Getting There: Moving Forward in Transportation Accessibility

By Sam Kemp

How do you get around? Do you bike, drive, Uber? Maybe you take the train, or perhaps you’re close enough to walk where you need to go (lucky you!). Regardless, in today’s world, it’s easier than ever to get from A to B thanks to a rapidly advancing transportation landscape. However, as the transportation industry hurtles forward at breakneck speeds, there is an unfortunate fact about all modes of transportation that goes widely unnoticed: people are getting left behind because transportation, no matter what kind, is vastly inaccessible.

However, people have begun to pay much more attention to lapses in accessibility in transportation recently. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is an alarming imperative to investigate this issue, because transportation methods are moot if people can’t use them. The future of transportation relies on the industry’s decision makers prioritizing accessibility.

The Issue Itself

How inaccessible are different modes of transportation, really?

In the 2018 Left Behind Report, a New York-based report on studies about accessibility in ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft, it was found that riders requesting a wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) were only connected with a ride 55% of the time for Uber and just 5% of the time for Lyft. Combined, this is a mere 26% success rate. Not only that, but the average wait time for a WAV was up to five times longer than the wait time for a regular vehicle.

The difficulty does not stop at ridesharing apps – a Washington Post article reports that just one-quarter of New York City’s 492 subway stations are accessible, and that this fraction is actually above average compared to the rest of the country. The same article reports that, due to the tremendous inaccessibility of rail stations, buses tend to be more reliable – but for many folks with disabilities, bus routes are rendered inaccessible due to unsafe or impassable road and sidewalk conditions between one’s home and the bus station.

Accessibility does not only mean ease of use for disabled individuals; it also means the ability to use public transportation regardless of your location or income. For this reason, it is important to note the inaccessibility of public transportation for those who live in rural areas – almost 90% of America’s least efficient bus networks are located in rural counties where the average annual income is less than the national median, according to Cities Today.

So, What’s Being Done About This?

Thankfully, quite a lot. Things are looking up in terms of accessibility improvements across several modes of transportation.

Just last week, it was announced that the Federal Transit Administration “will provide $1.75 billion to make it easier for people to get on board at the nation’s oldest rail public transportation systems” thanks to a new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The funding will go towards retrofitting train stations with accessible infrastructure, such as updated elevators and ramps, new accessibility signage, repairs to older legacy stations, and even entire relocations of some train stations. $1 billion will also be awarded to 85 airports across the nation to make significant infrastructure improvements – 73 of which have specifically cited improvements related to accessibility.

Close to Home: Success in Portland

As mentioned earlier, improving accessibility in transportation does not only mean improving the experience of passengers with disabilities – it also means improving access to transportation by making it easier for everybody, especially those in underserved areas, to get around. We are seeing a lot of advancement in one of Broadhead | HMH’s home cities, Portland, in the form of improvements to rail and bus lines by Trimet, Portland’s main public transit system. Included in these improvements are: the launch of Trimet’s “Frequent Express” (FX) lines, consisting of a new type of bus and the creation of new bus lines aimed to reduce travel times by 20%; A Better Red, or the westward expansion of the MAX Red line by adding 10 more stations; and the Better Bus program, which aims to improve bus lines throughout the metropolitan area.

Another stride forward in Portland for accessible transportation is micro-mobility, which is defined by the Federal Highway Administration as “any small, low-speed, human- or electric-powered transportation device.” An example would be the infamous e-scooters seen all around Portland in the last few years. While micromobility is still very much a new and developing mode of transportation, it is proving to be growing in popularity: according to PBOT’s 2019 New Mobility Snapshot, Portland’s BIKETOWN bike-share system has garnered over a million trips since its launch in 2016, and various shared e-scooter systems saw 1.7 million trips over the course of two pilot programs launched in 2018 and 2019.

Micromobility has been especially helpful in reaching underserved neighborhoods – half of Portland’s Equity Matrix, or areas defined as being intersectionally disadvantaged, saw a considerable amount of usage of BIKETOWN bikes in 2019. Not to mention the BIKETOWN for All program, which offers free bike-share services to low-income individuals, or the Low-Income Pricing Plans offered by several e-scooter systems.

So, there’s a lot to be hopeful about when it comes to accessibility improvements in transportation right now, and we can expect to see much more progress in accessibility in the next few years as accessibility continues to become a larger priority in the future of transportation. It’s an important move forward in the transportation industry – getting around should be equally safe, easy, and frictionless for everyone. Let us know what accessibility improvements you’re excited about!