Why We Need Accessible Cities

Easterseals Accessible Transportation
By Mids Meinberg

The United States is a car-centered culture. While increasing work-from-home and delivery options do increase the viability of staying at home, there are still a wide variety of tasks that require a person to leave the home. In most of the country, leaving the home means driving to reach that other location. Many disabled people, including myself, are unable to drive because of our disabilities. This cuts us off from so many aspects of culture and life and forces dependence on others for many vital aspects of survival, like medical visits.

The idea of the “walkable city” has become an increasingly popular discussion in online spaces. Essentially, a walkable city is a way of building communities so that all necessary facilities for employment, survival, and entertainment can be reached within a fifteen-minute walk from any given residence. These sorts of integrated communities are more common in Europe. When I lived in a German village, for instance, I was able to reach anything within that village with a short walk, despite living on its outskirts, ranging from cafes to bakeries to the village center. Perhaps more importantly though, I could easily get to a bus stop.

Making walkable cities would require vast overhauls in zoning regulations and existing infrastructure and is not an especially likely outcome, at least in the short term. More achievable, though, is enhanced public transit networks. Where I live now in the suburbs of New Jersey, an area unusually dense in public-transit options for the suburbs, I am a three-mile walk away from the nearest public node, and that is too far for me to be able to walk — even if the route from my home to that bus stop was safe for pedestrians, which it is not!

Accessible travel benefits everyone. Collage of different cities

Denser public transit nodes might be more expensive for municipalities, but the benefits they offer for all citizens cannot be understated. Cars are extremely expensive and force most people to go into heavy debt to acquire one. If people were able to get to where they need to go without driving, then they would be able to more comfortably manage their finances, even for nondisabled people! It is an especially pressing matter for disabled people, though, as a wide variety of disabilities prevent driving.

For me, a combination of low vision and anxiety make driving impossible. For others, mobility disabilities can prevent the ability to drive. Indeed, the high level of danger involved in driving should make people more interested in public transit options to get from place to place. Any degree of driving skill less than master makes the roads less safe for everyone involved, not just the driver. According to a study by the National Library of Medicine, cars are 4 times as likely to have accidents than buses. Serious injuries were twenty-eight times more likely for car users than bus passengers!

In addition to the safety functions, having more buses means fewer vehicles on the road which reduces traffic for everyone. While there are obviously costs involved in expanding a bus network, the benefits far outweigh these costs. Being able to connect to a broader community allows people to live fuller, more engaging lives, not only through access to services but also access to employment. The vast majority of entry-level work positions in the United States require access to regular transportation, which is a major impediment for disabled people finding work.

I personally have struggled to find work thanks to my inability to drive, my inability to access places that would be willing to hire me. While work-from-home (WFH) jobs experienced a surge during the height of the pandemic, workplaces using WFH have begun to decrease in number since then. In addition, WFH jobs almost universally require access to higher education. Entry-level positions for people without a college degree are almost always in person. While many of these positions might be inaccessible for some disabled people, there are plenty (like basic office jobs) that most disabled people can do, but only if they could get to the office.

Larger cities typically already have some public-transit networks in place, but even these networks could become more broadly accessible. The subways of New York City are infamous for their expansiveness but also their corresponding complexity. Simpler or more abstract subway maps could be helpful in increasing navigability for people who struggle to understand the existing map. In addition, almost every subway station in New York City is not wheelchair accessible, blocking wheelchair users from using them safely or at all. While there are some subway stations with elevators, these elevators frequently break down due to lack of maintenance.

Similar problems exist in other cities with subways or elevated rails. In addition, some buses can be very complicated in using their wheelchair accessible functions, to the point that some bus drivers are not educated in their function. Expanding awareness and demonstrating usage of the ramp and lift functions would go a long way in helping to make sure that wheelchair users are more integrated into our pubic transit networks.

Trolley systems can be a functional alternative to subways or elevated rail, and since they don’t require a change in elevation, they are inherently more accessible. That said, trolley lines do take up space on the road, and thus are less traffic efficient than subways or elevated rails. They are relatively rare as well, with buses tending to fill in for the same role. Trolleys, despite their lack of flexibility, are even safer than buses, are quieter, and pull power from the grid rather than requiring fuel, making them significantly more cost effective in the long run. Urban spaces with larger land area could truly benefit from the inclusion of trolleys into their public transit networks.

When I lived in Germany, I made several trips to the Hague in The Netherlands as part of my social studies curriculum. The freedom to be able to catch a trolley from just down the block from our hotel and ride it all the way to the centers of commerce and entertainment and culture in the city, along with my classmates, and to feel like I was truly immersed in the city despite not being able to drive, is a treasured memory that I will never forget. Walking down the boardwalk with the frigid air coming off of the North Sea, salty in the early evening air, and knowing that the hotel was a short trip away in a warm trolley was something only available because of the amazing public transit options in the city.

Let’s work to make more public transit available for everyone.

Mids Meinberg is a writer and game designer working out of New Jersey. They have an AA in Creative Writing from Brookdale Community College.


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