Rolling Through Boston and Phoenix

Although not perfect, accessible public transportation in these two cities is improving.

by Jake Geller on July 1, 2009 - 4:47pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 3

Public transportation has provided me with a lifeline to pursue my education, jobs and social life. As a student and a working person who uses a wheelchair, I understand both the freedom and the frustration of traveling on Phoenix’s Valley Metro and Boston’s Mass Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) systems.

bus ramp
Jake Geller

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), transit systems accessibility is required by law. When transit systems meet or exceed ADA requirements, public transportation is a breeze to use. But not all transit systems are created equal. Disability advocates have found they can fight poor service and win, and improve accessibility at the same time. Here are my experiences with public transportation in two major cities, and what can be done to improve it.

Taking the bus

When I go to school or work, I ride the bus or light rail. So long as I know the schedule and route, it’s relatively easy.

When the bus arrives, I make sure the driver knows I want to get on. Then I roll to the wheelchair lift or ramp at the back door. Ramps are becoming more commonplace on newer buses, and are easier and quicker to navigate than the older lifts.

The first few rows are reserved for seniors and people with disabilities who don’t use wheelchairs so they’re closer to the door and driver. The wheelchair seats are near the back door. Once I roll on, the driver lifts the seat, and I park my chair in the spot. The driver then secures my chair using a four-point tie-down system that keeps it from moving more than a few inches. Within easy reach is a button with a different tone to alert the driver that a person in a wheelchair wants to get off.

ADA guidelines require that bus drivers or automated recordings announce stops for those with visual impairments. Many buses in large urban areas have easy-to-read LED displays at the front with stop and transfer information, as well as additional seating areas for wheelchair users.

In Phoenix, passengers with disabilities would benefit from buses that run more frequently. In summer, 20 to 30 minutes (the average time between buses) can be a long time to broil in the Arizona heat reaching into the 100s. Round-the-clock service would help too. I know wheelchair users who have missed the last bus and had to spend the night at a hotel.

While working in Boston during the summers of 1998 to 2001, I didn’t use the buses much, but when I did it was a trying experience. Either the bus drivers were not trained adequately or the lifts on the buses simply didn’t work. Drivers might not stop for me; if they did, they might not know how to use the lift. When drivers told me the lift didn’t work, sometimes I would be able to troubleshoot the problem and get on the bus, but many times the lift legitimately didn’t work.

I wasn’t the only one with this experience. In 2006, 11 MBTA riders with disabilities and the Boston Center for Independent Living won a lawsuit against the transit agency which resulted in better training for bus drivers and improvements in how buses and their lifts were maintained.

Not only did this lawsuit change bus operations, but it worked to change the culture of the MBTA, thanks to the hiring of Gary Talbot, assistant general manager for system-wide accessibility for the MBTA. Talbot stopped treating the ADA requirements as something special, and made them part of good customer service. He was able to challenge people about the way things were done. For example, in the past, the accessibility training for drivers was done separately by an outside person. Talbot ensured that the training portion is now fully integrated with the rest of the in-house driver training.

Geller at ticket machine
Author Geller finds the Valley Metro system very accessible, although the ticket machines are challenging for someone with limited arm mobility.

“What I’ve been able to do is draw attention to things that needed to be changed,” Talbot says.

Sharing a Ride

When traveling by bus or light rail isn’t an option, I use paratransit. These shared vans provide door-to-door transportation for people with disabilities and those over 65.

The ADA requires this service for people with disabilities who live within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed route system, such as buses or trains. According to ADA rules, vans can arrive up to an hour before or after your desired pick-up time, and can take as much as twice the amount of time it would take to travel to your destination by bus. Paratransit operators can charge no more than twice the regular bus fare.

The convenience of paratransit is the door-to-door service. Its biggest drawback is the uncertainty of the pick-up time. In my case, a trip can take anywhere from 20 minutes (if the van travels straight to my destination) to two hours (if it stops for other passengers). I would sometimes arrive an hour early or an hour late for class or work. At other times, I’d have to leave early because the van arrived before class was over.

In the Phoenix area, individual cities operate their own Dial-a-Rides. Riders can cross town borders only at specific transfer points. If you go from Phoenix to Tempe, for example, you have to transfer from the Phoenix to the Tempe paratransit van at a grocery store on the border between the two cities. When you schedule a ride, the company coordinates with the other Dial-a-Ride providers for the transfer.

The system usually works, but starting a new trip with the other provider can prolong your journey. I know people who have been stranded at transfer points for hours because of poor coordination.

