With a recent report released by the U.S. Access Board with recommendations on making the nation’s trains accessible, it’s a good time to revisit what’s improved and what has not for people with disabilities who want to travel.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
In our last transportation-related blog post, we reported that the federal Department of Transportation had issued new rules to improve air travel for people with disabilities. Mandated changes included “making all airport kiosks that print boarding passes and luggage tags accessible within ten years, and giving space for wheelchairs priority on airplanes.”
While many of these modifications have not yet been implemented, a recent study by the “Open Doors Organization” found that air travel by people with disabilities was higher in the last 12 months than at any time ever before.
“The aviation industry’s investments not just in accessible facilities but also customer service and disability awareness training are clearly paying off,” reported Open Doors Founder and Executive Director Eric Lipp. “It’s true that a majority of passengers with disabilities still encounter obstacles, but we’re moving the right direction.”
People with disabilities reported fewer air travel-related obstacles in 2015 compared to the last Open Doors study on the subject in 2005 (65%, rather than 82%) and reported 14% fewer obstacles with airlines (72%, compared to 84% in 2005). The numbers indicate that the air travel experiences of people with disabilities still aren’t great—Lipp’s headline “Barriers to Access in Aviation Show Steep Decline” might be a little optimistic—but the trend is positive.
On the rail-travel front, a significant report from the United States Access Board was released in July updating the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for trains for the first time in 24 years. The report includes guidelines addressing rail car communications, boarding procedures, circulation and seating.
The Board’s advisory committee—which included representatives from advocacy groups, rail car manufacturers, transit operators, trade groups, and other stakeholders—came together to advise on “matters related to the revision and update of the guidelines addressing transportation vehicles using fixed guideway systems subject to the ADA.”
Their specific recommendations include that new vehicles, even if built to old/historic plans, meet new construction requirements; that Personal Rapid Transit cars each be accessible, with 32 inch entry doors and one accessible seating location; and that modes of rail transport not defined in the report be accessible, with the level of accessibility reviewed and established by the appropriate regulating body.
The committee’s report and related material is available on the Board’s website at www.access-board.gov/rvaac.
In the last two years, significant gains have been made in relation to New York City taxis, including the Accessible Dispatch website and phone app, which we mentioned briefly last summer. Launched in 2014, Accessible Dispatch allows people with disabilities in Manhattan to request an accessible taxi and have it dispatched directly to their pickup location, rather than waiting for one of the city’s 800 accessible yellow cabs (out of the 13,000 total taxis roaming the streets). The tool is a helpful bridge while additional accessible taxis are added to the fleet in the coming years.
In other exciting news, the “Taxi of Tomorrow” design was officially unveiled in New York City on September 1, and will hopefully set the new standard for yellow cabs. The Nissan NV200 is wheelchair accessible and features skylight roofs and charging ports for electronics. It will gradually phase out existing cabs when drivers update their vehicles. The New York Times reports that “while some owners can still choose from a short list of hybrid and wheelchair-accessible vehicles, taxi officials said 80 percent of the city’s yellow cabs could eventually be NV200s.”
Uber—An (inaccessible) Taxi Alternative
Perhaps the most notable update to the transportation landscape since our last blog has been the explosion in popularity of Uber—an app-based taxi alternative—in the United States and around the world. Similar to other private car services in New York’s boroughs, Uber drivers use their own cars and operate on their own schedule, but they pay a fee to Uber to be part of their driver network. Customers find Uber vehicles via a slick and easy-to-use phone app; vehicles all have GPS tracking; and customers can rate their satisfaction with each trip, which may lead to better driver service.
Uber (along with its counterpart Lyft) is now such a phenomenon and has been so damaging to taxi popularity in some cities that cab and limo drivers worldwide have been protesting the company’s expansion and pleading for regulations to monitor its growth. Customers, meanwhile, are happy to have additional transportation options and to receive quicker, more professional service.
Unfortunately, there’s one major stumbling block for consumers: While most regular taxi fleets include a percentage of accessible cabs, Uber has no guidelines relating to wheelchair access. They set no expectations or requirements for Uber vehicles to be accessible or for drivers to receive disability competency training.
For a company that is revolutionizing city travel, the omission is significant, and has not gone unnoticed by members of the disability community. A spate of recent articles, such as this Reuters story and a piece in the International Business Times, have voiced the frustrations of people with disabilities who are eager to make use of taxi alternatives, but who are limited by both the vehicles and by driver attitudes. The LA Times shared the experience of Andy Arias, a Los Angeles-based actor, this week:
“The conference Andy Arias planned to attend on a recent weekday was less than a mile from his apartment in downtown Los Angeles, but he called an Uber to stay out of the oppressive summer sun.
As Arias approached the sedan, the driver saw that he was in a wheelchair. He recalls telling her that he could slide into the back seat on his own, and she would only need to stow the folded, 10-pound wheelchair frame in the trunk.
But she refused to get out of the car. Eventually, a bystander lifted the wheelchair into the trunk.”
Uber recently launched a new feature enabling customers in outer New York City boroughs to request a wheelchair accessible vehicle, but for now, other cities have been left out in the cold.
So where to from here? At the moment, both Uber and Lyft are fighting lawsuits claiming that they have violated the ADA. (Plaintiffs in Texas state that the defendants “have failed to offer services required by the ADA to mobility impaired individuals,” while Uber and Lyft argue that as technology companies—not transportation companies—they do not have to adhere to the Act.) Combined with increasing media pressure and public protests (attended by a large number of ICS members), it will be interesting to see how the companies respond over the coming months.