Pandemic Underscores Difficulties Accessing Transportation for People with Disabilities
2:28 PM PDT on April 21, 2020
“I’m stuck.” Mike, who’s blind and in his seventies, would normally have been out and about during the day. He runs a discussion group for people in San Francisco who are blind or have low vision, many of whom are also over 65. He rides BART to get to and from the meeting every Monday. But the last time they enjoyed coffee in one another’s company, and the last time Mike took BART, was on March 9th.
Later that week, Mike took the local bus to run some errands. He bought some shoes and got a watch repaired; he visited the bank. The next day he walked to a nearby restaurant to have lunch with a friend. Now, he's rethinking those activities. “I guess I was a little reckless,” he said.
Six months ago I conducted interviews for my dissertation research on the travel behavior and attitudes towards transportation of people with disabilities. Back then, I was mostly curious about whether and how these individuals—diverse in age, gender, disability, and other demographic characteristics—were using ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft. While these services are ubiquitous in most U.S. cities, they operate in a regulatory grey area when it comes to providing accessible services to people with disabilities.
Nearly everyone I talked to recognized the appeal of ride-hail, regardless of whether they used it. These curb-to-curb, on-demand services are undeniably convenient. This is particularly true for people who may not have other reliable options.
The Bay Area, where Mike and other interviewees live, is a transit-rich region, served by more than twenty different agencies. The region is much more accessible to people without a car than most places in the U.S. And by law, wherever there’s transit, comparable paratransit services must also be provided for disabled riders.
But in most cities, paratransit trips must be reserved one to two days in advance. Even if paratransit services were operating at peak efficiency (which they aren’t), they require a lot more planning than on-demand services. And not all people with disabilities are eligible to use them, as they are meant to be reserved only for those who absolutely cannot use fixed-route services. Furthermore, applying for paratransit eligibility can be a difficult and frustrating process, which keeps some potential riders from even trying.
Even in the best of times, many people with disabilities can have trouble getting access to reliable and convenient transportation. We are now at the worst of times. People with disabilities, like everybody else, still need to access essential goods, like food and medicine, and services, like medical care.
And, yet, many are stuck.
On March 20th, I emailed my interview respondents from the fall, asking if they would be interested in participating in a follow-up phone interview. I wanted to know how they were coping in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and stay-at-home response measures.
Mike was one of the people who responded. A long-time transit rider and active traveler, he was clearly feeling cooped up at home. “I have to find things to keep me busy, so I spend my time on the computer and I cook,” he said. He usually walks around a track at a nearby school for exercise, but since everybody else lately has the same idea, he’s found it a little too crowded for comfort.
So, like many of the interviewees I talked to, Mike has been staying in and figuring out new ways to get what he needs. He normally would walk or take the bus to a neighborhood grocery store or farmers market to pick up ingredients for dinner, but he isn’t sure which outlets are open now. And making the trip on transit, he felt, would be risky. What’s more, store employees usually guide him around and help find specific items. Mike and other interviewees who are blind or have low vision worried about this practice now. Could someone adequately assist them from six feet away?
To be cautious, Mike decided to instead try using a grocery delivery service. He said with some sarcasm that the experiment was “interesting.” The estimated delivery date for the order he placed was a week away. “That was the best I could do,” he said.
Mike was more concerned about accessing other essentials. He worried about what would happen in the event he was ill and needed urgent, but not necessarily emergency, medical care. Transit services have been cut drastically, and ride-hail, which he uses occasionally, has become much less available as demand has plummeted. “Boy, I’d have to take my chances, and probably go with a ride-hailing service," he said. "And hope that I’d get one. It would be tricky because, if I were ill, I’m getting in somebody’s car and I might get them ill. And they might be ill!”
David, another interviewee with disabilities, said that if necessary, he would probably just walk to the emergency room. It’s 25 or thirty minutes away on foot, he said. David has some difficulty with balance already, on top of profound congenital hearing loss. Given the fatigue that accompanies many cases of COVID-19, I wonder how he would do it. There is an emergency facility less than half a mile from my house--could I make it?
For Mike, David, and many others, there are no good transportation options that wouldn’t put them and others—including drivers, fellow passengers, family, friends, and neighbors—at risk.
On March 28th, the U.S. Civil Rights Office announced that they would not allow medical professionals to discriminate on the basis of disability and age when deciding who would receive care during the coronavirus emergency. Before these decisions are made, however, structural injustices embedded and embodied in our transportation system keep many people with disabilities from having the same opportunities to access care and other essential services as other people. These include, among other barriers, a lack of transit options in many suburban and rural areas, inaccessible facilities and vehicles, difficulty scheduling rides, and problems relying on paratransit to get to appointments with set times. During the pandemic, new transportation barriers are arising for disabled riders not only because services are lacking, but also because many are not sure how to operate accessible services safely.
On-demand transportation providers (like ride-hail services and taxis), transportation agencies, and public health authorities need to work together now to provide safe, subsidized rides and delivery services to people with disabilities. The $2.2 trillion relief bill signed into law on March 27th appropriates $25 billion to transit agencies to cover expenses related to the coronavirus response. This might partially fund ride-hailing/taxi partnership programs, like the Essential Trip Card program just announced in San Francisco. Ride-hailing companies should contribute too; Uber has already pledged ten million free rides and deliveries to “help move what matters” during the pandemic.
Additionally, all managers of equipped vehicle fleets, like transit agencies, paratransit operators, community and medical transportation providers, and even school bus companies, should think about how they can help. While it would be logistically challenging to coordinate new on-demand transit services for people with disabilities and others, like some healthcare workers, who also have few options but still need to get around right now, it would certainly be a worthwhile effort. Internationally, transit stakeholders are thinking about it.
We are experiencing a moment of great stress and tremendous transition. Vulnerabilities in our social support networks, including our transportation network, are more apparent than ever. It’s time to rethink how transit can serve people in the ways that they need. People with disabilities, and others who rely on public and shared services, need better access to transportation services now and looking ahead to a post-pandemic future.
Abigail Cochran is a doctoral student in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.
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