Detroit Airport Proposal to Move Public Transportation Creates New Barriers for Individuals with Disabilities

A few minor edits have been made from the original published blog to clarify our concerns with loading options for the AirRide at the GTC.

Michigan public transportation will take a hit Sept. 22 if the Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) goes ahead with plans to relocate the boarding location of the two public transportation providers serving the airport. The airport plans to move boarding for SMART and AirRide from the curb of the McNamara Terminal to the Ground Transportation Center (GTC). Citing safety and congestion concerns, the Wayne County Airport Authority claims the move is in the best interest of SMART and AirRide passengers. But Trans4M and other transit advocates disagree, believing this change in location creates unnecessary barriers, specifically for those with mobility concerns.

Trans4M members the Michigan Development Disability (DD) Council and Programs to Educate All Cyclists (PEAC) took the AirRide on Monday to experience this change in location and catalogue their concerns regarding the impact this will have on ridership. Among those making the ride were Paul Palmer, chair of the DD Council Transportation Workgroup, and John Waterman, executive director of PEAC. Palmer, with his electric wheelchair, enabled us to visualize the potential challenges people with disabilities would face at the new GTC location.

DWT Blog 4

Paul Palmer, chair of the DD Council Transportation Workgroup, is helped from the AirRide bus at the current location for public transportation boarding at the McNamara Terminal.

We began at the current location of the AirRide and SMART boarding area, which is curbside at the McNamara Terminal, which serves international and Delta flights. From this location, passengers from AirRide, SMART, and the employee bus travel approximately 50 feet to the airport entrance. We were able to unload with ease. The area was quiet; we were the only bus for an extended amount of time and were able to use the wheelchair lift without any concerns of stopping traffic. There was plenty of room for more than one bus to unload. The doors in this location are glass, allowing passengers to safely wait indoors and watch for their bus without having to stand for extended periods of time on the curb.

Next, we traveled to the GTC to experience the proposed boarding level, which also serves cabs, charter buses, and shuttle services for hotels, parking lots and rental cars. We immediately noted several concerns with this area, especially for those with accessibility challenges. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airport facilities to provide accessible accommodations at the airport, including at the ground transportation facilities. Sec 10.4 of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines applicable to airports requires that “Elements such as ramps, elevators or other vertical circulation devices, ticketing areas, security checkpoints, or passenger waiting areas shall be placed to minimize the distance which wheelchair users and other persons who cannot negotiate steps may have to travel compared to the general public.”

The airport is using claims of safety to justify the move of the AirRide and SMART to the GTC, but we felt anything but safe. A hectic scene greeted us outside of the shelter, with buses zooming through the three lanes that are simultaneously used for parking and through-traffic. This GTC seems situated for quick pickup and departures, not for a full bus to unload passengers and accommodate a person with accessibility needs.

For a person with a disability, the area definitely does not feel as accessible as the current loading location at the curb of the terminal. First, the narrow sidewalk does not provide enough space for a person in a wheelchair to wait comfortably while also allowing other passengers, often with large loads of luggage, to maneuver their way to their buses. Palmer repeatedly expressed discomfort as he attempted to move his chair through the crowds of people and luggage, many of whom didn’t attempt to make room for him to pass.


Palmer waits at one of the covered shelters at the GTC, the new proposed location for public transportation boarding at McNamara Terminal. This was the only protected shelter as we waited for buses, and did not provide enough room for a person using a wheelchair to wait comfortably without blocking access to other passengers.

Second, the covered shelters—which are supposed to provide a little protection against the cold with walls and heat lamps—are not large enough for someone who uses a wheelchair to rest without blocking entrances completely to other passengers. Palmer was unable to maneuver around inside the shelter when attempting to situate himself under the heater. He was incapable of turning himself around and would also become trapped in the shelter if anyone else sat on either side of him.

“A person with a wheelchair may feel like they’re in the way of other customers here. You shouldn’t ever feel embarrassed to have your wheelchair while you wait to board the bus,” said Waterman while we waited.

Finally, the area for loading and unloading passengers appears to present a whole host of new problems for buses, such as the AirRide, with a large wheel chair lift. With the shelters, trash cans, and rental structures for the baggage carts, there doesn’t appear to be enough room to deploy the lift. The painting on the road looks as though buses are supposed to park in the first two lanes in order to board with passengers walking in front of buses to reach their intended bus. With the sheer number of buses using this area, this would seem to be a larger concern for congestion and safety for the airport than the quiet area we encountered at the current stop for public transportation.


Numerous buses, including charter buses and shuttles to hotels, parking lots, and rental car agencies, zoom past at the GTC. This is the proposed location for SMART and AirRide buses to conduct boarding beginning on September 22, but there isn’t designated parking that would easily permit AirRide to safely use their wheelchair lift.

