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Transit makes world larger for people with disabilities

When I was 16 years old and all my friends were learning how to drive, I learned that driving was not an option for me due to a visual impairment. I lived in a small town with no public transportation. So, as my friends got their keys and gained their freedom, I watched my small world get smaller.

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Sure, friends and family members drove me around. But I couldn't get farther than a couple miles from my home on my own.

I was a straight A high school student with hopes of going to college, but also harbored significant doubts about my future. Without being able to drive, how would I ever be able to get a job, rent my own apartment, go shopping, visit friends, and live independently?

The answer: Public transportation. Since attending college, I have chosen to live in communities with good, reliable transit service. Thanks to the availability of transit, I've been able to pursue graduate degrees, work, live independently, own a home, volunteer in my community, shop, meet up with friends, you name it.

I can do anything—except drive, of course. And buses and trains connect me to almost every person, place, and activity in my life in the DC Metro region. It's pretty amazing when you stop to think about it.

There are many people in our region living with disabilities who cannot drive and who also share my experience. In fact, there are many people with more significant disabilities than I have. Some of them cannot access the fixed-route bus and rail system. They qualify for ADA complementary paratransit: MetroAccess.

Some people who qualify for MetroAccess need to use the service for every trip, whereas other people who qualify can use the fixed-route service some of the time and under certain conditions. This varies based on the individual's abilities and the conditions around the stops and stations and in the path of travel to the stops and stations.

There has been a great deal of discussion on how to address escalating paratransit costs in our region. Should the MetroAccess fare structure change? Should Metro cut back the ADA complementary paratransit service area to more closely reflect the ADA minimum requirements?

For most people who do not have disabilities and who do not rely on ADA complementary paratransit service to get where they need to go, the answers are an immediate and resounding "Yes" and "Yes." But from my perspective as a person with a disability who relies on the fixed-route, it is not that simple.

Here's what I do know. Mobility is extremely important to the disability community, and I can speak to this from experience. The disability community, and in particular those individuals who rely on ADA complementary paratransit service, should be included and engaged in the discussions regarding any proposed changes to MetroAccess.

I also believe that the focus of this dialogue on paratransit should be expanded to address how we can preserve and promote mobility for people living with disabilities in our region. This will require thinking outside of the bus, so to speak, and should include other modes beyond ADA complementary paratransit.

Efforts are already underway to reduce MetroAccess costs. For example, the Centers for Independent Living in our area will soon be teaching people with disabilities how to use the less costly fixed-route bus and rail service when they are able to do so. In addition, WMATA is about to implement a conditional eligibility process for ADA complementary paratransit.

However, we've got a long way to go before WMATA, the jurisdictions, and the disability community will all be ready for the major changes to MetroAccess outlined in the proposed FY2011 budget. Here's a Q & A illustrating why:

Question: Is there a central number a person with a disability can call to find and reserve another ride if ADA complementary parartransit service is no longer available in his/her area or becomes cost prohibitive?

Answer: No.

Question: Are there currently other accessible, affordable transportation options beyond ¾ mile of the fixed-route?

Answer: In many cases no, though this depends on the trip distance. Fortunately, we have accessible taxicab service in our region. However, lengthier trips will be cost-prohibitive for individuals at lower income levels and perhaps even to some at moderate income levels. In addition, I can share from experience that some taxicab operators refuse or attempt to avoid the very short trips. So, relying on taxicab service exclusively could be problematic for the disability community.

Question: How many communities beyond ¾ mile of the fixed-route have robust transportation voucher programs to fill in remaining service gaps?

Answer: None, but there are some good programs out there that could be expanded (i.e., in Fairfax County).

Question: How far along are we as a region with human services transportation coordination? Could that be part of the solution?

Answer: We're not too far along yet, but we have great potential in this area to increase transportation options for people with disabilities through coordination. This will take time, however, and will not happen soon enough to help us in FY2011.

Question: Why do people with disabilities who rely on ADA complementary paratransit service choose to live beyond ¾ miles of the fixed-route anyway? Why can't they just move if the service area changes?

Answer: Not all people with disabilities who rely on paratransit service choose where they live. Some people live with family members who have already made the choice for them, and others simply live where they can afford to live. That is often not within ¾ mile of a Metro station or bus stop.

And finally...

Question: If Metro cuts back the paratransit service area to ¾ mile around the fixed-route, how will people with disabilities who previously relied on the paratransit service be able to get a job, rent their own apartments, go shopping, visit friends, and live independently?

(Sound familiar? This is the same question I asked myself when I was 16 and did not have access to public transportation.)

Answer: I do not have a good answer. Neither does WMATA. Nor do the jurisdictions.

The truth is that some people with disabilities would have no transportation options. I remember all too well what it was like to have no transportation options, and I would not wish that upon anyone.

