Transit can be a lifeline to independence for individuals with a physical or mental disability. An estimated 28% of all Michigan adults report being limited in their mobility due to a health problem, with that number increasing to a predicted 2.4 million adults by 2030. For many of these individuals, mobility challenges severely impact their ability to access the most basic amenities. The services provided by public transit can be the best, if not only, transportation option. Strong funding for public transit can then make a big difference in providing mobility options for over a quarter of Michigan’s population.
Paul Palmer, a council member with the Michigan Developmental Disability Council, uses the Capital Area Transportation Authority system daily. Using a wheelchair, he has relied on the bus to get around the greater Lansing area for the past 20 years. He says service has improved over the years and more buses are equipped with ramps that can adequately accommodate his wheelchair. Despite improvements, he still encounters difficulties such as decreased service on weekends and poor winter maintenance of his bus stops. “Winter is harder,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many Michigan bus riders this past year. “My main stop was a sheet of ice.”
Most transit agencies across the state provide additional options beyond traditional fixed route services, including Dial-A-Ride or Americans with Disability Act (ADA) paratransit, for individuals unable to use the regular service. The Ride in the Ann Arbor area offers A-Ride, a shared-ride, demand-response public transportation service. Passengers must qualify for the A-Ride fare card by demonstrating barriers to their ability to independently board, ride or navigate a traditional bus or use a bus stop. A one-way trip on the A-Ride costs $4 for same-day service, which includes the fare of one personal care attendant or guest and door-to-door assistance, if necessary. Seniors with a designated Senior Card are also eligible for similar shared ride services.
Paratransit is an important service within our full transportation system, but it doesn’t come without challenges. Each fixed route provider must fulfill federal requirements to provide comparable paratransit or other special services to individuals with disabilities. In Michigan, each provider distributes an ADA eligibility card usable only within their system, which creates a barrier when moving between transit systems where the specific agency’s ADA card is no longer valid. Riders are then responsible for paying the full fare, a hardship for those on fixed incomes.
Trans4M member, Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC), is part of the Disability Network of advocates across the state working for better transportation options accessible by all people. The 2010 Kent County Transit Needs Assessment estimated that the market size of the Dial-A-Ride service Go!Bus, (approximately 15,500 riders) exceeded those of the fixed route service The Rapid, (approximately 12,900). Ridership on both services increased in 2013, following a national trend in increased transit ridership. In 2013, the Go!Bus paratransit service increased ridership by over 3% from 2012 while The Rapid ridership increased by over 5%.
In May, DAKC conducted a “Transportation Simulation” to educate participants about the value of the bus system in Grand Rapids with a focus on accessibility for individuals with disabilities. For a few hours, individuals were asked to experience the bus while accompanying either a blind individual or person using a wheelchair. Small groups, guided by DAKC staff who specialize in independent living training, boarded the bus and rode to select destinations. They showed participants, some of whom had never ridden public transit, how to read a bus schedule, use the fare box, and navigate across busy streets to access connection points.
The simulations illustrated to individuals not familiar with the public transit that riding the bus can be an enjoyable and stress-free experience. But it also illuminated the challenges faced by persons with disabilities who have to navigate the often inaccessible streets, sidewalks, bus stops and buses themselves. Kim Frost, Access Specialist with DAKC, stresses both the benefits and challenges of transit for those with disabilities, “Good public transportation is critical for people with disabilities. Even a good transit system, though, is limited by the infrastructure it uses. Bus stops without sidewalks can leave people stranded if they can’t walk through the grass, and bumping along through pot holes can aggravate injuries. The best transit systems are continually working to improve, and working at all levels to make sure that we’re moving people where they need to go instead of focusing on moving vehicles.”
Written by: Laurel Burchfield, Coordinator, Transportation for Michigan