Public Transportation Systems Are Leaving People With Disabilities Behind

Cities need public transit. But it's important that these systems don't leave people with disabilities stranded.

To use New York City's paratransit service—the on-demand public transportation system for people who can’t use the bus or the subway system—a customer must call one to two days in advance, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. She can request a pickup time or submit an appointment time by which she must reach her destination, but not both. The driver will pick her up anywhere from 30 minutes before to 30 minutes after the agreed-upon time. If anything changes, the customer must call three hours in advance to cancel the trip.

That’s more hassle than most people would put up with to visit a doctor or have dinner at a restaurant or go to the store. And that’s how the system is supposed to work. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed more than 20 years ago, there was no guarantee that public transit would serve disabled people at all. The ADA required paratransit service as a supplement to public transportation systems, as well as increased access on regular public transit routes for people with disabilities.

But advocates for disabled people are still fighting for better transportation options. At last count, there were 2 million people with disabilities in the United States who never leave their homes. More than a quarter—560,000 people—say that's because of transportation difficulties. The American Association of People with Disabilities notes in a new report that only 20 percent of Amtrak stations have complied with ADA standards. Major subway systems are only required to make “key” stations accessible.

And for people with disabilities—particularly those who use wheelchairs—taxis are rarely an option. In New York City, for example, only 233 of more than 13,000 taxis are wheelchair-accessible, less than 2 percent of the city’s taxi fleet. The nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates brought a lawsuit against the city, which controls the taxi fleet through a licensing system, demanding that number be increased. Late last year, a district judge ruled that city must create a comprehensive plan for providing taxi service to the disabled.

New York is in the middle of designing the “Taxi of Tomorrow,” a fuel-efficient cab decked out with USB ports and other luxuries. At one point, it looked like these cabs might be wheelchair-accessible, but the Mayor’s office wasn’t particularly interested in prioritizing that. Now, Comptroller John Liu (a likely candidate in next year’s mayoral election) says he’ll block the taxi contract unless all new cabs can accommodate wheelchairs.

Part of the reason it’s so difficult for public transit system to serve people with disabilities is that they’re woefully underfunded. It’s important that cities make it possible for people to get around without cars in order to create dense neighborhoods and keep pollution down. But it’s also important that those systems don’t leave people with disabilities stranded in their homes or on a street corner, unable to get where they need to go.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user man pikin

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