Achieving Accessible Community Transportation In Our Nation

By Chris Hart, ESPA Viewpoints Blog, July 10, 2013

Contributed by Chris Hart
Chair, ESPA National Steering Committee
Director of Urban and Transit Projects, Institute for Human Centered Design

Demonstartors, may in wheelchairs picket a Greyhound bus. Some wheelchair users have chained themselves to the bus.

Protesters chained to a bus before the passing
of the ADA (circa 1980s). (Photo by Tom Olin)

Achieving Accessible Community Transportation In Our Nation (ACTION) was once merely a concept that some radical transit leaders and a group of people with disabilities shared.  In 1988, Easter Seals Project ACTION was formed as a demonstration project and two years later the world changed.  On July 26th 23 years ago, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act ushered in a new freedom for people with disabilities, often initially in words only, to fully access our nation’s transportation systems.  ESPA was there at the forefront explaining requirements, providing training and highlighting best practices. Through the early years of trial and many errors, the nation has come to understand that everyone needs and benefits from accessible transit. Industry leaders such as Barry Barker, Bill Millar and Dan Graubauskas have helped small and large systems not only embrace the letter of the law but its spirit; driving home that separate is unequal, forging trusted working relationships with people with disabilities and working steadily toward 100% accessibility of all services including all rail stations.  These individuals and young leaders such as Laura Brelsford at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) have been and will continue to be the evangelists—as well as mentors—for the industry, thereby further raising the bar for future generations.  To be sure, there are some in the industry who are not fully onboard with such a human-centered vision yet, but these outliers will come around if only for the sheer reality of our nation’s changing demographics.

Each day nearly 10,000 Americans turn 65 and there are nearly 80 million Baby Boomers. Simultaneously, Millennials are delaying getting their driver’s license and when they do, they are buying fewer cars, opting instead to live in urbanized areas with good access to walking, biking, transit as well as car sharing services.  Delivering reliable and accessible transit that is human-centered is now commonly understood to be key to attracting and retaining these new riders.  Examples of human-centered design include providing real-time mobile apps, legible bus schedules and wayfinding systems that include more than just signage, seating of different types, redundant elevators that accommodate double strollers, conveniently located high contrast stanchions, grab bars, and passenger information systems.  The aforementioned examples are not prescribed by the ADA or U.S. Department of Transportation regulations but they have their roots in the ADA and its promise of equal access.  As such, these examples have steadily moved from being seen as best practice to basic transit industry 101 practice. There are few transit managers today that would accept a station design with small elevators unable to hold a couple of strollers, bikes, wheelchairs or scooters.  Likewise most would think long and hard about purchasing high-floor buses given how steps create boarding difficulties for many passengers and increase dwell time at each stop.  Quite simply, transit that is human-centered in its design and operation works for everyone including people with disabilities.

Today’s best practices such as mobility management, announcing all stops, 100% low-floor light rail cars and installing automatic gap fillers on trains will be seen in another 20 years as industry-standard practice.  Indeed some already are standard practice either here or overseas.  As transit becomes truly human-centered, I know that the physical and attitudinal barriers I encountered in the 1990s will largely be for the history books, and that in no small way is thanks to a group of pioneers who had this radical concept: Accessible Community Transportation In Our Nation!

Lead on, ride on!

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