Is it really all it could be? Accessibility on Chicago’s Transit Authority

By Nikki Medanovic and Harmonee Morgan

Accessibility is not really some grand concept that would radically rethink how people normally do things. Accessibility is the little things. Is there enough room in my car for my wheelchair? Is there a ramp for me to get on the train or do I have to request another form of transportation to get somewhere? The people of Chicago are no strangers to the question of accessibility.

The Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA, is Chicago’s main transportation service. Starting operations in 1947, CTA provides El train line and bus services. Currently all of CTA’s buses and rail cars are 100% accessible. Lifts and ramps are available for any passenger who requests it, even if they are just temporarily unable to get up on the steps.

Dr. P.S.Sriraj, Director of University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation and Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative says that CTA has been committed to promoting accessibility but has had to deal with competing priorities.

“It becomes a question of how do you manage all of those priorities”, says Dr. Sriraj

While CTA has made all of its buses and rail cars 100% accesibile, only 103 of their 145 rail cars are accessible. Solidifying their commitment to increasing accessibility on their train system, the CTA released the All Stations Accessibility Program, or ASAP, in 2018. The long term goal of the project is outlined to take 20 years to complete, however, they have already made a number of stations accessible just in the last 10 years.

Sriraj said that CTA is really trying to do its part.

“Within the confines of the issues that they’re facing, they’re doing everything they can,” says Dr. Driraj, adding that the real issue comes from the lack of funding, or lack of funding flexibility. He says, “for the most part, I would put it at the feet of the funding issues.”

After reaching out to CTA, they confirm that they take pride in their commitment to accessibility.

Chicago Transit Authority confirms, “CTA has one of the strongest commitments among U.S. transit systems for making its entire rail system accessible to people with disabilities. In recent years, a multitude of steps have been taken to improve accessibility across our system. In addition to operating a 100 percent accessible bus and rail fleet, more than 70 percent of our rail stations are accessible, which is among the highest accessibility percentages of the nation’s older transit systems. Although we’re proud of the progress we’ve made, we recognize that work is not complete until we reach 100 percent accessibility.”

Credit: “Chicago (ILL) Chicago Transit Authority, CTA, S.Wabash Ave ‘ Adams / Wabash station (200S/45E) ‘ 1896 ( renovated 1988 )” by (vincent desjardins) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Federal Transit Authority, or FTA, oversees a funding program called New Starts where transportation systems can apply for investments over $250 million. Up until 2008, funding was only available for systems that were looking to expand or build new lines. The change in language of the grant allowed for “core capacity improvement”, meaning that projects could apply for funding if they were improving service. This means that CTA has access to this critical funding.

CTA is facing more issues than just funding flexibility. Because many stations are found in high density, high population areas, making changes to the stations can be difficult. According to the CTA’s ASAP website, many factors go into making decisions about which stations to make accessible.

Age of the station impacts decisions and some stations might benefit from a complete remaking to include accessibility efforts instead of just updating the station. Some stations are also located just a few feet from other stations. Sometimes some stations also present their own constraints that make it harder to make stations 100 accessible.

“When you’re constrained with space, you have to be ready to invest more to get the same amenity,” Sriraj said.

John Morris, creator of Wheelchair Travel, created a website meant to be a hub for people with disabilities in order to be able to travel. Morris created the website after realizing that there was not a centralized resource for disabled people who are traveling to different cities. Giving people the “nuts and bolts, Morris provides information about accessibility in certain cities, tourist sites, and the best ways to get around.

After living in Chicago for a brief period of time, Morris says that Chicago is actually one of the most accessible cities, but there could be improvements.

Morris’s main complaint is with the CTA’s El systems not being completely accessible. While he understands that this is a commitment for the CTA, he argues that thirty years into the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is really no excuse for inaccessibility. Morris hopes that the projects will be fast tracked and prioritized.

Ashley Olsen, creator of Wheelchairtraveling.com, launched a similar website to Morris’s in 2006. Focusing more on giving followers the first-hand experience of her travels, she wanted to give her followers a chance to communicate with each other on their experiences. She gives her followers advice on what to pack for the trip, if they will need someone to help push them, if they will need power equipment, or if they would need to rent a car or not.

After using transportation in San Francisco, Tokyo, New York and Chicago, she finds that transportation systems in the U.S. can use a lesson in hospitality when it comes to people using their accessible systems. This was not a problem she found in Tokyo.While all buses are accessible, she says that sometimes bus drivers are not as helpful as she would hope they would be.

“There were a lot of bus drivers that were friendly, but then there were still I guess, overall, too many that are not on it when it comes to helping somebody who has a wheelchair … it’s like yes, I need the ramp,” she says.

While actually being able to physically get on the bus with a ramp is the main aspect of accessibility, Olson also explains that having drivers support them when they are finding their seats and taking up room on the bus would be helpful.

Olsen raves about the accessibility in Tokyo and says that she did find that support from transportation workers there. After getting your accessibility ticket, a worker offers to help you walk down to the platform. The worker had helped her get on the ramp and helped position them in the best place based on what their destination is.

Olsen says, “And by far they’re so superior. Just saying… there are all kinds of solutions…”

Communication major at The University of Illinois at Chicago.

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