Op-Ed: Remembering George H.W. Bush and the ADA

December 5, 2018

As the nation paused for the funeral of President George Herbert Walker Bush, his lasting mark on our transportation system shows through every time a bus kneels and deploys a ramp. Making transportation accessible to everyone is vitally important and has dramatically improved since his presidency. But his death should also remind us that transportation still has a long way to go to reach universal accessibility.

With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.– George H.W. Bush at the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 supplemented the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 instilling a shift from accommodating people with disabilities to creating an integrated physical and social society for people of all abilities. The bill was proposed by a Democratic congress in 1989, the year that President Bush took office. President Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990. Title II of the ADA includes provisions that require accessibility on public transportation and in public rights-of-way, such as sidewalks.

Of all the elements of society legislated to become more accessible for people with disabilities under the ADA, transportation has undergone one of the most thorough transformations over the years. While many aspects of employment, buildings, and communication services remain out of compliance with the ADA, public transportation services have made great strides in many places, as demonstrated in the chart below. ADA requirements for transit expand beyond the vehicle as well, specifying station design to include elevators and dedicated loading areas where needed, bus stop features such as a firm landing pad for a ramp to deploy to, and also requirements for sidewalks such as requiring five-foot wide sidewalks (or narrower with passing zones every 200 feet), less than two percent cross slopes, and less than quarter-inch vertical disjoints.

Source: APTA Factbook: 2017

However, a few notable exceptions to highly accessible public transportation can be found, mostly in areas with subway or elevated tracks that require elevator access to stations. Poor elevator maintenance and cleaning are common barriers for people with disabilities, but a simple lack of access is also prevalent in cities like New York, where only 23% of the NYMTA stations have elevator access.

Furthermore, poor or missing sidewalks can limit access to buses and trains, and paratransit services designed explicitly to provide point to point transportation for people with disabilities are often costlier and less convenient, often with requirements to book a day in advance and with unreliable wait times.

As mobility options continue to evolve, public transit agencies – which have an imperative to provide services for people with disabilities – face declining ridership and budgets forcing service cuts while private mobility providers – which do not have the same imperatives – such as ride hail start-ups grow. New mobility options including ride hailing, micromobility, and perhaps one day, autonomous vehicles, present an opportunity for enhanced mobility for people with disabilities, as long as they develop as inclusive, accessible services.

In its current form, the proposed automated vehicle legislation hardly touches on ADA accessibility, and the growingly popular low-speed automated shuttles that are being piloted across the country don’t classify as transit vehicles that must adhere to the ADA and are often not accessible for all people. And while ridehailing companies generally have accessibility policies and some cities require wheelchair accessible service options, most vehicles in the fleet are not fully accessible. Hopefully everyone, including transportation companies, will remember the importance of the ADA and make strides to serve all people equitably moving forward.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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