Modern transportation systems are not always built with successful accommodations and continue to indirectly discriminate against populations with disabilities. This unintentional discrimination and the lack of research surrounding it is what inspired University of Wisconsin M.S. and Ph.D. candidate Michael Schlicting to study the public transit experience of individuals with disabilities for his dissertation. Making transit access equitable for all people is central to eliminating this discrimination.
“It all comes down to accessibility,” Schlicting said. “We tend to design transportation just for the average male American and just to serve city centers. But transportation extends to everyone.”
In his dissertation, Schlicting defines equitable accessibility as the ability for everyone to receive the same utility from a system, regardless of their physical or mental condition. Despite being granted the legal right to travel publicly and freely, individuals with disabilities still do not always have a quality experience with transportation.
Between 2010 and 2040, the population of individuals over the age of 65 in Wisconsin is projected to nearly double, according to the Wisconsin Department of Administration. Nearly 30% of Wisconsinites over the age of 65 and 10% under the age of 65 had a disability between 2010 and 2014, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Assuming these trends are accurate and continue, a significant proportion of Wisconsin’s population will be disabled by 2040.
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Historically, according to the Smithsonian Institution, Americans with disabilities were not guaranteed civil rights protections or places in the workforce or higher education. Transportation systems, specifically, were not developed to serve individuals with disabilities. With no laws in place to protect populations with disabilities, anyone with a disability would have likely been rejected from using public transit systems until as recently as 1990.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 outlined civil rights for individuals with disabilities and prohibited discrimination in the workforce and public programs. Despite this reform, discrimination — especially in transportation — persists.
“Physically, they can get on a bus, but the whole experience is frustrating and embarrassing, in some cases,” Schlicting said.
In his dissertation, Schlicting looks to determine whether or not these transportation models can truly be considered accessible, given their harsh impact on the psyche and body. He studied transportation systems in fast-growing areas with high public transit use, including Fort Collins, Colorado, northern Illinois, Croatia and Madison, Wisconsin.
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According to Schlicting, common experiences among the study’s participants included the fears of delaying transit or inconveniencing passengers, receiving unwanted attention and the inability to get off at the correct stop efficiently. These factors make the process of traveling disproportionately stressful for those with disabilities.
Many municipalities offer alternatives to public transit — like paratransit programs — to combat these issues. But Schlicting said the bureaucratic process, unpredictability and the need for extensive planning only create additional barriers.
“Imagine if Uber operated like paratransit, where you have to get up at six in the morning, make your plans, call the number for a reservation two days ahead and then not even be sure if the paratransit is going to arrive,” Schlicting said.
While the City of Madison offers a paratransit system with a commendable travel range, gaining the ability to participate involves a substantial application process and an in-person assessment that could take 21 days to report results, according to Metro Transit. Even upon approval, participants must board their vehicle within five minutes of its arrival, which may be difficult for older individuals or those with ambulatory disabilities. Riders may also face a fine if they are considered to be a “no show.”
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Schlicting said another roadblock in using public transportation is the variety of accommodations that need to be implemented. Different physical conditions require different accommodations to provide an equitable experience, which can hinder a system’s ability to successfully implement them.
“The most important thing for someone with an [ambulatory] disability is that they’re able to stay in their wheelchair and be treated as everybody else,” Schlicting said. “Those with a visual disability may require brighter colors, better signage and better indicators of where they are.”
Schlicting’s research demonstrated clear preferences for public transportation modes among the study’s participants. For example, participants most positively reviewed railway services in the U.S. and participants with access to a Bus Rapid Transit service also approved of the process. Participants in the City of Madison also pointed out bike paths were excellent forms of transit due to their smooth surface and wide range.
Currently, the City of Madison offers public transit buses, paratransit services, pedestrian sidewalks and bike paths as forms of accessible transportation. Construction on Madison’s first BRT system began this past summer and is projected to be in service in late 2024, according to the City of Madison website.
The BRT service aims to provide a more equitable transit pathway complete with reduced travel times for all types of commuters, according to the City of Madison. Buses will also be larger, allowing for greater capacity limits and better wheelchair accessibility.
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Pedestrian Bicycle Administrator of the City of Madison Renee Callaway said Madison has multiple long-term goals for maximizing pedestrian safety. For example, implementing audible pedestrian crossing signals for those with visual impairments, filling in sidewalk gaps to improve wheelchair access and shortening street crossings to minimize time spent in the open roads.
“One of the things we really focus on is safety, and with that comes accessibility,” Callaway said. “If you can’t even access an area, then it’s probably not safe.”
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is set to receive a total of $2.5 million in funding to expand passenger railways in the state, according to a press release from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).
Proposals have been made to connect cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota, Madison, Milwaukee and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This passenger railway will allow environmentally friendly, efficient travel between more rural and metropolitan communities and hopefully improve the transport experience for individuals with disabilities across Wisconsin, according to the press release.
Schlicting said laws and developments can only go so far in helping to make transportation more accessible.
“It’s really about seeing the individual and seeing beyond the wheelchair or the cane,” Schlicting said. “It’s about recognizing that individual as being part of the community.”