TRANSIT FOR ALL
Public transportation can be difficult to navigate even when you're perfectly able. If you aren't, it can be yet another obstacle to overcome. In cities where the public transportation system predates the Americans with Disabilities Act by more than a century, public transit is still highly unfriendly to people who use wheelchairs — though that doesn't necessarily mean cities with more modern amenities are doing all they can to keep people in wheelchairs mobile. We consulted with several sources and found the best and worst cities for people with wheelchairs to navigate via public transportation, parts of which can matter also to people with strollers or even lots of luggage.
Don't let the hilly nature of the city fool you: Wheelchairtravel.org ranked Seattle No. 1 among its most wheelchair-accessible cities thanks to wheel-friendly ferries and taxis with ramps. The mild weather and high safety rating help, but the bus system has been fully accessible for more than 20 years, and its Sound Transit light rail is wheelchair-accessible as well. Major tourist attractions including the Space Needle, zoo, and aquarium are all wheelchair friendly too.
WORST: NEW YORK
Only aquarter of New York City subway stops are wheelchair accessible. Even when those subway stations are improved, elevators are rarely among the added perks. Buses are more accessible, but have more limited hours, and the paratransit service wont schedule late-night stops. More than 500,000 people in the city require wheelchair access, but public transit's indifference to it isn't surprising: Roughly 36 percent of people in wheelchairs live in homes that aren't wheelchair-accessible, which includes more than 47 percent of all public housing.
BEST: PORTLAND, OREGON
Reduced fares for people with disabilities limit the cost of public transit to $28 a month. Meanwhile, those who can't take wheelchair-accessible light rail, buses, or streetcars can apply their fare to the LIFT transport service. Bus, train, and streetcar stations are all built with access in mind, while the city itself is relatively flat in most areas.
WORST: WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
A survey by WalletHub found that disabled citizens in Winston-Salem have terrible access to health care and overall quality of life. Despite the promise of half-price fares, people using wheelchairs have access to only about three dozen bus routes and Trans-Aid paratransit up to three-quarters of a mile outside fixed bus routes. They also have to renew their eligibility every five years.
BEST: LAS VEGAS
It isn't in Vegas' interest to deny access, which is why the shows and casinos on the stripare wheelchair accessible (even the zip lines). The city is flat, the sidewalks are broad, and the rain is minimal. There is a sprawling paratransit system, which is open to wheelchair users from other places, and fares for people in wheelchairs on buses are $1. Even the monorail is wheelchair accessible.
WORST: ARLINGTON, TEXAS
WalletHub ranks Arlington near the bottom for quality of life among people with disabilities, and public transit is a big reason. While Dallas ranks No. 108, Arlington is mired at 140 out of 150 cities largely because it will build the Cowboys a football stadium and the Rangers yet another ballpark, but won't spend on public transportation. It is the largest city in the country without public transportation, which makes life difficult not only for those using wheelchairs, but everyone. The only bus is a trolley that goes to the entertainment district.
BEST: WASHINGTON, D.C.
WheelchairTravel.org calls it "perhaps the most-accessible public transportation system in the world." The broad sidewalks downtown make it more wheelchair-friendly than most cities its size. Combine that with the Metro (which has elevators at every stop), van transport when elevators break down, kneeling buses, and a mandate to make 100 percent of taxis wheelchair-accessible (aided by an incentive program) and D.C. leads by example.
WORST: JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI
Jackson's JATRAN has all of 11 bus routes. They stop running at roughly 8 p.m. weekdays and 7 p.m. Saturdays, with no service on Sunday. The good news is that it's $18 a month for people with wheelchairs and completely wheelchair accessible. The bad news is that buses run every 30 minutes to an hour and its "HandiLift" door-to-door bus service has stringent requirements even for those in wheelchairs.
Don't listen to the locals complaining about the T: It runs better than the New York City subway and, as noted by WheelchairTravel.org, above- and below-ground trains have good wheelchair access. In fact, a lawsuit against New York City points out that the huge majority of Boston T stations are wheelchair accessible. That's actually getting better, with 90 percent of stations friendly to those with wheelchairs, with the T updating platforms and elevators wherever possible it recent years.
