All people, regardless of their ability level, should have access to convenient and safe transportation options. Mobility is an essential component of quality of life. Nonetheless, people with disabilities or limited mobility often have limited access to transportation options.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities. It applies to employment, public transportation, and public accommodations. All state and local government programs, activities, and services may not discriminate on the basis of disability.
Ensuring safe pedestrian travel requires streets, intersections, curbs, and other infrastructure to comply with the ADA. The goal is to make transportation facilities and services accessible and safe for all people, including older adults and people with disabilities.
In 2011, the Access Board, an independent government agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities, issued Proposed Accessibility Guidelines for Pedestrian Facilities in the Public Right-of-Way. However, the Department of Justice still has not adopted these guidelines. When it does, they will become enforceable under Title II of the ADA. In the interim, the Department of Transportation identifies these as the current best practices in accessible pedestrian design. Among the many issues that these guidelines address are crosswalks, curb ramps, street furnishings, signals, parking, access for pedestrians who are blind, wheelchair access to on-street parking, and constraints posed by space limitations, roadway designs, and terrain.
In addition, Title II of the ADA also requires state and local governments to develop ADA transition plans that remove existing barriers to travel, which must:
- identify corridors where sidewalks are nonexistent but are needed,
- inventory physical obstacles and their location,
- provide adequate opportunity for residents with disabilities to offer input into the transition plan,
- describe in detail the methods the entity will use to make the facilities accessible,
- provide a yearly schedule for making modifications,
- name an official or position responsible for implementing the transition plan, and
- set aside a budget to implement the transition plan.
The ADA requires all new buses and rail cars to be accessible to people with disabilities. The ADA also requires that demand-responsive services, which do not operate on a fixed route, must demonstrate equivalent service for individuals with a disability. For example, a demand-responsive provider may provide services in buses and vans that are not accessible as long as equivalent service is available for people with disabilities in accessible vehicles.
The ADA and some states prohibit taxi and transportation network company drivers from discriminating against people with disabilities. For example, drivers must transport a wheelchair when they can fit it in the car (see also this chapter’s Transportation Network Company policy in Mobility on Demand). Taxis are required to purchase wheelchair-accessible vehicles when purchasing new vans, but this may not be enough to satisfy the demand.
Municipalities have put in place a range of programs to expand access to accessible vehicles. For example, some municipalities that require an authorization, commonly known as a medallion, to operate a taxi are providing them at a reduced cost for drivers with accessible vehicles. In addition, some taxi companies contract with the local public transportation authority to provide accessible transportation services and then make these wheelchair-accessible vehicles available for regular taxi service when they are not providing service under such contracts.
Some transportation network companies (TNCs) are exploring options to ensure compliance with the ADA and expanding access for people with disabilities. These include:
- requiring training for all drivers on ADA legal requirements;
- offering services from drivers who have received additional training on how to best assist older adults and people with disabilities;
- referring passengers who cannot be accommodated to local, accessible vehicle dispatch services;
- partnering with private transportation providers to tap their fleets of wheelchair-accessible vehicles and trained drivers; and
- removing drivers who do not comply with the ADA.
Airplanes: Although the ADA does not apply to air travel, the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits discrimination against air travelers with disabilities. Unlike the ADA, however, the 1986 law does not guarantee equal access for people with disabilities or provide injunctive relief in court (though administrative relief is available). People with disabilities continue to experience many barriers to the use of commercial aircraft and believe that enforcement efforts need to be strengthened. Recent efforts may help rectify the problem. The Department of Transportation (DOT) published in 2022 the first-ever Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights. In addition, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provided funding for Federal Airport Terminal Grants to improve accessibility of gates, security, bathrooms, and airport drop-offs and pickups.
Passenger vessels: The ADA covers passenger vessels, including ferries, excursion vessels, sightseeing vessels, and cruise ships. DOT rules, in effect since 2011, address service issues under the ADA. Passengers with disabilities should be able to experience all aspects of a cruise or other passenger vessel, as do passengers without disabilities. For example, cruise operators are required to ensure that passengers with disabilities can board and get off a vessel through lifts, ramps, boarding chairs, assistance from personnel, and the like. In addition, the Access Board has drafted accessibility guidelines establishing standards for the construction or alteration of passenger vessels, but they have not yet been approved.
