For at least 20 years, Austin has offered a paratransit service of some kind to people with disabilities. A paratransit entity provides transportation to those people who are, for various reasons, unable to use the regular fixed route bus system. Without a service such as this, many people with disabilities would be totally homebound, unable to get to the grocery store, work, or medical appointments. The ADA on transportation lays out several guidelines, many of which are very vague and difficult to enforce in some cases. However, one thing is clear to me, there must be a service provided to those who are unable to safely and independently use the public transit system due to a limiting disability.
A service like this costs a lot of money, particularly when the demand is so high and the locations are very spread out. Austin is a large city and it can take a couple of hours depending on traffic to get from point A to point B within the city. Transit authorities must pay for their vehicles, drivers, gas, insurance, administrative staff to answer phones, and I am sure the list goes on. A paratransit system is usually a shared ride service, so careful scheduling can mean saved time and money for the authority. Riders have to plan ahead to get to their destinations at scheduled times. Often it can be difficult to arrive somewhere on time, unless the rider is able to leave earlier and either ride for quite awhile, or get to their destination very early and wait. It may not be the most ideal or convenient way to get somewhere, but it is far better than the alternative for everyone who must depend on this service to function in their daily lives.
Currently, Austin’s Capital Metro is making some big changes to their Metro Access system that affect all of us who depend on it. They are reevaluating their eligibility requirements to reduce the number of people who can ride. They have always strongly encouraged anyone who is able to take the bus to do so, especially since Capital Metro took over ownership of paratransit some years ago. Presently, they are evaluating everyone to determine the best candidates for bus travel and in some cases, they are egregiously wrong in their assumptions that certain people can safely and independently take the bus.
I’ll use myself as the example here, since I am one of the riders who falls into this category of being able enough to ride the bus, but face many barriers preventing me from doing so. Can I get on and off the bus? Yes, I need no assistance there as far as boarding and disembarking. However, several of the vehicles do not announce their number and/or route. As a totally blind person, I may get on the wrong bus if someone does not tell me which one it is. As to where to get off, again, I am completely dependent on the driver or a passenger to tell me when we arrive at my stop, as most buses in my area are not equipped with an automated locating system. Believe me, drivers forget to tell you and I have been lost and frustrated more than once because I missed my stop. This compromises my safety because I am often traveling alone or with my young child. If there are transfers involved, I have the same problem not knowing which bus is present at the transfer point.
The biggest concern with taking the bus is getting off at the stop nearest my destination. In a few cases, the walk from bus stop to destination is short with sidewalks and maybe small light controlled street crossings, and this is very doable. However, in most cases affecting me, my ultimate destination does not offer an accessible walk from bus stop to destination. To get to work for instance, I have to cross a very busy and dangerous street to get from the bus stop to the building. I have used Capital Metro’s trip planner to determine which buses I need to get from home to work. When I check the box for accessible trip required, I get an error because there are no accessible answers found.
Then, of course, there are times when you must travel to unfamiliar areas. You get off at the right stop, but really have no idea where you are and how far you must walk to your destination. Is it fair to tell me that I can only go places where I know there is an accessible walk from the bus stop? That is very limiting! It is bad enough that in order to use both the bus and paratransit service, you must live in certain areas of town. As a result, my family is paying more for our home in order to live in the service area.
I don’t have the answer for Capital Metro, but I do know that this new method is not right. Don’t people with disabilities have enough to worry about? There is still rampant discrimination all around us, should we add our transit system to that list? Are we going to be forced back into total dependence on friends and family who may be gracious enough to drive us around? If our city’s public transportation system were more accessible and flexible, some of these barriers would not exist, but as it is, the system is virtually impossible to use for many much needed trips.
So here’s where you come in. We need your voice, as well as those of other disabled passengers who are being denied service, to be heard! Everyone willing to speak up for our rights as Americans with disabilities is needed. There have to be better choices, a way to avoid denying us our basic right to transportation. We can’t just stand by and let this happen. We pay taxes in this system and deserve accessible trips to wherever we need or want to go. If you are someone with a disability and are having trouble with this or another paratransit system, there is some excellent info on Advocacy, Inc.’s website that may help you deal with your specific issue. If anyone reading this has any ideas about how to communicate these issues to be considered in rider policy, please speak up! Perhaps we can band together and make a difference, allowing Austinites and all Americans with disabilities to continue living their lives without the additional worry of losing transportation to work, school, the doctor’s office, or anywhere else everyone has the right to go!