Equitable Transportation for All

The current U.S. paratransit system limits those with disabilities from full participation in their communities, which can pose barriers to accessing essential needs like health care or employment.

man in wheelchair waits at bus stop for accessible public transportation

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Public Health Post is pleased to publish the 2nd place entry in this year’s student essay contest, written by Elizabeth Izampuye. 

Thank you to our judges and for all of the students who took the time to enter this year’s contest by writing about a public health policy that should be prioritized this year. 

Congratulations, Elizabeth. Here is her appeal to Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.

Dear Mister Speaker,

Your past efforts to enact policies that improve our country’s transportation infrastructure show your dedication to making our transportation accessible for all Americans. Yet, an estimated 15 million people in the U.S. have trouble accessing adequate transportation, and of these, 40% are disabled. Transportation is vital to quality of life because it increases societal engagement through access to employment, health care, food, and recreational activities. Individuals with a disability rely on public transportation more than their able-bodied counterparts, and thus it is necessary that you also support the advancements of public transportation systems with services for the disabled.

The passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA) created a legal way to ensure that public transportation systems provide disability accommodations. One outcome of the law was the development of a nationwide paratransit system, which specifically serves individuals with a disability. The paratransit is a door-to-door, shared-ride mode of public transportation for individuals who cannot use regular, fixed transportation routes like buses or subways. Typically a minibus or large van, paratransit services operate during the same days and hours as regular transit systems, but individuals must call in to reserve their pickup and drop-off times. Having a disability does not make someone qualified. Each state or region has its own evaluation criteria to determine if a person needs the service or if they can use regular public transportation despite their condition. Additionally, each state may refer to the paratransit system differently depending on the region it services: SacRT GO for San Francisco, California, and The RIDE for Boston, Massachusetts, are just two examples. While operational differences exist by state and region, the guidelines for implementing paratransit services issued by the ADA remain standard for all states.

Since its implementation, the paratransit system has been the primary mode of transportation for individuals with disabilities. Despite the requirements issued by the ADA to create a more inclusive environment for disabled riders, thousands of lawsuits and complaints against the ADA have been made each year since its passing around poor policy implementation and enforcement. 2021 saw 9,000 cases alone. Common complaints about timing include getting picked up and dropped off late, excessive ride times, and having to schedule 24-48 hours in advance. Some riders find communicating with drivers unreliable and will experience long hold times over the phone, and unexplained missed pickups. While not as frequently studied, poor driver attitude and a lack of disability etiquette are problems riders also note as negatively affecting their ride. With these examples in mind, it is clear that the ADA’s policies surrounding the paratransit system need to be evaluated to reduce complaints and improve rider experience.

One such policy could be reintroducing the Disability Access to Transportation Act (DATA) for the next legislative session. This bill was proposed in July 2020 and again on June 10, 2021, but ultimately did not pass into law either time. One of the bill’s paratransit-related policies aims to address long wait times between rides by creating a one-stop pilot program. In this program, the paratransit would wait at least 15 minutes at the location of a passenger they dropped off if they needed to run a quick errand, such as using an ATM. Another policy would require the Department of Transportation to file yearly reports of complaints, which could hold them accountable to ensure the complaints were resolved each year. Both approaches would help begin the process of making transportation a more positive experience for riders.

The fact that the DATA keeps getting reintroduced suggests that this issue is not being prioritized as much as it should be. Accessible transportation and fair treatment during these rides are civil rights. The current paratransit system limits those with disabilities from full participation and inclusion in communities, which can pose a barrier to accessing health care or employment. I ask that you support efforts to reintroduce DATA in the next legislative session to ensure that advancements to our country’s transportation infrastructure include accommodations for the disabled and a way to hold transit authorities accountable for the quality of their services.


Elizabeth Izampuye

Photo via Getty Images