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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Thinking Strategically About Disability Access

An article at RI Future had me thinking again about the need to stand up for disabled people, the elderly, and the homeless. 

There's no doubt at all that morally speaking, the people who demonstrated recently for free RIPTA fares for these groups are on the right side of history. But at the risk of being the town curmudgeon, I want to point out some ways in which I differ with their approach. Get out your cudgels to beat me with! I take pitchforks and torches too!

Why do I disagree with these people? And how can we get past that disagreement towards a better solution?

Barry Schiller, a retiree and former RIPTA-board member, wrote a good piece on this a while back. He pointed out some of the problems:
Reflecting the decency of Rhode Islanders who want to help the poor, many groups support the continuation of the free fares. It certainly is a feel-good position and there are folks in dire poverty that really cannot afford additional expenditures. But there is another side to the story. Low income people on medicaid are eligible to still get free rides to any kind of medical trip including pharmacy visits. Twice the Federal poverty level is $31,860 for a couple, $48,500 for a household of four which may be more than some low income working people who pay full fare. Perhaps this threshold could be lowered to protect the very poor.
As Schiller points out, there are really a bunch of very disparate groups being put together in one bunch. An elderly person who is fairly lower middle class can get a free RIPTA fare, while someone who is working as a single mom may have to pay full fare. I think it's pretty much common sense and shouldn't be contested that homeless people should get free unlimited fares, but assuming that the best way to help the poor is to create an age-based tier system isn't necessarily the right way to go.

That being said, having free fares for elderly people would be great-- my grandmother isn't in dire poverty, but she lives in Pennsylvania, where if she chose to get a free bus pass she probably could. If someone proposed taxing high income Rhode Islanders to do this as a social service, I'd be all for it. What I don't like is picketing RIPTA, as if the agency is able to offer free fares without sacrificing another aspect of their service.

The loudness with which this issue is heard doesn't always reflect the best of transit planning. Human Transit's Jarrett Walker addressed this concern within his own Portland, Oregon system in a good article:

You must be both money-poor and time-rich to benefit from a system that reduces fares but wastes more and more of your time due to low frequencies and bad connections.  
If, on the other hand, you are money-poor and time-poor — working two jobs and taking a class and rushing to daycare — you will benefit from a good network that saves you time as much as from one that saves you money. But that means you don't have time to go to meetings or be heard. We transit professionals see these busy low-income people on our systems and care about their needs, but we also know that we're not going to hear their voice as much from advocacy organizations, because they just don't have time to get involved.
I spend a lot of time thinking about transit, and I notice ways in which the system doesn't work that could be easily fixed, but very seldom do I find passionate involvement from people in order to bring those changes about. For instance, the 60 bus, which I've taken for a while to get to work, has stops that are about 0.1 of a mile apart. Someone probably set those stops apart with the idea that the only people using buses would be very old, or very disabled. Yet that stop spacing makes the bus take a much longer time to actually get going anywhere end-to-end, and undermines how useful it is to the general public. You might think this was an unsolvable quandary: either take care of the most vulnerable, or set up routes that attract broad ridership. But to me, it's clear that that's not the case at all. A little bit of effort making the bus routes faster, coupled with efforts at pedestrian and bike improvements, would mean that the most vulnerable would have mobility.

Today I was actually thinking of writing something about Barrington anyway. I've been really hawk-eyeing my morning bus route for observations on how to improve it, and today I noticed that all along 114 in Barrington, the sidewalks are so narrow that it would be impossible to get a wheelchair down one. The light poles have been installed in such a way as to block any access. Who would design a sidewalk like that, I thought. It defies logic.

Changing a pedestrian access issue like this would be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as running the bus route in a dumb way to make up for it. Smart planners would have identified the need to widen the Barrington sidewalks (sorry, motorists, even if that means losing your center turn-lane!) so that the most vulnerable would have a safe access point to a bus stop. But instead, we'll have the capital-intensive bus adjust to the one-time-cost mistake.

We design a lot of our bus routes so that they veer off-path to visit side destinations. This is a result of bad land use planning, and is also an effort to fix that bad land use planning after-the-fact by connecting "last mile" destinations to-the-door. But in functional transit systems, buses never do this. I can't think of any SEPTA bus routes in Philadelphia proper or the suburbs that go into parking lots, unless it's at the very endpoint of a route. RIPTA buses do this all the time. 

You can understand why someone wants to keep stops spaced closely, have the buses do to-the-door service, and so on, but it's just not a smart way to run the system. And as it happens, the biggest reason RIPTA has been in a deficit the last time around was because of unfunded flex-bus and medical service trips, rather than fixed-route service. If transit advocates that work on behalf of the elderly and disabled were smart, they'd work with the state and with municipalities to site housing for these groups better, so that it could be served more easily by fixed-route buses, rather than have the buses try to swerve this way and that to meet every location. They'd find a source of funding for free fares, rather than just demanding that RIPTA cut service elsewhere to meet their demands. And they'd work to make sure that buses do what buses do well-- carry people quickly between dense, linearly-connected points-- while having bikes, walking, rascals, and wheelchairs do the last jaunts.

I'm also bugged by this issue because it seems like there's a very large overlap between the people who demand that the car tax be lowered for all the Mercedes owners in Providence to give a small, unfunded taxcut to jalopy owners and the people who demand that RIPTA cut fixed-route service to provide free fares to seniors. It doesn't matter how much you explain the math to people, people hate math. They like moral high grounds to be math-free.

The point of this post isn't to rail against free fares for elderly or disabled people, and so I want to close this by reorienting people towards the fact that this is a false dichotomy. RI legislators have a lot of crazy notions about lowering the estate tax or doing other special favors for the very wealthy, and as the organizers for the elderly have said, it wouldn't take much money to ensure that our old folks and disabled have a guaranteed free fare. It's even sillier to take away access to the homeless, who are a small but extremely vulnerable population. But charging around without thinking about the fiscal issues that plague RIPTA is irresponsible. The organizers have a responsibility to think about how they're going to pay for their proposal, and what the reforms might be that would both bring in new revenue, as well as make better use of existing revenue. 

It's time to have that conversation.


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