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Top Transit Leaves No One Behind

Bridging the gap for riders with disabilities in Michigan

July 11, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Patrick Owen
  Transit services for people with disabilities, including wheelchair access and on-call pickup, are essential for connecting citizens with jobs, health care, family, and friends.

Unreliable bus service and hard-to-reach stops are some of the persistent problems with Michigan public transit that put thousands of people in danger of losing jobs and contact with friends and family, according to a study by United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan and the Michigan Land Use Institute.

According to the report, New Economic Engine, seniors and people with disabilities face transit challenges in Michigan that are many times more difficult and disturbing than in other states. Moreover, these populations are growing rapidly in Michigan.

The baby boom generation is inching towards retirement, and more people with disabilities are joining the work force and living independently. Michigan’s future plans for more efficient and effective transit systems must include strategies for better accommodating those who need accessible public transit to fully engage in everyday life, according to the study.

Availability and Accessibility
A well-functioning "paratransit" system — one that serves riders with disabilities — is literally the vehicle that many Michigan residents must have in order to live independently. Paratransit service varies from community to community and state to state. But in general, paratransit service is comparable to conventional bus service, includes lift-equipped buses for riders who use wheelchairs, and provides voice and visual cues for riders. It’s also simply a matter of making public transit available to all residents in all parts of the state.

This is particularly important in Michigan, where 34 of 83 counties have very little transit coverage. Universal transit services and paratransit accommodations are essential for seniors and people with disabilities to travel freely, join the work force, and take advantage of libraries, museums, parks, shopping districts, and entertainment venues. Optimal paratransit service is accessible, safe, convenient, and affordable for all.

But in Michigan and most other states, transit and paratransit services do not exist in many areas or are extremely limited and unreliable in scheduling and routing. In a 2000-2001 survey of people with disabilities in Michigan, for example, 61 percent rated their transportation service as "bad." Many transit and paratransit services arrive as much as two hours later than scheduled, and sometimes not at all. As a result, people with disabilities miss medical appointments and other important engagements. They also fail to find jobs or to keep them because they arrive late or miss work entirely.

National Leaders – Florida and New Jersey
Florida and New Jersey, however, are two states that have made a commitment to fully incorporating paratransit in their public transit planning. The result is greater system efficiency overall and exemplary service.

Florida, for example, recently won the Community Transportation Association of America’s state achievement award for its insightful and innovative paratransit planning. Florida’s greatest achievement was its success in overcoming one of the biggest barriers to successful paratransit: Service coordination.

Florida maximizes the use of its paratransit vans and buses by mandating that a central, local coordinating body brokers all paratransit services in an area. Most states provide transportation and paratransit services through a number of independent departments and agencies, which results in fragmented funding and uncoordinated efforts. The separate agencies do not work from the same plan or toward the same goal. A common result is that paratransit vans belonging to one service provider, such as a senior center, often sit idle while clients of another agency wait for their van to arrive.

Florida’s process requires all service providers, as well as public transportation agencies, to coordinate services. Local coordinating agencies maximize services by dispatching paratransit vans and buses according to an overall plan and specific needs.

New Jersey also excels in paratransit services and has achieved a remarkable level of transit coordination, including transit availability in all counties. New Jersey has been successful in part because it uses casino revenues to provide transit agencies with additional money for paratransit services. It also mandates that transit agencies coordinate paratransit services. The casino revenues overcome fiscal risks that local agencies might fear when adding paratransit accommodations. The coordination mandate keeps agencies thinking of opportunities to provide seamless service.

Paratransit in Michigan
Michigan has made efforts toward coordinating and extending overall transit coverage but remains fragmented in its paratransit system. The primary problem is a lack of incentive for paratransit improvements and no mechanism for making them. Therefore, most transportation services in the state are not coordinated in a larger planning effort that builds in paratransit, and many local areas have not chosen to provide transit services.

Lawmakers are taking steps to solve these problems, but there is much more to do. The Michigan Legislature recognizes the importance of extending transit service throughout the state and included a provision in the 2001-2002 budget that requires paratransit service be made available throughout Michigan. This year, a coalition of environmental, land use, disability rights, and social justice organizations convinced the legislature to actually enforce a mandate that requires the state Department of Transportation to see that the transit needs of the elderly and people with disabilities are met.

In addition to boosting funds and increasing overall transit coverage, Michigan also must start planning for paratransit by assessing inefficiencies in the current system that waste taxpayer money. Such information is vital for agencies to identify opportunities for improvement and move toward greater coordination of services. Mandating coordination and making services widely available, especially in rural areas, are the key components for establishing an effective paratransit system.

Accessibility is the Law
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all people with disabilities have access to transportation service that is comparable to that offered to people without disabilities. Such "paratransit" service is intended for riders who cannot get to the conventional bus system and who live within 3/4 of a mile from a bus route. It also applies to people in remote areas who would not otherwise have transit service.

Paratransit service is demand-response, which means it is on call and will pick up riders at the curb and drop them at the curb of their destination.

New Interest in Transit
According to New Economic Engine a bullet train of transit activity is set to race across Michigan once state and local leaders commit to supplying a lasting fuel source. Citizens have spent years building the engine of better transit by demonstrating the need for buses and trains to connect them with the places they want to go. Now regional officials are putting public transit on track with their plans for rapid buses and rail in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

In a telling sign that transit’s moment has arrived, even Detroit’s Big 3 automakers now understand that the future vitality of Michigan’s metropolitan areas depends on transit. Once opponents of transit, these world industrial leaders are joining citizens in asking public officials to acknowledge the great cost of relying so heavily on cars and highways while allowing transit to sputter.

General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler issued this joint declaration in September 2001: "We want to reiterate our support for public transit in southeast Michigan …An effective regional transit system is important in connecting workers with jobs, serving a rapidly aging population, and in reducing traffic congestion, which has a positive effect on the environment."

The automakers understand, along with a wide range of citizens, that a roads-only transportation policy delivers numbing gridlock, bad air, and faceless places. Family and government costs soar as new roads spur sprawling development and drive up the cost of extending water, sewer, and schools to ever more remote locales. First-rate transit, on the other hand, can provide the cost savings and transportation options needed to enhance quality of life and put cities on course to better compete nationally and globally for public and private investment.

State and metropolitan leaders must unite to move Michigan from poor transit performance to excellent service by maximizing local, state, and federal funding for world-class rapid buses and trains. Only with such a concerted effort can Michigan and its cities satisfy increasing demands from residents and businesses for clean and convenient communities, accessible jobs, and strong economic competitiveness.

Kevin Wisselink is transportation project coordinator for United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan. Reach him at wisselink@ucpmichigan.org.

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation program. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org. For more of the Institute’s first-rate reporting and commentary on transportation and sprawl see our Web site at www.mlui.org.

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