WORST: SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA
Sportran is trying. Shreveport's transportation system provides half-price fares for people using wheelchairs and the LiftLine paratransit service if they encounter a bus without a wheelchair lift. It has 27 routes and runs buses until 1:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday (and until 5:30 p.m. on Sunday). But wait times can be a half-hour to an hour, with some routes significantly altered during nights and weekends. Sportran is absolutely getting better, but those backup buses and truncated night and weekend schedules suggest it has a long way to go.
Nothing about lake-effect snow seems particularly wheelchair-friendly, but we’re talking about public transportation. The buses are generally as accessible as tourist attractions such as Sears Tower and Wrigley Field, but WheelchairTravel.org notes that it could certainly invest more into improving train access. While the Chicago Transit Authority's system is about 70 percent accessible, it'strying to reach a D.C.-like 100 percent by 2036.
WORST: KNOXVILLE, TN
A paltry 23 bus routes cover less than 30 percent of the city, though the local transit authority insists it covers "80 percent of all Knoxville residents within half a mile." There are free trolleys, but for only a few blocks downtown and near the University of Tennessee. Bus schedules are erratic at best, with some buses running until near-midnight and others shutting down closer to 7 p.m. LIFT Paratransit is an option, but requires reservations a day to a week in advance, renewal every two years and a schedule that slams to a halt at midnight during the week and Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday.
Again, don't let the Mile-High City moniker or the mountains fool you: Public transportation here makes this place easy to navigate in a wheelchair. Yes, Denver can get cold and snowy, but its public transportation system goes to great lengths to be 100 percent accessible. Trains and light rail have ramps and priority seating; the Access-a-Ride paratransit service requires one to three days' notice but is available in dusk-to-dawn and dawn-to-dusk shifts, goes anywhere within a three-quarters-mile radius of standard transit, and is available to out-of-town visitors.
WORST: TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA
How isn't a college town better at this? Tallahassee is home to Florida State University and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, yet has just around 15 bus routes (which people using wheelchairs can ride for half price). On the weekend, the number of routes drops to 12, and only four routes run later than 7:30 p.m. A free trolley runs Friday and Saturday nights for students heading downtown, but paratransit stops full service at 7 p.m. "Night service" is offered until 10 p.m., but only Monday through Friday.
BEST: LOS ANGELES
Los Angeles doesn't mess around. All buses are built for wheelchair access, all rail stations have ramps or elevators, and all wheelchair-using passengers pay less than half price. The Metro even tweets to let riders know if their local stop's elevator is down. Meanwhile, the Consolidated Transportation Services Agency has a free fare program and a seven-day-a-week ride share program.
WORST: GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
Only about 28 percent of the city and surrounding metro area is covered by transit routes. Greenville offers discounts for riders who use wheelchairs, but its paratransit service offers only "comparable service to the regular fixed route bus," and only to those for whom riding a regular bus is impossible. Worse, service comes to a hard stop at 7:30 p.m. weekdays and 6:30 p.m. Saturdays. Only one regular bus runs until 9 p.m., and none run on Sunday. Other than a free trolley circling downtown on weekends, there is little night transit to be found here.
BEST: RICHMOND, VIRGINIA
Roughly 30 percent of the city was within reach of public transit in 2011, but that's changing quickly: Richmond's high-frequency bus rapid transit system launched this year along more than a dozen stops. Passengers using wheelchairs pay 75 cents per ride, and have access to a fleet that's now 100 percent wheelchair-friendly. Buses run late, and there's a fleet of 80 vehicles dedicated solely to curb-to-curb paratransit.
WORST: YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO
If you're catching a bus here, do so early. Standard bus hours only run until 7 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Just six bus lines run at night, with only four runs between 7 p.m. and midnight and none on Saturdays. There is no service on Sundays, but there is curb-to-curb paratransit service during scheduled bus hours and discounted fares for local and countywide bus service.
BEST: ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
A fairly flat city to begin with, Albuquerque also has one of the most accessible transit systems in the country. All of its buses are wheelchair friendly, and the Sun Van curb-to-curb service takes up the slack for those who can't ride the bus. Meanwhile, fares for people in wheelchairs are roughly a third of the normal fare, and all NM Rail Runner express train stations are wheelchair accessible. This is all great news, as Albuquerque taxis aren't going to help.
