Who’s Responsible for Pedestrian Access to Mass Transit?
February 12, 2018
There is a mismatch between the ADA compliance of transit agencies of their vehicles and physical stations, and the non-compliance of the pedestrian infrastructure surrounding these transit stops which pedestrians need to traverse to reach their bus or train stop. Addressing the “first and last mile” problem of users being able to access public transit by car, bike, foot, or any other mode can boil down to addressing the first and last 20 feet when there is a missing curb ramp or tree root lifting the sidewalk pavers.
Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public transit vehicles and stations are required to accommodate persons with disabilities. Similarly, but under a different section of the law, sidewalks must be ADA accessible. These two ADA requirements stand in concert with each other, as accessing a train station or bus stop almost always includes at least a few feet of travel along a sidewalk, and how quickly the ramp deploys on the bus is irrelevant if a wheelchair user can’t get to the stop.
The ADA does require that bus stop boarding areas be connected to streets, sidewalks, or pedestrian paths by an accessible route. While there are not data to show how often this is violated, many examples of less accessible bus stops and sidewalks near stations are visible.
The responsibility of providing and maintaining accessibly public transit vehicles and facilities lies clearly with the public transit agency. The agency may have in-house staff or hire contractors, but it is usually very clear who is responsible for maintaining accessible stations and vehicles. While some agencies adhere to the ADA more strictly than others, it is possible to hold them accountable for providing equal access, and easy to give clear recommendations on how to do so.
Responsibility becomes less clear when you get to the pedestrian infrastructure necessary for reaching the transit stop. The transit agency doesn’t own the sidewalk at the bus stop and in fact has no responsibility towards any infrastructure at the stop beyond the pole or shelter they place there. Nearly always, the city owns the sidewalk, and is responsible for assuring ADA compliance.
But sidewalk responsibility is complicated. Cities across the United States designate responsibility and liability differently. Some cities take full responsibility, some give full responsibility to the abutting property owner, some employ a combination. Requirements for sidewalk installation varies as, well, and even though the ADA requires that bus stop boarding areas have a firm, stable surface and provide minimal clear lengths, slopes, and cross slopes, many municipalities do not require sidewalks on both sides of the street or at all in some locations, leading to difficulties in placing accessible bus stops.
The better connectivity to public transit is for people with disabilities, the more access they have to jobs and services, thus both enhancing quality of life and our local and national economies. Additionally, public transit agencies benefit from people with disabilities having multi-modal options, relieving trips on paratransit, which is expensive for both the agency and the individual. Mobility on Demand services, such as Uber, Lyft, and Via can help solved first mile-last mile connectivity problems, but depend on having accessible vehicles available, and still require that the block where the train station or bus stop is have compliant curb ramps and wide, smooth sidewalks.
Furthermore, ADA compliant pedestrian infrastructure connecting to transit benefits all transit users. Eliminating trip hazards, providing sidewalks wide enough for strollers and carts, and avoiding riders waiting for the bus on a muddy footpath makes transit ridership more appealing and accessible to all of us.
The first step to fixing pedestrian connections to transit is to identify what infrastructure exists, what condition it is in, and what is still needed. Jurisdictions should develop and implement an ADA Transition Plan that includes inventory and asset management for pedestrian infrastructure, identification of barriers to pedestrian accessibility, and an assessment of the pedestrian access routes to existing and planned transit services. ADA Transition Plans can be developed at a city level, or when funds or motivation are strong at a more localized level, by neighborhood associations or Business Improvement Districts.