Penny Everline has served on transportation advisory groups at the local, regional, and national levels including the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council, the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board Transportation Committee, the Transportation Planning Board's Access for All Advisory Committee, and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) National Work Group. She recently left her job with Easter Seals Project ACTION, a national training and technical assistance center funded through the Federal Transit Administration, to focus on advocacy work at the local/regional level. She holds an MSW degree and teaches at George Mason University. 


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Very interesting post. In regards to disabled people living within the 3/4 mile boundary, I wonder if there should be some sort of rule mandating that all new housing built in that area have one or two apartments reserved for these people. Think of it as merging the handicap parking rule with the low-income housing rule.

by Teo on Mar 30, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

@ Teo: these people

They're not these people. They're normal people like you and me.

by Jasper on Mar 30, 2010 1:00 pm • linkreport

This is a great post that brings a perspective many people rarely see. I have a good friend who also cannot get a driver's license as a result of an seeing impairment. This has also affected his living habits, forcing him to choose colleges, housing, and jobs based on the public transit available and walkability, not easy for a Southerner.

All of this illustrates the point that there shouldn't be any part of Metro's jurisdiction that is not 3/4 of a mile from a bus route or metro stop in the first place. If they aren't servicing people with ADA qualifications, they also aren't servicing people who choose not to drive for every trip or cannot afford a car.

Everyone needs access to public transit, and I can't see why adding quality bus service for all wouldn't be cheaper than driving people with ADA qualifications more than three quarters of a mile for every trip. The need for MetroAccess simply highlights the flaws in Metro itself and how it is underserving large parts of the community.

by Tim on Mar 30, 2010 1:16 pm • linkreport

$100 million. That is what we spend on MetroAccess. I suspect that is for a very small group of people -- maybe around 5000. I've never seen the figures.

A luxury that we can't afford.

by charlie on Mar 30, 2010 1:22 pm • linkreport

@ Teo: these people
They're not these people. They're normal people like you and me.

by Jasper on Mar 30, 2010 1:00 pm

Actually, that's not true, they are not "normal" people, they have disabilities which is why this article has been written. If they were normal people, this would not be an issue.

Seriously lets lose the whole PC crap and just tell it how it is! People are disabled, that doesn't make them bad or less deserving, but they are not normal! The norm is not disabled.

by Blanche on Mar 30, 2010 1:26 pm • linkreport

Just a comment and a whole bunch of questions:

I saw a report on the news about a couple in St. Louis who relied on paratransit service that was slated to be eliminated. St. Louis drastically cut their bus routes and therefore the city was no longer required to provide the paratransit service. It was a really heart-wrenching story, but it got me thinking: how strange is it that we require those areas that have better public transit to provide additional services for the disabled, but communities that simply decline transit altogether get off free? Doesn't make sense to me.

Also, I'm not sure if someone has the skills and time to do this, but it would be interesting to see a current MetroAccess service map and what a new map would look like with the 3/4 mile restriction. Additionally, is MetroAccess required to service areas that surround non-WMATA transit locations (e.g. local bus lines (RideOn, ART) and commuter rail stations)?

Also, can someone pinpoint where the sharp increase in MetroAccess cost is coming from? Are there simply more people with disabilities using the service or is it part-and-parcel of the bigger problem or larger personnel expenditures at WMATA overall?

by Adam L on Mar 30, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport


They're not these people. They're normal people like you and me.

Jesus, you people are touchy.

by oboe on Mar 30, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

This article highlights one of the seeming contradictions in the DC Metro System. We have one of the few systems in the country that is (on paper) completely accessible to persons with disabilities. When they work, elevators and bus lifts make it possible for a person with a physical disability to get to where they're going with much greater ease. Anyone whose descended four flights of stairs to get to the NYC Subway or waited along a creaky wooden platform on Chicago's El knows that makes a real difference,

The problem, however, is that the overall system is in such disrepair that there is often no other option that to disembark at the train station before or after because elevators are broken and shuttle service is the only available option. How likely would you be to travel to one station, hop on a shuttle, and then travel back to your destination? Not many of us would want that inconvenience.

I think the author is very wise to point out some of the obvious questions - why not live closer? why not take a taxi? - that are often thrown out as reasons to discontinue to MetroAccess. There are many areas where I think WMATA can cut back - or, in the case of parking, increase the cost - to balance their budget.

Changing up MetroAccess, however, is just not an option. It's too important of a program.

by EmilyHaHa on Mar 30, 2010 1:46 pm • linkreport

The problem with the author's position is that these same hardships apply to lots of people without disabilities. Nannies and housekeepers take the bus toward the mansions in Potomac even late at night. I'm sure these people would like an affordable door-to-door service, too, but it's very expensive to provide that. Sure, they rely on transit to get to their jobs and many can't afford cars, but because they are ambulatory, they don't qualify for a subsidized taxi service like MetroAccess.

