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How Chicago can improve its transportation for people with disabilities: report

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Accessible transportation is an “uncoordinated patchwork”

A successful transit system is more than just on-time trains, it also needs wheelchair-accessible stations and complete sidewalks near bus stops to serve every resident. A new report highlights how Chicago’s transportation system is failing people with disabilities—and what the city can do to improve.

The study, Toward Universal Mobility, from Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) lays out issues with Chicago’s “uncoordinated patchwork” transit system and details 32 recommendations for the city and surrounding counties.

“When a system fails those who need it the most, it fails us all,” wrote MPC’s President MarySue Barrett in the introduction. The first half of the report highlights frustrating barriers that cause people with disabilities to choose more expensive modes of transportation or avoid traveling in the first place.

The report was compiled after interviews with more than 100 people with first-hand knowledge of transportation accessibility issues. Most of the problems discussed in the report show a fragmented system that hasn’t yet addressed accessibility in a comprehensive way.

The CTA has a program to make all stations accessible over the next 20 years, but hasn’t found a source of funding for the entire plan, the report says. Out of 145 stations, 103 are considered accessible because they have elevators. But those “accessible” stations don’t necessarily have accommodations for blind or deaf people.

As for Metra stations, 185 are fully accessible, 13 are partially accessible, and 44 are inaccessible. The Metra Electric line uses bridge plates to cover the gap between the vestibule and platform and other Merta lines have at least one car with a lift. However, making trains accessible is only one part, the report says. What makes it even more complicated to have a connected system, is that Metra’s stations are maintained individually by local municipalities making them responsible for accessibility upgrades.

Another major issue for transit riders with disabilities is uncertainty, the report says. For example, many bus stops in suburban areas don’t have the necessary concrete pads for boarding ramps or complete sidewalks. About 900 Pace bus stops have no sidewalks along any streets within a quarter-mile radius of the stop, according to the report. That could mean when a person gets off the bus they must roll their wheelchair into grass, snow, or the street.

The top recommendation from the planning agency is to create a new position for a Mobility Coordinator—someone who will integrate and unify accessible transportation services across the region. The position would coordinate efforts between local governments, transit agencies, and private partners. They would also unify mobility managers that some counties already have.

The report also encourages cities to centralize information on available transit services and keep up with technology. That could include allowing paratransit riders to make reservations online and creating real-time trip planning tools.

Accurate information can make a big difference. In the report, one transit rider shared how frustrating it can be with the current system:

“Before leaving home I check the CTA’s website to make sure the elevator I will need is working, but recently CTA didn’t report a malfunction on their website. At the Lake Street station the elevator was broken and I had to get back on the train and go to another station.”

The report emphasizes that accessible transportation in a city is about more than elevators at CTA stations and space for wheelchairs on Metra trains.

“We need to think about every part of the journey, from the first 100 feet of a trip, to the last 100 feet. We need to build out our region’s pedestrian infrastructure with a complete sidewalk network, safe crossings, and accessible signals,” MPC’s Jeremy Glover writes.

Riders with disabilities must be able to navigate transportation with “maddening frustration” and unnecessary barriers. The recommendations offer easy-to-implement solutions for municipalities and Mayor Lightfoot was receptive.

“Ensuring access to a reliable, affordable, and equitable transportation system serving every resident in every community is a top priority for my administration,” Lightfoot wrote in response to the report. “We look forward to partnering with them as we make new investments across our public transit system that will make it much easier for all Chicagoans, regardless of their ability, to get around our city.”