Imagine that you could only travel to 1% of the city you live in – areas that were easily accessible by other residents.
That’s the situation for manual wheelchair users who travel on public buses in Columbus, a first-of-its-kind study finds. Those with electric wheelchairs fared somewhat better – the study found they had access to around 25% of the areas available to public bus passengers.
But the main problem isn’t the bus system itself – the researchers found that the main hurdle is the sidewalks and other infrastructure that wheelchair users need to get from their homes to the bus stops and from the bus stops to their final destinations.
“Damaged and missing sidewalks are a big factor in making most of the city unavailable for wheelchair users who rely on public transportation to get around,” said Luyu Liu, lead author of the study and a geography doctoral student at Ohio State University.
“People with mobility impairments need to get to and from bus stops to use public transportation, which is not easy in many parts of the city.”
The study recently published in Journal of Transportation Geographyis significant because it is one of the first studies to obtain high-resolution, real-time data on bus use by people with and without disabilities and compare it with data on infrastructure such as sidewalks.
“We’ve never been able to do an analysis like this before. The data simply didn’t exist until recently,” said study co-author Harvey Miller, professor of geography at Ohio State and director of the university’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. .
“It allows us to gain new insights into how public transit works in our cities and the social justice challenges we face.”
And although this study was conducted in Columbus, it’s not the only city with an accessibility problem.
“Columbus is typical of a lot of cities in the United States, especially cities of similar size, because it’s so car-dependent,” Miller said.
“Public transportation is not in focus in many American cities, and many cities have trouble providing sidewalks.”
The study area is Franklin County, where Columbus is located. Franklin County is home to 1.3 million people, including about 64,000 people with mobility impairments. The researchers focus on the Central Ohio Transit Authority’s bus system, which serves about 50,000 people daily.
The researchers had access to real-time data on bus operations between 2018 and 2021, including the number of passengers and each time a bus deployed equipment to accommodate a wheelchair.
In addition, they used data on all registered sidewalks in the Franklin County area and the condition of each part of the sidewalk.
Liu said the findings showed “staggering disparities in accessibility” in the bus system between people with mobility impairments and non-disabled users.
In one analysis, researchers found how many bus stops could take users to different places in a city within 30 minutes. They found that 75% fewer bus stops can get people in manual wheelchairs to specific points within 30 minutes than non-disabled users. Users of power wheelchairs stopped 59% less often.
The researchers then completed calculations that gave riders twice the time — 60 minutes — to get to different places, and the disabled riders were still in a very difficult position.
“Even if we could wave a magic wand and give disabled riders an unrealistic time to travel, they would still have access to far fewer opportunities and resources than the general population,” said Miller.
In bus passenger usage data, the study found that the bus stops that people with disabilities tended to use were very different—and far fewer in number—than those of the general public.
“Wheelchair users are self-isolating in areas of the city where they know there are sidewalks and have created infrastructure they can use to get to bus stops,” Liu said.
The spatial patterns identified in the study showed that in most parts of the city, people with mobility impairments had levels of accessibility that were 60% to 100% lower than levels for non-disabled public transit users.
Remarkably, they found that the heart of the city—the place with the highest overall commuter and accessibility—was also the place with the highest accessibility disparities between people with disabilities and those without.
That’s because downtown has the highest level of citywide accessibility for those without disabilities. But for people with disabilities, there were many places they could theoretically travel to from the city center – but once they got to the bus station, they didn’t have a good way to get to their final destination.
“Once you get there, there are no sidewalks,” Liu said. “You’re stuck.”
Miller said the study shows that accessible buses and bus stops are necessary, but not sufficient, for those in wheelchairs.
“Sideways are part of our transportation system. We cannot have efficient and fair public transportation without a good sidewalk network,” he said.
Miller noted that people with mobility impairments are more likely than others to be less affluent and to have to rely on public transportation to get to jobs, medical appointments and shopping. This makes it all the more important to ensure that infrastructure works for them across the city.
“Public transit isn’t a business, it’s not just a social service. It’s vital urban infrastructure,” said Miller. “The sidewalks are part of that.”
Other co-authors, all based in Ohio, are Armita Kar, Ahmet Elderm Toki, and Hoyin TK Low.
Luyu Liu et al, Disparities in the accessibility and use of public transportation by persons with mobility impairments: an assessment using high-resolution transportation data, Journal of Transportation Geography (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2023.103589
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