This article was adapted for Mobility Weekly, our free weekly newsletter. Register for a subscription here.
Over 46 million people in the United States are underserved by traditional forms of public transit.
Most of us who live in San Francisco are fortunate to have a wide variety of transportation options at our disposal. We have a top-ranked public transportation system, with buses running all over the city every five to 10 minutes, an expansive train network and probably every ride-hailing platform available in America. It’s easy to take for granted the ability to catch any form of transportation we want to take, whenever we want it.
However, I’ve recently been reading a book that has made me more acutely aware that the accessibility I enjoy is not afforded to my neighbors with a physical disability that impairs their mobility. "Disability Visibility," edited by San Francisco-based author and activist Alice Wong, is composed of contemporary essays written by persons with disabilities. In the first pages of the intro, Wong (who uses a wheelchair) recounts her early days of disability advocacy, saying:
In high school, I read an article in Time about accessible public transit. I was incredibly excited by the prospect of accessible transportation, and I wrote a letter to the editor expressing a wish that this would expand. I lived in the suburbs, and the idea of being able to go places on my own by bus or train seemed like a faraway dream.
Although nearly a reality in dense urban areas, the kind of accessibility Wong dreamt of is still out of reach for most Americans, not just those who are disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed more than 30 years ago, but federal legislation providing for comprehensive access to transportation options for persons with disabilities continues to be held up in the U.S. Congress. Disabilities affecting mobility affect 1 in 7 adults in the U.S. — and of these individuals, women and people of color make up a disproportionate number. What's more, people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty. Limited transportation options compound their restricted access to quality health care, education and jobs.
Last month, six leading national disability rights organizations jointly released a letter to the Biden administration, praising the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) while expressing disappointment that Congress did not include several programs in the IIJA that are important to the disability and underserved communities, including the Disability Access to Transportation Act (an expansion of current ADA).
Public transit agencies of the future will operate more as mobility management agencies — orchestrating transportation networks that can support and subsidize existing services such as ride-sharing, microtransit and micromobility.
The letter offers two specific recommendations that these organizations say could have "profound and lasting results, especially for those with disabilities, seniors and underserved populations." The first suggests funding innovation that increases and improves accessible mobility; the second advocates prioritizing actions that would make existing infrastructure more accessible. The letter requests that the Biden administration consider funding projects that "provide accessible, on-demand transit (...) that take advantage of the latest routing, dispatch and app-based booking technologies."
This raises an important point in consideration of accessible transit: Although accessible buses and trains do provide mobility options in dense urban areas, millions rely heavily on ride-sharing — especially people who do not own a car and are in need of door-to-door transportation. This necessitates ride-sharing to be better regulated to be in compliance with the ADA — in a similar manner to public transit.
Through a business lens, logic might indicate that public transit and ride-sharing would come in direct conflict, with ride-sharing apps taking riders off public transportation. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
According to this article on SmartCitiesDive, Uber Transit predicts that public transit agencies of the future will operate more as mobility management agencies — orchestrating transportation networks that can support and subsidize existing services such as ride-sharing, microtransit and micromobility.
I was recently introduced to Via, whose TransitTech platform does just that. Via has been building private-public partnerships across the globe for the purpose of identifying opportunities to expand equitable access to public transit through technology, gathering insights and data to support the delivery of innovative transport solutions, and collaborating on first-to-last-mile transit offerings. Via has more than 500 partnerships worldwide, with more than 50 of those partnerships in California.
A Via TransitTech-enabled on-demand shuttle program with the city of Richmond will be partially financed through the California state-funded Clean Mobility Options Voucher Pilot Program. According to The Richmond Standard, this pilot program will use three plug-in hybrid electric shuttles "to offer a sustainable, demand-responsive microtransit service to cover transportation gaps and provide connectivity between services and locations in underserved communities." A representative from Via told me that several of their services use EVs, but that an increasing number of Via’s partners are interested in electrifying their services.
Via launched the first fully-electric fleet serving on-demand shared rides in the U.K. city of Milton Keynes in 2019. This service (now called MK Connect) operates as part of Milton Keynes’ public transportation network and is a part of the community’s plan to reach its 2030 and 2050 climate goals. Although not every MK Connect vehicle is wheelchair-accessible, passengers who indicate they use a wheelchair or have another disability are matched with a fully accessible vehicle.
Although legislation and funding to expand the ADA is in limbo at the federal level in the U.S., meaningful improvements to accessibility can be made through the creation of more private-public partnerships such as these. And for a relatively untapped market of more than 46 million people, this presents an incredible triple-bottom-line opportunity.