Public transportation is an essential public service, especially for low-income and urban communities who often must travel long distances to school, work, the supermarket, and other places around the city but who are unable to afford a car. Public transportation is especially important for people with physical disabilities, but it has long been least accessible to them.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of federal laws were passed to make public transportation accessible for people with mobility problems. In response, the Law Center joined with Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania (DIA) and other disability rights advocates to ensure the new laws were fully implemented.
The coalition filed Disabled in Action v. William T. Coleman in 1976, arguing that fully accessible, low-floored, ramped bus was the only model that could meet the requirements of the law. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) initially resisted, but a new Secretary of DOT taking office in 1977 issued a policy decision mandating accessible busses. The case was declared moot, and though the policy was not fully implemented, litigation of the matter ended.
Unfortunately, later changes in DOT regulations again threatened to severely limit access to public transit.
Restoring the Right to Accessible Transit
Under the Reagan administration, the U.S. DOT wrote new regulations that allowed transit agencies to limit their services to people with disabilities, as long as 3% of their budget went towards para-transit services. As a result, cities across the country began to build bus and rail systems entirely unequipped for people with disabilities, and segregated paratransit services in Philadelphia and elsewhere proved to be wholly inadequate.
Starting in 1985, the Law Center partnered with DIA and disability rights attorney Steve Gold to help bring a series of cases aiming to restore the right to accessible transit in Philadelphia and across the country.
Accessibility on the Broad Street Line
In the early 1980s, SEPTA undertook a large-scale renovation of stations on the Broad Street subway line, but did not install elevators or take other simple steps to make the stations accessible to people with disabilities. The first lawsuit, DIA v. Sykes, was filed in 1985 on behalf of Disabled in Action and nine Temple University students, seeking to compel SEPTA to install an elevator at the station at Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore) and to ensure that all newly built or renovated stations are fully accessible.
We also brought a complaint with the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which enforces the Architectural Barriers Act (now the U.S. Access Board), alleging that SEPTA’s Broad Street line renovations – using federal funds – had not taken accessibility into account. The Act requires that transportation projects using federal money be accessible to people with disabilities, and the Board found violations of accessibility standards at nineteen SEPTA stations.
Accessibility on SEPTA commuter rail
In 1986, we brought a lawsuit with Disabled in Action challenging SEPTA’s refusal to allow people in wheelchairs use their regional rail system without a companion. After the suit was filed, SEPTA quickly agreed to settle the case, and it was easily resolved by removing seats from train cars and requiring train attendants to assist people in wheelchairs across the gaps between the platform and the train entrance.
ADAPT v. Dole
The U.S. DOT regulations establishing a “safe harbor,” under which any city would be found in compliance as long as it spent 3% of its budget on paratransit, went into effect in 1986. The Law Center and a coalition of disabilities rights advocates and organizations promptly filed suit challenging the regulations, arguing that they set an arbitrary spending limit that severely limited access to transit, unfairly segregated people with disabilities, and abandoned the federal government’s legal responsibility to ensure access to transit for all.
The suit, Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation v. Dole, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The District Court judge ruled in our favor, striking down the regulation and writing that “the cost limit at issue here permits the burden of cost to eviscerate the civil right.” The decision declined, however, to require all transit be made accessible.
The decision was upheld on appeal, and as a result of the decision all buses subsequently purchased with federal funds were required to be accessible to people with mobility impairments.