WORST: AUGUSTA, GEORGIA
There are just nine bus routes here, and the latest they run is roughly 8 p.m. That covers only about 30 percent of Augusta's metropolitan area, and exactly none of it on Sundays. Not all lines are wheelchair-accessible, and the half-price discounted fare doesn't apply to people with disabilities. Paratransit service is available, but only along those nine routes on their hours.
BEST: SAN FRANCISCO
When New York was sued for its lack of access, the suit noted that all of San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit stations were wheelchair accessible. Caltrain is similarly accessible, as are Muni buses and trains. The same applies to San Francisco Bay ferries. While nearby Berkeley has free wheelchair repair, all drivers in San Francisco are trained to belt chairs into place before traversing the city's steeper streets.
WORST: BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA
All buses here are wheelchair accessible, and Birmingham offers paratransit services and half-price fares. But the city's more than 30 bus routes cover just 32 percent of the metro area and start running as late as 11 a.m., with evening service more sporadic and, often, no service at all on Sundays.
Philly has access, but it has work to do. Roughly 70 percent of its buses and trains are wheelchair accessible, though much of that improvement has come in recent years. While SEPTA's bus system is 100 percent accessible, passengers note that the train stations — especially the regional rail, where only about half of stations have elevators — can use some work. The PATCO rail line fares only slightly better, with little more than half of stations having wheelchair elevators, but the city is still loaded with accessible options.
WORST: BOISE, IDAHO
Valley Regional Transit provides service only six days a week, on 17 bus routes that only run until about 7 p.m. While there are options for curb-to-curb paratransit in the Boise metro area and free paratransit in Ada County, half-price fares for people using wheelchairs are helpful only if those fares pay to get people where they want to go. Considering the budget shortfalls and service cuts local transit is facing, riders in wheelchairs shouldn't expect broad-based improvements anytime soon.
BEST: ORLANDO, FLORIDA
Every tourist attraction in this town is wheelchair accessible, so it makes sense that the transit is as well. That includes the Lynx bus system, which keeps late hours, runs year-round, and charges half-price fares for riders in wheelchairs while offering curb-to-curb access paratransit service.
WORST: BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS
The B Metro offers discounted fares for those with wheelchairs, but runs just 13 bus routes here. There is paratransit, but bus service ends as early as 8 p.m. There are more than 180,000 people living here, but this transit system averages only about 1.5 million rides per year. It isn't robust by any means, which makes it tough for folks in wheelchairs even with various amenities.
Covering more than 97 percent of the city, Honolulu's bus system is exceptional. Fares for those with wheelchairs are about a third of the standard adult fare, and all buses are wheelchair accessible. Even if the buses themselves prove difficult, the city's paratransit service covers a whole lot of ground.
Indianapolis doesn't get a whole lot of use out of its transit system, mostly because its 32 bus routes do a fine job east and west of downtown, but not necessarily north and south of it. Just know that this is changing: Bus rapid transit is coming in, more routes are being added, hours are being extended, and bus frequency is picking up. In all, the city plans to add 70 percent more service, which is desperately needed. For now, half-priced fares are available to those in wheelchairs, and OpenDoor paratransit and taxi vouchers are available. But the buses don't run late or frequently enough — or have enough leveled, sheltered stops — to be attractive to wheelchair users.
BEST: SALT LAKE CITY
About 90 percent of Salt Lake City falls within the city's transit corridor. There is an expanding web of bus lines, TRAX light rail, commuter trains and streetcars within Utah Transit Authority, and all are wheelchair accessible. There may be an older commuter rail car here or there that is an issue, but they won't keep people who use wheelchairs off of transit altogether. Buses are also fully accessible, though there is an extensive paratransit system that offers both curb-to-curb and door-to-door service.
WORST: OKLAHOMA CITY
Oklahoma City is slowly growing into public transit. The streetcar just got here in 2009, making 22 stops downtown. Meanwhile, all Oklahoma City buses and ferries are wheelchair accessible, and are backed up with paratransit service. That said, there are still big blank spots on the system map, and only four bus lines operate later than 7 p.m. Oh, and some buses won't run at all on Saturday or Sunday.