On July 11, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg held a roundtable with disability advocates and leaders to celebrate the thirty-third anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The topic of discussion: accessible transportation. I was honored to be one of the leaders in the room, sitting side by side with colleagues who have been fighting for decades for more access on airlines, railways, metros, buses, bikes, and cars.
“When we think about this movement—which is the fight for the rights, the dignity, for equality, equity for folks with disabilities—the issue of transportation is a very foundational and fundamental one,” Harris said as she opened the conversation. Transportation is fundamental—it is how we get to work and school, engage with our community, and enjoy leisure activities.
Unfortunately, thirty-three years after the ADA was made law, we still do not have fully accessible transportation, limiting the one in four American adults who are disabled from fully moving from place to place. At The Century Foundation’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, we believe every disabled person should have access to reliable, affordable, and accessible transportation, no matter where they live, so they can get to work and school, engage with the community, and have fun.
Considering that transportation is so fundamental to enjoying a complete life and livelihood, the lack of accessible transportation—whether via cars, buses, metro, rail, or planes—is really an economic issue. It prevents millions of people in the United States from engaging in their local economies, traveling for leisure, getting to work, and more.
Transportation Is Woefully Inaccessible
The White House roundtable put a face to the issue of inaccessible transportation—nearly every person who spoke had a personal story of mobility devices being damaged or destroyed by airlines, or other significant and severe travel disruptions. Data from Paralyzed Veterans of America show that, of disabled passengers who fly, 70 percent report damage to a wheelchair or scooter. Another organization’s survey of more than three hundred wheelchair users found that 43 percent no longer fly due to past bad experiences. Outside of air travel, seven in ten disabled adults reduce daily travel because of inaccessible transportation; Americans with disabilities also generally make fewer trips overall. And a 2018 survey found that disabled adults were more likely than their nondisabled peers to report transportation insecurity—meaning they do not feel they can reliably move from place to place safely and on time.
One survey found that 43 percent of American wheelchair users have stopped flying due to bad experiences.
These statistics look at all adults with disabilities across the United States. But when you look deeper, breaking the numbers down by population and location, the disparities grow. Rural communities face vast gaps in transportation accessibility—a persistent and challenging issue. There are many counties with no public transportation, let alone accessible transportation. Rural residents with disabilities cannot access health care, work, education, or their communities.
A Numbers Game
Put simply, people with disabilities in the United States are prevented from traveling by plane, train, and automobile for work and pleasure because of the inaccessibility of transportation. Yet, even with this gross inaccessibility, research has shown that disabled travelers spend upward of $58.2 billion per year on travel. And that figure is mostly leisure travel. If the value of work travel is included—often an afterthought in planning—the amount is certainly much higher.
The math is not complicated: if the United States prioritized transportation accessibility, people with disabilities would travel significantly more—and they would inject significantly more money into the travel economy. Improving the focus on transportation accessibility would give an even bigger boost to local economies.
Unfortunately, the moment accessibility is considered, we often hear it is too expensive to make changes and retrofit. States, localities, and corporations often say it is too costly to fix a railway station, to modify the metro, to add more paratransit, to build new infrastructure with universal design in mind, or add elevators to existing spaces. Yet little research is actually done on cost-benefit analysis of improving accessibility. Some international studies have shown that investments to improve the accessibility of transit stations, pedestrian areas, and tourism sites generated more revenue for the cities that made those changes. More domestic cost-benefit research on accessibility investments is needed—and would likely reveal similar added value.
We also know that accessibility does not only benefit people with disabilities—accessibility benefits everyone. We call this the “curb cut effect.” Curb cuts, while designed for those using mobility devices, also benefit parents with strollers, the traveler with a suitcase, a delivery person with a dolly, and so on. We must start curb-cutting our transportation infrastructure to benefit everyone. The early studies show that local economies will benefit financially from doing so.
At the White House roundtable last week, many leaders and advocates shared personal stories of the detrimental impact of inaccessible transportation, including physical and emotional hardship. Airlines have damaged more than 15,000 wheelchairs since 2018. As we put a face to this issue, policymakers must also understand that the U.S. economy is losing out from our community’s lack of participation. From Amtrak, airlines, local businesses, and more, travel is not happening simply because putting accessibly first is considered too hard—thirty-three years after the ADA became the law of the land.
Instead, we need solutions that the Department of Transportation has started, with more support and pressure from the White House and backing from other agencies to get the tourism industry, states, corporations, and others to start curb-cutting all transportation and infrastructure. Policy recommendations include:
- Bring the voice of disabled people to the table to ensure design and implementation is carried out effectively in the implementation of CHIPS and the bipartisan infrastructure law investments—with accessibility at the forefront, not an afterthought.
- Pursue aggressive implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law with equity at the forefront, including jobs, accessibility, and design.
- Create enforceable standards for airlines on accessibility that begin with what the Department of Transportation started last year and move quickly to keep people safe while traveling, putting passengers first.
- Develop incentives for creative use of local and state funding for universal design in communities.
- Put accessibility first with the design of electric vehicle charging stations and other green infrastructure projects.
There are many more policy efforts that are needed to make transportation fully accessible. However, the recommendations above would at least begin to move our country forward toward meeting the goals of the ADA: full participation, equity of opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. The road, runway, and tracks are set for accessibility in transportation.