Thursday, November 15, 2012

Disabled people need cars

People with major mobility disabilities rely on automobiles and paratransit
by Howard Chabner

Transportation is essential to living a full life---attending school, working, spending time with family, socializing, volunteering, participating in civic life, attending cultural, entertainment and sports events, shopping, maintaining a home, going on vacation. Broadly speaking, the goal of the disability rights laws is to ensure that disabled people have an equal opportunity in all areas of life. Accessible transportation, and an equal opportunity to choose among modes of transportation, are essential disability rights.

Civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in programs of local government, use of streets and sidewalks, and transportation. California Civil Code Section 54(a) provides that “Individuals with disabilities or medical conditions have the same right as the general public to the full and free use of the streets, highways, sidewalks, walkways… public facilities, and other public places.” Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires local governments to provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all of their programs, services and activities. Sidewalks, streets and parking are programs provided by ADA Title II entities, and therefore are subject to ADA requirements.

Most people with major mobility disabilities are unable to bike, ride a motorcycle, or use a skateboard, razor style scooters, rollerblades or roller skates. Most slow walkers (people who walk slowly and with difficulty, and who may or may not use devices such as canes, crutches or a walker) and many manual wheelchair users can go only a limited distance. 

Although many pedestrians who use electric wheelchairs and scooters are able to go far, some of them, too, can go only a limited distance. Many people with major mobility disabilities are unable to hold an umbrella, especially while in their wheelchair or when using a cane, crutches or walker, so rainy weather is especially challenging. Many also have difficulty in hot weather (e.g. those with spinal cord injuries) or cold weather (e.g. those with neuromuscular diseases). Carrying packages can also be difficult or impossible for many.

Finding a taxi that can accommodate an electric wheelchair, non-folding manual wheelchair or scooter is problematic. Perhaps around 10% of San Francisco’s taxi fleet is wheelchair accessible, so it’s often difficult to find an accessible taxi and long waits are common. And only a tiny fraction of New York City’s fleet is, making taxis essentially unavailable to these people. In most cities, this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Public transportation systems have access limitations, flaws and gaps. In San Francisco, for example, many of the light rail stops are still not accessible. In some places the accessible rail boarding platform is after the regular (inaccessible) stop, and at rush hour the first car (the only car that wheelchair passengers can board) is full by the time it reaches the accessible platform, so passengers in wheelchairs are passed up even though there may be space in the second car and often despite being at the accessible platform before other passengers are at the regular stop. 

Elevators break. Elevators often smell of urine. Instead of leading directly to the boarding platform, the elevators in some underground Muni stations lead to a potentially dangerous alley beyond the platform, and passengers in the alley are not visible to those at the boarding platform. Some bus stops are flag stops, which can be difficult for people with mobility disabilities to access. Not all bus stops have shelters. 

Most buses are still of the high floor design and have cumbersome, unpleasant wheelchair lifts that can be problematic. Bus lifts break. Some bus boarding platforms, especially on Market Street, are too narrow for a wheelchair, so passengers in wheelchairs must board and exit in the street. Sometimes both wheelchair spaces on a bus are already occupied. Some bus routes are too steep for some people with mobility disabilities. The public transportation systems of many American cities are less accessible than San Francisco’s. The New York City subway, for example, is mostly inaccessible.

Individual circumstances also limit many disabled people’s ability to use public transportation. As described above, it is especially difficult for some of us with major mobility disabilities to use public transportation in the rain or cold weather. Fatigue is a factor for many people with mobility disabilities, and using public transportation is more tiring than driving or riding in a car. Many people, including disabled people, are uncomfortable using public transportation at night or in certain neighborhoods. Also, if they have a choice, it is prudent for everyone, disabled and able-bodied alike, to avoid public transportation when they have a contagious illness or feel they are becoming sick.

Many people with major mobility disabilities rely on paratransit. But in order to be eligible for paratransit service, one has to be unable to use regular public transportation, so not everyone with a mobility disability qualifies. Moreover, paratransit has limited availability, must be scheduled in advance, requires a wide time window and allows no spontaneity. In some places, paratransit does not provide intercounty or intercity service, making it difficult or impossible to use for certain destinations and precluding commuting to work in a different city or county from where one lives.

Many people with mobility disabilities rely heavily on automobiles not only because of the limitations, disadvantages and, in some cases, complete unavailability of some of the other forms of transportation, but also because of the great advantages autos afford. Like everyone else, we appreciate the privacy of an automobile, especially on a date or special occasion, with friends, family and colleagues, and when dressed up. An auto is often the fastest transportation mode, especially when one is making several stops far from each other and time is important. It is also the most convenient mode when carrying perishables, valuables or packages. Autos also have major advantages for parents, especially parents of small children. And autos are the only practical way to get to many places outside the city, whether for a drive in the country or dinner at friends.

