All aboard for more accessible bus stops in greater Washington, DC

DC WMATA bus credit Elvert Barnes flickr
Photo: Elvert Barnes via Flickr

This post is the seventh in a series of case studies about Complete Streets people, places, and projects. Catch the final one next month!

The Washington, DC region prides itself on robust bus service, and a recent change to bus stop accessibility standards is opening the system to even more people.

Thousands of people in the Washington, DC region take the bus each day, including people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides three basic criteria when defining an “accessible” bus stop. It should 1) have a firm landing surface; 2) be at least five feet wide and eight feet long; and 3) connect to the curb. Because when bus stops are narrow or located in a patch of grass, getting to and waiting at the bus stop isn’t just unpleasant for people with disabilities — it’s a barrier to travel.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or Metro, which serves the Washington, DC region, took accessibility one step further. In April 2014, the Metro Board of Directors adopted a fourth criterion: “A curb cut at the corner nearest to the bus stop with a matching curb cut at (at least) one adjacent corner.” That means the sidewalks and street crossings leading to the bus stop will also be accessible — because a pad of concrete in an otherwise grassy area isn’t accessible, and a crossing without curb ramps isn’t accessible either.

This policy change helps Metro better achieve its goals as a transit agency that serves all people, regardless of ability. Its customers will have an additional degree of independence when they know they can use regular bus service, rather than rely on paratransit. (Paratransit customers must request their trips a full 24 hours in advance.) And better connections to and from bus stops don’t just help people using wheelchairs or assistive devices: parents pushing strollers, visitors pulling suitcases, and folks using folding shopping carts all benefit, too.

Helping more people access regular transit service comes with real financial benefits to Metro and the communities it serves. Metro estimates that providing each paratransit trip costs $50, a cost which is borne by the jurisdictions in the region that help pay for Metro. Regular fixed-route trips cost Metro much less — between $4 and $8 per trip. And while not all customers will be able to shift to fixed-route service, even with more accessible stops, helping more people use regular service is a financial priority for the agency.

DC WMATA inaccessble stop credit thisisbossi Flickr
A missing curb cut and vegetation issues make this bus stop inaccessible. Photo by thisisbossi via Flickr

Identify, prioritize, fix
Fixing all of Metro’s inaccessible bus stops would be a big undertaking. An estimated 9,000 bus stops within the agency’s paratransit service area meet ADA requirements but the lack sidewalks and curb ramps to make them truly accessible.

Metro needed to determine which stops to prioritize. To do this, the agency looked at the customers eligible for paratransit service. Despite living near a fixed route stop, many of these customers used paratransit services because they could not safely get to or from that bus stop safely. Metro staff verified the potential to upgrade these stops through site visits and/or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) arterial photography. Metro prioritized inaccessible bus stops located near clusters of persons with disabilities’ homes. Through this process, a total of 57 bus stops were identified as priorities, and, as of March 2015, 18 have been upgraded.

The agency is also partnering with local jurisdictions to make progress on this project. Like many transit agencies, Metro is responsible for maintaining only a small number of stops throughout the region. Most stops are located within the public rights-of-way, where municipalities or counties are responsible for maintaining and improving them. Metro is working directly with jurisdictions determine if they have any planned upgrades near or including the bus stops on the priority list. Metro also helps develop designs, secure local permits, choose a contractor, and actually complete the needed accessibility improvements.

To make the upgrades, Metro tends to start with similar, inexpensive projects. Metro will group several of these projects (i.e., widening the sidewalk to the meet the width standards) into one procurement package to minimize project costs—and maximize the number of stops fixed with the agency’s limited funding. The more expensive projects include those where full sidewalks need to be added and those where fences, trees, and the like encroach on the public right-of-way.

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With reporting from Laura Searfoss

Complete Streets