Furthermore, it doesn't seem that the current MetroAccess guidelines account for income. A rider who is disabled and middle-class is more entitled to convenient service than is an ambulatory person who lives below the poverty line. It's the law as mandated by the ADA, but there's a lot of merit to the argument that this situation is unfair.

Furthermore, for many ambulatory people who can't afford cars, walking one or two miles from the fixed route is out of the question, especially along suburban roads with no sidewalks. It will likely strike such people as unfair that WMATA won't pay for them to take a taxi, but will heavily subsidize a MetroAccess taxi trip to the same inaccessible location solely on account of the passenger's disability, ability to pay notwithstanding.

by Eric F. on Mar 30, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

How about the government just upgrade all transit systems to make them fully accessible for the disabled enough of this separate but equal bulls**t.

What is the reason for having the MetroAccess and all other systems like it. It just creates an idea that the disabled can not get around so that they need to have there own system for different things it is like the old Jim Crow laws of the south but based on Disability or Ability instead of race.

There needs to be a lawsuit for Discrimination on this; it is discriminating the Able-bodied vs the Disabled.

How much would it cost to make every station, bus stop, train, bus and all sidewalks completely accessible for the disabled vs MetroAccess.

by kk on Mar 30, 2010 2:32 pm • linkreport

I don't want to see cuts in MetroAccess.

I also don't want to see cuts in bus and rail, but it's time to face the music and realize that all three pieces of the metro pie are going to have to see cuts. You can't enact draconian cuts to bus and rail and leave MetroAccess untouched when the revenue from the regular bus and rail riders heavily subsidizes MetroAccess... how fair is that?

by JS on Mar 30, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

With regard to the normal vs. not normal debate... Approximately, one in five people living in the U.S. has a disability (based on Census data). Based on those stats, it's distinctly possible that writing this post might make me more "abnormal" than having a disability does :)

Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion, thoughtful questions, and posts.

by Penny Everline on Mar 30, 2010 9:08 pm • linkreport

@Eric: You are correct about the low-income transit issue, and there is a federal transit grant program specifically designed to provide services for low-income workers needing to reach jobs or job training.

@JS: Revenue from regular bus and rail does not subsidize MetroAccess; MetroAccess funding comes from the local governments.

by VS on Mar 31, 2010 10:59 am • linkreport

@VS: Thank you for both clarifications. I believe you are referring to Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) funds in your first comment.

by Penny Everline on Mar 31, 2010 11:31 am • linkreport

Making cuts to MetroAccess service is NOT the answer to solving Metro's budget problems. In fact, WMATA's budget proposals under consideration for MetroAccess will do much to hurt the service and little to close their funding gap. Many people with disabilities live on fixed and limited incomes (much more so than the general population) and the proposals under consideration would raise fares for MetroAccess customers by a percentage that is so much higher than for bus or rail users. How is this fair?

by HR on Mar 31, 2010 1:40 pm • linkreport

HR, it is true that MetroAccess is a small fraction of the system's budget. However, if you look at subsidy per passenger, you will see that the subsidy for MetroAccess is far, far, far above what non-disabled passengers receive for bus and train travel. If one views equality from a perspective of equality of resource allocation, that is, equality in government spending per person regardless of race, sex, disability, and other protected classes, the status quo is itself grossly unfair.

If you view equality from the perspective of outcomes, that is, differential spending per person regardless of race, sex, national origin, disability, and other protected classes, to achieve the same outcome per person, then the status quo is still unfair since MetroAccess serves the compact jurisdiction's far reaches that aren't even served by buses or trains. In other words, to reach much of northern Montgomery County by public transit, you essentially must be disabled for WMATA to serve you.

Reducing MetroAccess coverage to the .75-mile boundary would bring the service closer to fairness from the outcomes perspective.

by Eric F. on Mar 31, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

@VS: Thanks for the clarification, but one of my original comments still stands: In the spirit of fairness, if you're going to cut from 2 areas of the budget (bus and rail), you have to cut from the third one as well. I'd like to see all 3 go untouched, but that's unfortunately not the reality that we're dealing with.

by JS on Mar 31, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

@Eric F: You raise some good points. I recognize that the per passenger subsidy for MA is much higher than for bus and rail users, and I would go even further to say that it's hard to comprehend why there is such a large difference between the two. While people with disabilities may require additional accommodations to meet their mobility needs, MetroAccess really needs to make some changes to be more efficient. The problem is with WMATA and it's unfortunate that MetroAccess users are the ones who are going to be penalized. Also, I would like to add that 3/4 mi. is the MINIMUM requirement. I think it's dangerous to use this as a guideline for defining the MA service area - I think that people with disabilities deserve better than the MINIMUM. As Penny points out, public transport is often the only means for letting people with disability live their lives. I fear that the proposed changes could result in not only limited service, but also service that is too expensive for people with fixed incomes, further limiting their mobility. Equity in mobility and access is what MA is supposed to be about.

by HR on Apr 1, 2010 9:51 am • linkreport

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