Whether they drive or are always a passenger, many slow walkers and manual wheelchair users own or rent regular automobiles.

If he or she owns a vehicle, almost everyone who uses an electric wheelchair, and many who use scooters and manual wheelchairs, have either a lowered floor minivan with a passenger-side ramp or a full-size van. (Lowered floor minivans are also available with the ramp in the rear, but this configuration is rare except in taxis.) The largest manufacturers of these minivans are BraunAbility and VMI This industry has been around since the late 1980s, has become a mature industry, and now there is even a robust market for used accessible minivans. Full-size vans have lifts on the side or the rear; the side configuration is probably more common. Many wheelchair users own these vehicles even if they don’t drive and are always passengers.

Regular car rental companies such as Hertz or Avis don’t offer accessible vehicles (although some offer standard vehicles with manual hand controls, enabling some drivers who use manual wheelchairs to rent from them). Nor do the short-term, urban companies such as Zipcar or City Car Share. 

There are specialized companies that rent accessible minivans, typically with side ramps. Prices are much more expensive than renting an ordinary vehicle, and these companies don’t have physical locations or parking lots, so one must arrange for delivery and drop-off, usually for a costly fee. The fleets are small, availability is limited, and reservations typically must be made far in advance.

For those with accessible minivans and vans with ramps or lifts on the side, all street parking spaces (except perpendicular and angled spaces, those on the driver’s side of a one-way street, and, sometimes, those with sidewalk obstructions such as garbage cans or trees in the exact location of the ramp or lift) are, in effect, accessible spaces even though they are not designated accessible spaces (in California, blue zones). 

In fact, disabled people park in regular street parking spaces far more often than in blue zones because: (a) the number of blue zones is limited and they are often occupied; and (b) quite often a regular space is available closer to the destination than a blue zone. Taking a stroll in an area with many on-street parking spaces and observing the number of vehicles with disabled placards and license plates parked in blue zones and those in regular spaces will confirm this.

Therefore, removing street parking spaces, replacing parallel spaces with perpendicular or angled ones, and moving the parking lane away from the curb all disproportionately impact people with major mobility disabilities.


There is another way in which those with mobility disabilities rely heavily on automobiles. Many rely on service providers coming to their homes, and, therefore, are especially affected by parking scarcity and traffic congestion. We have caregivers who come to our homes. We get food from Meals on Wheels, home visits from physical, respiratory, occupational and other therapists, and repair service from wheelchair repair companies. These providers typically use automobiles, so as parking and traffic lanes are removed, it will become more time-consuming and costly to provide these services, and people with mobility disabilities will be increasingly impacted.

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Support filibuster reform in the Senate

Photo by Richard Clement for Reuters

We saw Elizabeth Warren coming more than two years ago, when she, with the crucial help of Barney Frank, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is now up and running. Republicans hated the very idea of that agency and threatened a filibuster if President Obama appointed Warren to lead the new agency.

Senator-elect Warren is now supporting reforming the Senate's filibuster rules when the new Congress convenes in January:

Any senator can[now] make a phone call, say they object to a bill, then head out for the night. In the meantime, business comes to a screeching halt.

Senate Republicans have used this type of filibuster 380 times since the Democrats took over the majority in 2006. We've seen filibusters to block judicial nominations, jobs bills, political transparency, ending Big Oil subsidies---you name it, there's been a filibuster.

We've seen filibusters of bills and nominations that ultimately passed with 90 or more votes. Why filibuster something that has that kind of support? Just to slow down the process and keep the Senate from working.

I saw the impact of these filibusters at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Forty-five senators pledged to filibuster any nominee to head that new consumer agency, regardless of that person's qualifications. After I left the agency, they tried to hold Richard Cordray's nomination vote hostage until the Senate agreed to weaken the agency to the point where it could no longer hold the big banks and credit card companies accountable.

That's not open debate---that's paralyzing progress.

I learned something important in my race against Senator Brown: voters want political leaders who are willing to break the partisan gridlock. They want fewer closed-door roadblocks and more public votes on legislation that could improve their lives.

On the first day of the new session in January, the senators will have a unique opportunity to change the filibuster rule with a majority vote, rather than the normal two-thirds vote. The change can be modest: If someone objects to a bill or a nomination in the United States Senate, they should have to stand on the floor of the chamber and defend their opposition.

Rob's comment:

You can sign a Daily Kos petition in support of that reform.

Our Senator Feinstein does not support reforming the filibuster rules. You can tell her with an email message that she should change her position and support Warren and her other colleagues that think filibuster reform is necessary.

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