                Beyond our worries for individuals with disabilities, the new location is concerning for any passenger traveling from DTW. The outdoor location for the GTC provides little shelter from harsh Michigan winters, and the boarding zone designated for AirRide and SMART is at the far end of the center, approximately 100 yards from the indoor area. Passengers will either have to wait outdoors for the scheduled bus or quickly make their way to the boarding zone with their luggage once the bus arrives. That might not seem any different than asking passengers to wait outside for any of the other buses, charters or shuttles that use the GTC. But SMART and AirRide pick up passengers much less frequently than the ever-revolving shuttle buses, and there is no information available to notify passengers of delayed buses. With the convenient cab service set up within the enclosed hallway, many passengers with means may choose to use this service instead. But the cost-effective, accessible service provided by the AirRide and SMART are the only options available to many airport users.

The most concerning trends we encountered during our visit are:

  • Individuals with disabilities already face a host of challenges while using air travel, and the GTC at this terminal is one more unnecessary hurdle for them to overcome. Not only was the waiting area congested and unorganized, but we had difficulty finding the correct elevators and the right location for where the bus would be boarding. “It’s a hurdle,” Palmer said, “I don’t know where to go.”
  • In 2012 Travel + Leisure magazine ranked DTW as one of America’s best airports, with one caveat: “The airport fell short only when it came to public transportation options—not surprising considering you’ve landed in the Motor City.” This continues to be an embarrassment for transit advocates in the state. With our only existing public transportation options being relocated to the GTC in this way, we fear that DTW fails to recognize the value of public transit to and from the airport, and that future attempts to remedy this will likewise be dismissed and relegated to the most inconvenient of locations.
  • There has been no public engagement regarding this change. During our visit we didn’t see any prominent signage announcing the new location, and only one brief line is listed under the Ground Transportation section of the airport website. The Wayne County Airport Authority (WCAA) Board doesn’t include this item in their agenda for their September board meeting on September 18, nor was it an item on their August agenda. As far as we can see, there has been no attempt to garner public comment on this issue or to seek input from riders or service providers.

Trans4M members are mobilizing around this issue with the limited amount of time we have left, and invite you to participate. Two important meetings will occur on Thursday, September 18 and are open for public comment. The first is the meeting of the Michigan State Transportation Commission in Lansing at 9:00 am. The second is the WCAA board meeting at 2:00 pm. Trans4M members will provide comment at both of these meetings, and we encourage you to join us. This is the last opportunity to speak out against the relocation before the scheduled move on September 22. At this point, our best course of action is to ask that the airport put a hold on their plans so that the public can have time to properly be included in the process and concerns about accessibility can be addressed.

If you would like to join us, please contact Laurel Burchfield, Trans4M Coordinator, at or 517-999-0411.

Written by Hannah Lensing, Trans4M Intern, and Laurel Burchfield, Trans4M Coordinator

4 Comments on “Detroit Airport Proposal to Move Public Transportation Creates New Barriers for Individuals with Disabilities

  1. And I thought Detroit was trying to improve their public image, not so. I am 70 yrs old and have a disability which requires me to use a cane because I have a little balance and that cannot walk and snow or ice. The Michigan Flyer has been terrific but this is Detroit. I use a Flyer 2 to 3 times a year to East Lansing and back. So now I have to look to Grand Rapids or Flint at greater cost.Thanks Detroit, you were living up to your old reputation. By the way, I guess the ADA Doesn’t mean anything anymore.

  2. The airport authority’s assertion that the new location will be safer and less congested is so ludicrous that it would be laughable, were it not pertaining to a serious issue, that being accessibility to a vital public-transportation link between DTW and East Lansing/Ann Arbor. There are no direct flights to either destination, which is in itself a hardship, as neither is exactly a remote, infrequently traveled-to outpost of civilization. The Michigan Flyer is currently the only public service standing between having to book two flights from major origin cities such as Boston to destinations such as Lansing or being forced to rent a car to travel there. The former “alternative” used to be an all-day ordeal: even a small delay in the first leg of the journey often meant a missed connection at the vast DTW facility. The latter “option” is for people with ample financial means and isn’t a good choice in any case if it can be avoided, as it simply adds to road congestion and pollution.

    I have yet to hear the airport authority’s recommendation for “safely” maneuvering luggage on an escalator. A SmartCart can’t be used to do that. It’s not a good choice for a packed elevator either.

    The airport authority’s outright contempt for a large segment of the flying public is so manifest in this decision as to be breathtaking. As for the photo it is disseminating as “evidence” of a heavily congested International Arrivals area: not once in my more than five years of using the Michigan Flyer (average, three times/year) have I ever witnessed more than a lone car or two pulling up on this section of road, even though my times of use have been mid-to-late afternoon, which would typically bear the brunt of “congestion.” I suspect the photo was doctored. Even if it’s authentic: as Michigan Flyer has pointed out, it’s more of a testament to the lack of traffic enforcement on the part of DTW than anything else. And as others have commented elsewhere, if the frequent employee shuttles that use the International Arrivals area are to be permitted to continue, the arguments for “congestion” and “safety” are exposed completely for the untruths that they are.

    DTW: your assault on travelers desperate to make timely, convenient connections to their destinations is gratuitous as well as illegal (remember the ADA?).

  3. Pingback: Indian Trails and Michigan Flyer File ADA Lawsuit Alleging Retaliation by Detroit Metro Airport – Press Release Rocket


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