A wheelchair user in Union Station. Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

The Washington region ranks high for accessibility, but that doesn't mean there aren’t a lot of gaps for people with disabilities. DC is generally well served by transit, and every Metro station is designed to be accessible through escalators and elevators. (In comparison, only 50 of 270 stations in the London Underground and a mere nine of 303 stations in Paris are wheelchair-accessible.) However, despite appearances, Metro rail, bus, and paratransit services frequently fall short for riders who have disabilities.

“The [Americans with Disabilities Act] calls transportation the “lynchpin” of community,” said Heidi Case, a disability advocate with the DC chapter of ADAPT. “If you live in your community it’s not enough that you can’t get anywhere. It leaves you isolated that you can’t get to the doctor or the grocery store or to vote. Lots of people also use transit to get to advocacy meetings.”

In the United States, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects citizens with disabilities against discrimination. Ensuring everyone can access public transit can be challenging, and much more needs to be done to make local rail and bus systems truly accessible.

Metrorail is accessible — sort of

Metrorail is not accessible all of the time, and one serious issue lies within the trains themselves. In 2016, a visually-impaired Metro rider named David Kosub fell between the railcars at Grosvenor Station. He intended to board the train, but stepped between the railcars instead of through a door. The rubber flap barriers that Metro installed between the railcars weren’t wide enough, leaving a gap where a person could fall through. Thankfully, Kosub was able to pull himself off of the tracks.

The incident highlighted a serious safety issue for Metro’s new 7000-series cars. At the time, WAMU reported that any fixes would likely come in the beginning of 2018. There is still no word on how soon Metro’s 7000-series trains will be fixed, despite efforts from Kosub and other activists. As of January, the cars I've seen still haven't been updated.

However, sometimes riders with disabilities can’t even make it to the platform. Metro’s Elevator and Escalator Service Status page regularly shows that many are out of service for maintenance. Metro advises riders who need elevators or escalators to request a shuttle or take the train to the nearest station with a center platform, which allows for boarding and exiting trains that are going in both directions. Then, they must double back so they can exit on the side with a working elevator.

This “solution” is convoluted and makes what could be a long commute even longer. It also puts the burden on the rider to ensure their escalator or elevator is working, and plan ahead to take additional stops or stop at a different station. All this can be difficult and time-consuming, particularly with the longer headways and rush hour congestion. Any plans made in advance could be sidelined by Metro delays.

"I know a few people who have been asking Metro for years to simply have whiteboards or signs with pertinent information to communicate with Deaf people at stations," says Sean Maiwald, an GGWash edit board member who is Deaf. "A good friend's mother advocated for Metro to have some kind of visual indicator after she was left in a Metro car after everyone evacuated due to a verbal announcement. That's why you'll sometimes see the lights on the train flicker when it stops in a tunnel."

Originally, when the trains came to a stop somewhere besides the platforms, the lights would flicker so the person would know in case there was an evacuation. However, WMATA hasn't done a good job of clarifying what the flickering is for, nor when and where to use it. In practice, the flickering signal is used at the conductor's discretion.

Metrobus has accessibility problems too

The ADA requires all new buses to be accessible, and overall, the region’s bus systems are wheelchair and scooter-friendly. Buses can “kneel” to help people board more easily, and many have lifts that raise wheelchairs to roll onto buses. However, sometimes inaccessible stops prevent people from getting to the bus in the first place.

You may recall a Silver Spring bus stop being voted the “Sorriest bus stop in America” in 2016. Unfortunately, it’s not alone. Across the region, more than half of Metrobus stops are considered inaccessible, according to a 2014 WMATA study.

Image by WMATA.

Recently, I was in Springfield and saw several people standing at a Fairfax Connector bus stop, located at the side of the road without a sidewalk. There was also no curb cut or room for a wheelchair, let alone a bus shelter or anything to protect riders from traffic. This is a bad bus stop — those who are fully abled can still access it, but those in wheelchairs can’t get to it at all.

Bad bus stops from Metro's 2014 study on accessibility. Image by WMATA.

Inaccessible bus stops aren’t just a Metro matter, however. Many of these stops are also serviced by other city or county bus services, and all jurisdictions share responsibility for making their services accessible. Many streets in our region also lack clearly marked crosswalks and sidewalks are too narrow or poorly maintained, making it difficult for those in wheelchairs or scooters from using them easily.

