it means they become isolated,” says Terry Parker, accessible services manager for Lane Transit District (LTD) in Eugene, Ore. “What transportation does is it keeps people engaged in the community.”
Providing service to the cities of Eugene and Springfield and their surrounding communities, LTD covers a lot of ground. Parker ensures that all of its services are as accessible as possible to people with disabilities ranging from mobility impairment to sight and hearing loss to developmental disabilities.
Different kind of advisory board
Still, according to Necker, “There’s always some disability that LTD doesn’t address.” Necker, along with Kathy Jenness and 13 other people with disabilities, form LTD’s Accessible Transportation Committee. They’re the brains behind LTD’s accessibility business, and they use their disabilities as a staging point for improving the system. “It’s so much easier to do things right the first time than to go back and retrofit,” says Necker.
For most public transit agencies, it wasn’t until the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July 1990 that the notion of making transportation accessible to people with disabilities became significant. But being innovative with these types of services is nothing new for LTD. With the ADA’s original two-year grace period, agencies took time to retrofit their fleets with chairlifts and ramps. LTD, on the other hand, had already finished making its buses accessible in 1985, five years before the ADA was even signed.
People with disabilities often ride both fixed-route and paratransit buses in Eugene. In fact, LTD’s fixed-route service is a very popular option for people with disabilities because they crave the freedom and flexibility to be able to take the bus they want, when they want it. Of course, some riders simply require too much assistance to ride the bus alone.
Like most agencies, LTD’s paratransit service, or dial-a-ride, requires drivers to pick up passengers with disabilities at the curb in front of their homes, load them onboard the vehicle and take them to work, the doctor or the grocery store. While the paratransit service is highly valued by those who need the service, it has its drawbacks — mainly because the rider only gets one roundtrip per day and it’s extremely expensive to the agency. LTD uses some of its well-documented accessibility experience to reverse these effects.
To assist these riders in “graduating” from paratransit to fixed route, LTD offers transit hosts, or trainers with disabilities who have the skills to use fixed routes. “What I love about LTD is that it wasn’t this mandate that they were having to live up to,” Jenness says. “They embrace the population that they serve, and they do it with respect and mutual exchange.” Reaching out to the disabled community, as Necker and Jenness do, is just one aspect of LTD’s vision.
Beyond providing service
Necker was already paralyzed on the right side of his body when his mother’s health worsened. She had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig’s disease — and Necker vowed to help his father take care of his mother despite his disability. Every so often, Necker traveled to his parents’ house to watch after his mother so his father could run errands. It wasn’t easy for Necker to see his mother’s muscles slowly lose their control, failing until she couldn’t even support her head. So Necker rigged a set of straps and Velcro that allowed her to keep her head up, to look forward. “With that,” Necker says, “I learned I could help other people.” This confidence carries over into his role with LTD.
Already an avid paratransit user, Necker slowly became involved with LTD to explore ways he could assist other people with disabilities in using public transportation. He began on the phones, taking calls from other people with disabilities, answering their questions and giving them advice. With Necker’s paralysis comes some speech difficulties, “but many of the disabled clients have cognitive, or speaking or hearing difficulties as well, so I decided right off that one of us better keep it straight,” Necker says. “I guess it better be me.”
After Necker worked as a phone operator for LTD for five years, Parker convinced him to join the transportation committee. Now Necker is at the forefront of developing accessible services for the disabled community in Lane County.
For Jenness, all it took was a phone call to get involved. As a resident of rural Lane County, Jenness’ bus options were limited — one bus, every hour. If she missed it, she had to wait for the next one. She called Parker to complain about the bus service and ended up getting invited to share her thoughts with the transportation committee. This was nearly 10 years ago. Now a transit host, Jenness shares her knowledge enthusiastically.
“It has been so impactful for me to use the fixed-route system for the past decade, as my children grew up, dragging all three of my daughters around Lane County from anything from doctor’s appointments, to school functions to church,” she says. “That, for me, is a real foundation for my own enthusiasm for what is ongoing.”
The accessibility horizon
The next big thing for LTD is the bus rapid transit system (BRT), due to open this summer. LTD’s $38 million BRT project, the EmX, will operate five 60-foot articulated vehicles from New Flyer along exclusive bus lanes with signal priority. The agency’s long-term vision is to add a new corridor to the BRT network every five or six years hereafter. Of course, as BRT lines like LTD’s have become a popular new form of rapid transit around the U.S., questions are emerging about accessibility. Not surprisingly, LTD feels confident that it has the most important accessibility features nailed down.
To prepare for the line’s slated opening, the Accessible Transportation Committee created a plywood mock-up of the inside of the New Flyer buses to test the loading of all types of mobility devices as well as their ability to maneuver onboard the bus. Situated in LTD’s back lot, the mock-up has been visited by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), New Flyer, Easter Seals’ Project Action committee members and engineers from Oregon State University. The transportation committee’s goal is to build the accommodations into the BRT line so that they’re seamless. Level boarding from platforms, plates to cover the gap between the bus and the platform and automated stop announcements are just a few of the planned accommodations.
Parker and Necker were also part of an LTD group that attended the FTA’s national BRT conference in Washington, D.C., last year. The conference brought together transit agencies from across the country to present as many aspects of BRT as possible. LTD’s group was the only one that offered a plan for accommodating people with disabilities, Parker says.