For Walkers, The Last Six Inches are Important
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WalkBoston has been talking about transit as the middle leg of a walking trip for many years. We understand that even the most avid walker or walking advocate knows that many trips are too long to make a single-mode-walk trip possible. Now, the transit and active transportation worlds have become more attuned to the facts that buses serve the broadest network of transit riders, are often the transit mode that serves low-income riders, and are the transit mode that can be modified most easily. For American communities – urban, suburban, and rural – to become truly walkable, they must also be served by transit. Understanding how the bus and walking networks must be linked is critical to shaping investments in transit and the built environment.
While many big city downtowns are making progress on walkability and high-density development, many big city neighborhoods along with rural and suburban communities are being left behind. A new study from the University of Utah Department of City & Metropolitan Planning analyzes Salt Lake City bus stops using 18 variables and then reports on the differences between stops that were made fully accessible and linked to neighborhood sidewalk networks with those that were not improved. Three years later, the analysis showed that, “the improved bus stops are associated with a statistically significant increase in overall ridership and a decrease in para-transit demand, compared to the control group stops.”
It is no surprise to those of us in the walking advocacy world that making bus stops accessible and linked to neighborhood sidewalks can increase bus ridership and reduce the number of para-transit trips that are called for. This is a logical outcome of thinking about how people make real life choices about how to get around. What this research demonstrates is an amazing win-win-win for walking and transit advocates. It shows how we can shift trips from autos to transit; give more people more independence by making it possible for them to use regular bus service rather than setting up special, scheduled para-transit trips (some of which require appointments to be made at least 24 hours in advance and only for specified purposes); and save money for transit systems over the long run.
WalkBoston has been a member of the advisory committee working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s systemwide accessibility department on their plan for accessible transit infrastructure (PATI) over the last several years. More than 30 percent of the MBTA’s customers use the bus system for some or all of their daily commute – or about 350,000 trips/day.
The PATI team undertook a detailed audit of the system’s 7,600 bus stops and found significant accessibility problems at thousands of the stops, including 31 percent without crosswalks. Many more were missing curb ramps and other elements of accessibility. Happily, the MBTA is starting to undertake improvements at the most egregious locations. Starting this summer, the MBTA will be engaging in a yearlong project to construct improvements at over 140 bus stops located in 20 different communities. These bus stops were identified in the recently completed audit as being the worst bus stops in the system in terms of accessibility.
In addition to our work with the MBTA in the Boston metro area, WalkBoston has partnered with community advocates and municipal staff in many of Massachusetts’ small towns and rural villages. Safe walking routes and bus stop accessibility are critical issues in communities where a high percentage of transit users are people with no other transportation choices. Local participants in walk audits and community transportation efforts have been especially receptive to seizing opportunities to improve accessibility to transit and add ways for people to walk safely between schools, municipal buildings, local shops, and senior housing.
A strong case can now be made that investment in many more of the stops will serve the needs of bus riders with disabilities, make the bus system more attractive to all riders, and potentially save money over the long term by reducing the fastest growing part of the MBTA’s (and many transit systems’) budget – para-transit service.The walking movement has built strong ties with environmental advocates, community development organizations, and the public health world over the last decade. We are now working hard to join forces with transit advocates and the disability community to create communities that are truly inclusive and accessible to all.
“If you’re trying to get across the street and there are no curb cuts, six inches might as well be Mount Everest,” said Lawrence Carter Long of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund on the 99 Percent Invisible Podcast. “Six inches makes all the difference in the world if you can’t get over that curb.”
Fixing the “last mile” has long been the mantra of transit and walking advocates. While difficult to achieve, it has been taken up as an important goal by many transportation agencies and transit providers. Now is the time to take up the “last six inches,” too, ensuring Americans with Disability Act-compliant curb ramps and crosswalks are present. These last six inches are critical elements of age and disability-friendly communities, growing bus ridership, and improving mobility for all community members.
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