Station infrastructure: Newly constructed or reconstructed transit stations and bus stops, along with ticket-vending equipment, must be accessible to people with disabilities. The IIJA created a new discretionary grant program named All Stations Accessibility Program, known as ASAP, to retrofit subway stations to be accessible to riders requiring an elevator or ramp.
Congress required Amtrak to make all stations accessible by 2010; however, Amtrak did not meet this deadline. The Justice Department determined that Amtrak discriminated against people with disabilities by failing to meet the deadline. The problem persists today. In 2021, The Amtrak Office of the Inspector General reported that only 74 of 516 stations were ADA-compliant
The ADA requires public transportation providers to make infrastructure accessible. In addition, public transportation providers must offer door-to-door wheelchair-accessible paratransit services for people with disabilities who cannot use fixed-route transit and live within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed route. The coverage area and days and hours of service must be comparable to the fixed-route service.
ADA paratransit service consists of curb-to-curb or door-to-door service on wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The total fare charged to the customer cannot be more than twice the base fare for the fixed-route service. However, the cost of providing paratransit services is more than triple the cost of providing fixed-route services, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The funding need for specialized paratransit is increasing for several reasons. First, people with disabilities are becoming more integrated into mainstream employment and community activities and thus need more services. Second, some agencies no longer offer transportation for clients eligible for complimentary paratransit trips. Finally, many paratransit providers have difficulty with clients not showing up for scheduled trips, diminishing the resources available for others who seek services. At the same time, riders in some areas complain that existing paratransit services are expensive and not dependable.
Some communities are experimenting with new on-demand ADA paratransit models in the form of microtransit or partnerships with TNCs.
Access for people with disabilities
Policymakers and the private sector should meet the transit needs of people who are older, frail, or have disabilities. This includes:
- encouraging the development of accessible private transportation services,
- removing barriers that prevent people with disabilities from using sidewalks, and
- ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities in commercial aircraft and passenger vessels.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Congress should provide adequate funding for ADA enforcement activities. It should utilize the higher federal match for compliance with the ADA. Congress also should amend the ADA to explicitly prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities by private transportation services.
Public transportation providers should identify and implement cost-effective measures that expand ADA paratransit eligibility and service beyond the minimum mandated by the ADA.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Administration for Community Living should develop guidelines and provide technical assistance to transit authorities on making eligibility decisions under the ADA and providing information on available alternatives to people of all ages with disabilities.
The FTA also should:
- provide education about ADA rights and the use of accessible transportation;
- ensure the accessibility of all transportation services offered to the public, including through monitoring of all public transportation providers, enforcing regulations, and providing technical assistance to local transportation agencies and authorities; and
- promote research on how to reduce paratransit service costs while improving quality and dependability.
Specifically, the FTA should use its authority to:
- more vigorously enforce ADA regulations,
- conduct compliance reviews,
- investigate complaints, and
- impose meaningful sanctions for failures to comply with ADA regulations.
Congress should also ensure the accessibility of all transportation services offered to the public by aggressively monitoring and enforcing timely ADA compliance by all transportation providers, including intercity and over-the-road buses.
Local governments should encourage the development of accessible private transportation services (e.g., taxis) through such means as economic incentives, ordinances, and programs that designate medallions for accessible vehicles.
State and local jurisdictions must comply with the ADA by removing access barriers that prevent people with disabilities from safely using the sidewalks.
State and local government should proactively develop and implement transition plans to ensure communities are fully accessible to people with disabilities.
State and local jurisdictions must safely accommodate pedestrians with disabilities by implementing the best-practices guidelines in the 2011 Proposed Accessibility Guidelines for Pedestrian Facilities in the Public Right-of-Way.
Congress should encourage the Department of Justice to adopt the Proposed Accessibility Guidelines for Pedestrian Facilities in the Public Right-of-Way.
Congress should ensure the accessibility of all transportation services offered to the public by aggressively monitoring and enforcing timely ADA compliance by all transportation providers, including intercity and over-the-road buses, Amtrak, and ferries.