By Doug Shinkle
As the United States celebrates the 30th anniversary of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is illuminating to look at the current status of transportation and mobility for Americans with disabilities.
The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination in a myriad of forms, including the provision of transportation from public and private service providers. However, Americans with disabilities continue to suffer from a lack of reliable, accessible and affordable transportation options.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), 25.5 million Americans over the age of five have travel-limiting disabilities. 13.4 million are ages 18 to 64 and 11.2 million are over 65 years of age. Only a fifth of working age adults with travel-limiting disabilities work full- or part-time, compared to three quarters of adults without a disability. And people with disabilities often quite simply lack reliable transportation options. BTS shows more than 20% of non-workers and 12% of workers age 18 to 64 with disabilities live in a household without a vehicle.
Almost 60% of respondents to the 2017 National Household Transportation Survey that reported a travel-limiting disability indicated they used one or more devices to aid their mobility, such as walking canes (36.7%), walkers (22.9%), wheelchairs (11.6%) and motorized scooters (4.4%), to name a few. Americans with disabilities on average simply take fewer trips, reflecting the reality of fewer transportation options.
People with disabilities ages 18 to 64 use “local transit” such as buses, subways and commuter rail for a higher share of trips than people without disabilities according to the BTS. The ADA required transit agencies to adapt vehicles and stations to make it easier for people with disabilities to use public transportation; the BTS notes that “while most transit vehicles are ADA-compliant, a smaller percentage of stations are ADA-compliant.”
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided $25 billion to help public transit agencies address a precipitous decline in ridership and revenues since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
However, the TransitCenter reports some transit agencies across the nation are close to expending all of their CARES funding, leading to further decreases in transit frequency for both fixed-route and para-transit services that Americans with disabilities rely on. Furthermore, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities is asking for funding assistance for private nonprofits such as Easterseals that provide transportation services for people with disabilities and other groups.
One of the common methods for states to try to effectively meet the transportation needs of older Americans, people with disabilities and low-income populations is the creation of State Coordinating Councils (SCCs). Created in 1976 by the state of Iowa, SCCs generally seek to ensure the effectiveness, efficiency of and accessibility of transportation services throughout a state.
Most commonly, SCCs inventory existing transportation programs and resources, identify inefficiencies or gaps in service, participate in coordinated planning efforts and work toward solutions that improve mobility for system users. For example, in Vermont, the Public Transit Advisory Council plays a role in transportation planning and allocation of funding.
At least 19 states and the Northern Mariana Islands have active coordinating councils or working groups that effectively serve as SCCs.
One example is Maine’s Public Transit Advisory Council, created by lawmakers in 2015 to advise the state Departments of Transportation, Labor and Health and Human Services on public transportation policies and priorities. Specifically, the Transit Advisory Council is charged with evaluating needs, recommending levels of service, identifying funding requirements and seeking maximum coordination of resources.
The SCC has focused on transportation needs of veterans, transit workforces, age-friendly community development and outreach strategies to older adults, people with disabilities, low-income residents, tribal members and immigrant populations. In 2019, Maine’s law was amended (LD 1578) to require its SCC to meet no less than once per year and to include a progress report on recommendations in the most recent statewide strategic transit plan and locally coordinated plans.
In 2020, Tennessee created the “Tennessee Accessible Transportation and Mobility Act of 2020” (SB 1612), which requires the state DOT to establish an Office for Accessible Transportation. The bill requires a report by Jan. 31, 2022, that includes a detailed statement of the Office’s mission and scope of responsibilities, a five-year strategic plan and a report on accessible transportation. This may be the first office of its kind in the U.S., and the bill’s sponsor, Tennessee Senator Becky Massey, will discuss the office’s creation on Thursday, July 23 as part of NCSL’s ADA30 Virtual Meeting Series.
This piece is part of NCSL’s yearlong celebration of ADA30, and ongoing partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy’s State Exchange on Employment & Disability (SEED). SEED partners with intermediary organizations like NCSL to ensure that state and local policymakers have the tools and resources they need to develop and disseminate meaningful policies related to disability-inclusive workforce development.
Douglas Shinkle is NCSL’s Transportation Program Director and Jonathon Bates is a Policy Associate in the Transportation Program.