The same 2014 study points out bad bus stops also make disabled riders more dependent on paratransit services, which are more costly to Metro and often less desirable to users.

MetroAccess helps, but paratransit services have problems too

Paratransit services like MetroAccess operate small buses that usually pick up and drop off riders within a quarter mile of their destination. Riders are usually people can’t ride public transit due to their disability. Metro also has Abilities-Ride, which is a taxi-like service allowing Maryland residents to call for rides on demand, and TransportDC, which operates in the District. Arlington County has STAR (Specialized Transit for Arlington Residents) and Alexandria City has DOT, both of which offer paratransit rides throughout the region.

While they provide an invaluable service, paratransit providers have come under scrutiny for being complicated, confusing, and unreliable. Residents have reported being left behind, and there was an especially egregious case of an autistic man left onboard a MetroAccess van for five hours as the driver made stops throughout DC.

MetroAccess van. Image by Rfc1394 licensed under Creative Commons.

Another problem is that a disproportionate number of disabled people live outside of the District in areas ill-served by transit. These paratransit services help, but aren’t always available in all areas and on all days, leaving gaps in service.

Overall, paratransit services are useful for many residents who either can’t navigate the Metro system at all or have specialized transit needs. However, it’s worth noting that they aren’t the first choice for everyone. Some riders prefer Metrorail or bus but can’t access those services in part because of the reasons outlined above. Finally, due to their cost, paratransit services are at risk of budget and service cuts — which would make the system even less user-friendly.

What can be done?

"Accessibility often means different things to different people which often makes it complicated, but that shouldn't stop groups like Metro from striving to make everything fully accessible," Edit Board member Maiwald says. "Also, keep in mind that the ADA is often seen as the standard by agencies, but to a lot of disabled people, the ADA isn't anywhere near sufficient — meaning it should be considered a floor, not a ceiling."

It’s easy to forget that a transit system, like other facets of our community, is not just about safe transportation. A good system should include easy-to-read signs, wayfinding tools (like compass roses), clear instructions, and enough language translation to help riders get to their destination. It also must have employees who are trained to help passengers navigate the system, including disabled tourists who may need specialized information.

Bus stops need to be moved or modified so they are accessible and wheelchair-friendly. Riders who want to encourage Metro to change a bus stop can complete this Bus Stop Accessibility Problems form. Also, the form itself can be improved — it asks for a lot of information riders may not be able to provide.

Image by Jordan Barab used with permission.

The Metro board recently approved refunds for Metrorail customers whose commutes were late by 15 minutes, and advocates say they’d like to see something similar for buses. Many disabled people rely on the bus system for its ease of use and lower cost. When buses are late, it can make commuting with disabilities even tougher. ADAPT member Heidi Case said that a plan like this could help “incentivize loyalty.”

“Lots of people don’t want to ride rail. Some of it is economic, some of them don’t like going underground. [There are] a lot of barriers, and Metro should better appreciate and show through service,” Case said.

Metro must maintain current safety measures, namely replacing the barriers between the 7000-series train cars, repairing broken platform tiles, replacing non-working lights, and repainting any bright or contrasting stripes that are supposed to help riders see the edge of the platform or the ends of the train cars. Metro can also implement long-term solutions like making sure that all intercoms work well and that all train conductors are announcing stations clearly. Better station lighting, which could be coming soon, would help alleviate some safety issues. 

Just as the Deaf community would benefit from better signage, visually impaired riders would benefit from better station announcements. Currently, Metrorail arrival information is displayed on PIDs, but there are no station announcements. Visually impaired riders often use sound as a guide, such as listening for train doors to open. Third party apps that announce station times are available, but Metro should look into making clear audible announcements on a regular basis, particularly when it comes to delays or emergencies that may affect travel.

Finally, adopting universal design principles would greatly help with accessibility. Universal design principles help everyone without the need for any special accommodations for those who are disabled. For example, when stores have doors that automatically open and entrances are at ground level so ramps are not necessary, these help people who have a variety of abilities, as well as people with strollers. Designing with people with disabilities in mind is simply good design, and helps make our public spaces truly public.