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  • Writer's pictureLaura McCamy

How to Improve Disability Access to Public Transit

Imagine you needed to get somewhere — a doctor’s appointment, work, a job interview, class, the store — and, instead of hopping on a bus or train or calling a Lyft or Uber, you had to apply and prove your eligibility, then, after waiting a month or more for the paperwork to clear, arrange for a ride at least a day in advance. Now imagine you had to repeat that same process in more than one county and transfer vehicles at the county line rather than getting door-to-door service. That’s what many people with disabilities who rely on paratransit in the Bay Area must do.

We spoke with two transit advocates and a Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) planner about what changes we need in order to make public transit easier and more accessible for people of all abilities. Paratransit was just the beginning.

“Nothing about us without us”

Christine Fitzgerald, a community advocate with the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, has had a disability all her life. She remembers trying to take a bus in the ‘70s when she was around 10 years old and finding that the lifts to get her wheelchair on didn’t always work. “For the last decade or two, they’ve moved on to the foldout ramps,” she said. “This is a marked improvement.” But it’s not enough, which is why she advocates for universal design (designing spaces so they are accessible to people of all ages and abilities) in transit, noting that all of us will benefit as we get older. “If it’s good for one, it’s good for all,” she says.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, was groundbreaking at a time when people with disabilities were often barred from public amenities by lack of access. However, more than 30 years later, advocates and planners are thinking beyond the requirements of the ADA to truly make transit accessible to people of all abilities.

Warren Cushman, a community organizer with Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL) and a 30-year advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, said, “One of the first things to understand is that the ADA is a floor, not a ceiling.” Drennen Shelton, a planner with the MTC, agreed. “Our baseline is the ADA,” she said, noting that although all transit agencies already comply with the law’s requirements, it’s not enough.

“My guiding principle is the phrase ‘nothing about us without us,’” Shelton said. “I know if I’m not checking in with my advisory groups, if I’m not picking up the phone to call a trusted community member and checking my idea with them, then I’m not doing my job.” She uses the disability community saying as a reminder that any planning exercise at MTC should involve the people it’s designed to benefit.

“Listening to the people with lived experience is key,” Cushman said.

The paratransit challenge

Bay Area transit agencies offer paratransit services to fill gaps in transit service for people who can’t walk or roll long distances to the nearest bus stop or train station. However, paratransit is often subcontracted to private operators, the fare is often higher than a fixed-route bus fare, and the service stops at the county line, requiring riders to get off and on if they need to travel between counties, a process that can be challenging and risky. And the need to schedule routes that vary from day to day means riders have to call ahead, so the service can’t accommodate last-minute needs. Most Uber and Lyft drivers can’t carry wheelchairs, and many disabled people live on fixed incomes, which could make those services hard to afford, even if they were available.

Photos courtesy of Christine Fitzgerald and VTA

“Some of the bigger challenges we have faced are service changes to fixed-route buses because this also affects paratransit,” Fitzgerald said. If an agency doesn’t run fixed-route buses on Sundays, it won’t run paratransit either, and that leaves people with disabilities who rely on public transportation with no options. Another challenge is when agencies remove stops, because the distance to the next closest stop may be too far for someone with a disability.

Progress and challenges

Change will not come easily. “One of the biggest challenges we face is that funding is often used as a reason not to improve the system,” Cushman said. Proposed solutions aren’t based on needs but on the limits of funding. “You’re stuck with a patchwork of unmet needs,” he said. A better approach would be to start with what’s needed and then look for funding. The funding-first approach often leaves people with disabilities without the services they need.

“If we had unlimited funds, we could have enough drivers and have enough resources for software that helps plan around the spontaneous trips that people would request,” Shelton said. “You could operate much more like an Uber or a Lyft does.”

Shelton noted that MTC has been more focused on paratransit recently, envisioning improvements like standardizing eligibility requirements for all the agencies, managing transfers across agencies, and allowing paratransit riders to pay with Clipper cards. “We’re looking to eliminate points of friction,” she said.

“The biggest success that I’m seeing in the transportation realm is the agencies I connect with are reaching out to the disability community,” Cushman said. “The biggest gap in terms of access is effective and integrative planning to meet the needs of people with disabilities.” He feels an integrated wayfinding plan coordinated through MTC is the best approach to make sure signage is clear and understandable across transit agencies.

Fitzgerald has also seen transit agencies respond to input from the communities they serve. For example, she tried a tri-fold ramp VTA was considering, and, she said, “There were a few of us that nearly fell off onto the sidewalk.” The agency chose a clamshell ramp for its buses instead.

Fitzgerald would like to see more one-seat services that would take people with disabilities door to door without the need to change buses. She hopes Bay Area transit providers will adopt innovative ideas she’s seen on her travels, such as flashing lights in the train platform to give a visual cue that a train is arriving, a vital assist to anyone with a hearing impairment.

Bay Area Transit Transformation Action Plan: Changes coming

According to Shelton, “unprecedented coordination and cooperation among the providers” is a driver behind the Bay Area Transit Transformation Action Plan, a roadmap to help Bay Area transit recover and thrive after pandemic changes in ridership. She noted that “one of the major tenets they’ve agreed to is accessibility.” In the past, agencies had assumed ADA compliance was enough, but now they’re looking to make their systems more disability-friendly than the basic ADA requirements.

To accomplish these goals, “there needs to be someone looking from a bird’s eye view at the entire system instead of 27 operators separately,” Shelton said.

One of the projects is a region-wide approach to signage. “The wayfinding project we have now is a really great start,” Shelton said. “We’re going to learn a lot and learn what our second-order and third-order projects will be after that.”

Shelton invites people to get involved with the accessibility committee of their local transit agency or the Policy Advisory Council Equity and Access Subcommittee at MTC. She noted that Zoom has made public participation easier, particularly for people who aren’t fully served by transit.

If you have an idea, you can even reach out to Drennen Shelton. “I love getting random phone calls or emails from people,” she said. You can reach her at

Cushman wants transit providers to “listen to people who have relationships with people with disabilities, like TransForm, organizations that invest in decision-making for people with disabilities.”

Transit accessibility is a goal we can all work toward. “If we are to be a really inclusive society and a society that honors equity,” Fitzgerald said, “we have to think outside the box and see the person seated across from us as not less than or other but part of us and about us.”


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