Why Is Public Transit Still Inaccessible?

Published November 23, 2021

The year was 1978. The city of Denver had recently debuted a fleet of new buses that were supposed to make transportation around the city easier, but none of the buses had wheelchair lifts or other accessible features that would allow the disabled community to use them. A group of activists from ADAPT took to the streets. Climbing out of their wheelchairs at a busy intersection downtown and laid down in the streets, they chanted, “We Will Ride!” until the city agreed to make the buses accessible.

The group of activists at this event were named The Gang of 19 and this protest is frequently cited as one of the events that led to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

America has had thirty years since the ADA was signed into law and 43 years since this protest to make public transit accessible. But is it? Some people with disabilities are highlighting how hard transportation is for them – and why it keeps getting harder.

Many cities lack accessible transit

Across the country, people with disabilities are unable to use public transit systems. The Washington Post recently evaluated the use of transportation in multiple metropolitan areas and found them lacking. In Jackson, Mississippi, Scott Crawford shared how many of the buses still aren’t accessible because the wheelchair lifts are broken or malfunctioning. There were times when he was left on the side of the road waiting for another bus that might work.

“Mobility is freedom itself, period,” says Crawford. “Accessible transit gives people with disabilities the opportunity to work, engage and contribute to their communities. The alternative is tantamount to house arrest.”

In New York City, only 124 out of the 492 MTA stations are ADA-accessible (25 percent). While this is the biggest number of any system in America, it still falls short of where it should be. People with disabilities don’t even have a 50-50 chance that they can navigate a subway station, as most are built with steep staircases that become slick with ice in the winter.

There are similar challenges in other parts of the world. In London, only 80 out of 270 Underground stations (30 percent) feature step-free access, while 65 percent of people with disabilities use public transit at least once per week.

One resident shared how traveling by train is her least favorite way to navigate the city because it requires her to coordinate with so many people.

“The whole palaver of having to organize a ramp, the time you need to plan your journey, the long, complicated telephone conversation about booking the wheelchair ramp, and then having to arrive lots in advance and trust that they are going to have the right people to get you onto the right train,” says Isabelle Clement, director of the award-winning charity, Wheels for Well-Being. “Then, even scarier than that, is not knowing that somebody else is going to be there to do the same in reverse at the other end.”

Clement thinks trains are fantastic and says it’s a shame that it’s too stressful and creates too much extra work to try and use them.

People with disabilities are limited to private options

When public transit isn’t accessible, people with disabilities turn to private companies to get where they need to go. This increases their daily expenses – sometimes to the point of limiting how often they can leave the house.

Alisha Dicks, a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), shared her experience trying to get from her home to Memorial University. Dicks uses a power wheelchair, which is too heavy and big to be transported in a regular vehicle. As a result, she used a specialty transportation service which cost her $54 round-trip when she was enrolled at school.

“For three trips a week, that equals $162 a week — or $648 a month just for transportation,” writes Dicks. “At the time I was receiving $256 twice a month from the assistance program for disabilities, which didn't cover all of the transportation cost or my bills.”

This cost directly slowed down her learning process and created added stress. She tried to only schedule classes two or three times each week to limit the number of times she rode to campus. The cost of transportation was only one bill, as she also had to cover tuition and books. As a result, it took her five and a half years to complete a four-year program.

People with disabilities leave the house less

Between inaccessible public transit and expensive private transit (especially when rideshare companies like Uber charge wait time fees), many people with disabilities limit how often they leave the house. This is evident in how Dicks only tried to take classes a few days per week so she wouldn’t have to pay to get to campus. There are millions of people like her.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics shared that 25.5 million Americans have self-reported travel-limiting disabilities, of which 13.4 million are ages 18 to 64.

“Regardless of age, people with disabilities make fewer trips per day on average than people without disabilities,” reports the BTS. “The daily trip rates for people with disabilities and without disabilities has declined over time.”

Seven out of 10 residents with disabilities reduce their day-to-day travel because of their disabilities.

This means the majority of people with disabilities leave home less than they otherwise would, work less than they would like which limits their financial freedom, and enjoy fewer social or family engagements because of difficulties related to travel.

Thirty years after the passage of the ADA is public transit in America accessible to people with disabilities? No.

Advocates continue to fight for the Gang of 19’s rights

Almost half a century after the Gang of 19 took to the streets of Denver, many disability advocates are still fighting for accessible buses, stair-free metro stations, and affordable transit options. The ADA did not solve all of America’s accessibility problems, and other countries like Canada and the UK are also still working to improve their infrastructure.

If citizens with disabilities are going to be included in society, then it’s up to everyone to make sure they can arrive safely on time, stress-free, and without going broke.

To learn more about challenges implementing the ADA, turn to our physical accessibility guidelines. We also have a specific page for public transportation accessibility.

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