Welcoming the newest addition

With the launch of light rail in Phoenix in December 2008, people with disabilities have another way to travel around the Phoenix area. From the start, community members with disabilities helped plan how the system could meet or exceed ADA requirements. Planners also researched other communities with light rail and subway systems.

“A lot of thought went into this, making sure it’s as easy as can be,” says Amy Washburn, communications coordinator for Metro Light Rail.

Braille and low-glare displays on the ticket machines aid those with visual impairments. So does the amber lettering on the platform signs. Security officers on platforms and in the park-n-ride lots ensure public safety.

Audible warnings alert passengers of an approaching train. Access is easy because the floors of the cars are the same height as the platform. The only area for improvement I found was that the card readers and ticket machines on platforms were hard-to-reach for somebody with limited arm mobility.

Wheelchairs don’t have to be secured to the floor because the light rail makes gradual stops and starts. “A train takes two football fields to stop,” Washburn says.

In Phoenix, light rail costs the same as the bus. With an all-day pass, you can ride both the light rail and the bus.

Since the system was designed with accessibility in mind, the light rail is easier to use than the bus or Dial-a-Ride. I can leave my home in Tempe, roll a half-mile to the light rail stop, get on the train and arrive in Phoenix for work in 35 minutes.

When things don’t work

There are many places where public transit hasn’t lived up to the standards of the ADA, and there are several different approaches one can take before taking legal action, says Marilyn Golden of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. These include getting the disability community involved, writing a complaint to the Federal Transit Administration, and asking the FTA for a compliance review.

But sometimes legal action is necessary, as in Boston. Taramattie Doucette, co-counsel in the case against the MBTA and senior lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, says the disability community “did everything they were supposed to do” in attempting to improve transit system accessibility before filing suit.

Doucette says the disability community tried to find solutions by speaking with senators and congressmen, holding protests at major subway stops and even talking with top management at the MBTA. But the group was merely given lip service. “This is just common human decency,” Doucette recalls thinking, angered by the disrespect to “people who just want to get to work and just want to get to school.”

Doucette says that when the group had exhausted all other options, it decided legal action was the only alternative. “Nobody wanted a long protracted litigation on this matter. We just wanted to have it resolved.”

She filed the first complaint with the FTA in July 2002. By 2003, she was in talks with the former MBTA general manager, Michael Mulhern. Doucette found these negotiations unhelpful and continued to prepare for a lawsuit against the MBTA, filing another complaint in federal court in 2005.

Two months later, Doucette found that the newly appointed MBTA general manager, Dan Grabauskas, was willing to listen, understood the issues and wanted to find a solution. Through a partnership with Grabauskas, the group was able to come to a settlement and start the process of improving the transit system in April 2006.

One result of the settlement was the hiring of Gary Talbot, assistant general manager for system-wide accessibility. Talbot says he used to be skeptical of lawsuits, thinking they only made money for lawyers. Now he thinks they can do a lot of good, if done right.

In the MBTA lawsuit, no one made any money. All the money was folded back into the transit system to improve accessibility. This set the stage for a fully accessible transit system in the future, he says, which will cost the MBTA a projected $310 million, including $122 million to upgrade the elevators in the subways.

“If it wasn’t for the lawsuit and settlement, I wouldn’t be here, my department wouldn’t be here,” Talbot says. “I don’t believe that the ‘T’ [MBTA train system] would’ve made the progress we have already made to date.”

At 18 years post-ADA, if some transit agencies still are not following the law, then disability advocates need to explore all their options, including lawsuits, Talbot says. He suggests asking transit agencies a simple question: “How many people with disabilities are professionals, not just advocates ... in leadership positions that report to the top level of the organization and are put into positions of authority to help make a difference?” The MBTA answered that question by hiring Talbot (who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair) and allowing him to make a positive change.

Hope for the future

Experiencing public transportation in Boston and Phoenix has been both challenging and exciting. Having one of the oldest systems in the country, Boston is moving forward to make up for lost time, while Phoenix has started off right from the start, designing its brand-new rail system to be fully accessible from the ground up.

These two cities bring hope for the future. Soon we won’t need to discuss how to make things accessible because public transportation will be the lifeline for all people.

Jake Geller, 30, lives in the Phoenix area and has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Geller grew up and worked in the summers as a camp counselor and broadcasting intern in Boston. He is currently working for the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University in Phoenix as the coordinator for the National Center on Disability & Journalism, while finishing up his applied project for a master’s of mass communication. Geller can be reached at

For accessible transportation resources, see InfoQuest.

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