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Winter, Sidewalks and Curb Cuts – what is the solution?

4 Feb

We just came off of a warm weekend and the snow and ice that accumulated is finally melting.  It’s been a tough few weeks with thick ice lining sidewalks and streets and curb cuts buried under piles of snow.  Many business owners and home owners tried hard to keep their sidewalks and curb cuts accessible and admittedly it’s hard. Some didn’t try as hard or at all. 

Right now, we have a system where our snow plows clear the streets and often leave big piles of snow on the corner – and the curb cut.  It is then up to the property owner on the corner or their neighbors to try to shovel through the pile (which is often large and icy) to make it accessible.  We all know this isn’t working well. Even over the weekend, as I walked in the bright sunshine with well above freezing temperatures, most of the curb cuts still hadn’t fully melted and were difficult for many to cross.

Pictured:  Piles of snow placed on a curb cut – making the sidewalk non-accessible for scooters, wheelchairs, strollers etc.

Traversing sidewalks in winter is challenging for people of all abilities.  But for individuals with disabilities (and/or anyone with mobility difficulties) it is especially dangerous and sometimes travel isn’t even possible. Case in point, we asked an individual who uses a wheelchair to speak at one of our events in February; she declined until March because she wasn’t sure she would be able to get to a February event due to snow.  In the last week we have seen a mobility scooter rider cross a busy street with a pedestrian signal only to get to the other side and not be able to access the sidewalk due to a big pile of snow on the curb cut. This put the individual in a dangerous situation where they didn’t have the option to wait for a walk signal but had to keep moving (frogger-style between vehicles) until they could cross to a corner where the curb cut was accessible and they could get on the sidewalk.  (I can’t imagine the adrenaline pumping through their body as they watched a pickup coming toward them.) We’ve seen other scooter users encounter this issue throughout the city. We’ve seen wheelchair users abandon the sidewalks altogether and travel in the street. And people who are able to walk are struggling as well. We’ve seen an elderly man create a “sit on the big snowpile where the curb cut should be” method of crossing the street – sitting down on the snow was the only safe way to get across without falling.  Parents pushing strollers are forced into the streets with moving cars. I haven’t seen the woman that daily walks through my neighborhood pushing her walker – I imagine she is stuck inside. 

What is the solution?  Our current approach isn’t providing a safe, consistent solution and some people are truly stuck inside during the winter months. Some cities have paid employees that  make sure curb cuts are accessible. We invite you to leave ideas and examples you’ve found in other cities in the comments. Collectively we need to find a better way to deal with our sidewalks and our curb cuts in the winter months.  This is crucial for individuals with disabilities and would greatly improve the safety and quality of life for people of all abilities.  

Five Questions for the Munroe-Meyer Institute

14 Jan

For our first Coffee Chat of 2020, we’ve invited the Munroe-Meyer Institute to join us to talk about their mission to serve the community of people living with disabilities. Join us Friday, January 17th, 8 a.m. at the Hardy’s Coffee at the Highlander.

Anne Woodruff Jameson is a physical therapist at UNMC’s Munroe-Meyer Institute. She serves students with individualized education plans (IEPs) through Omaha Public Schools and adults with developmental disabilities with issues related to women’s health and community mobility. Prior to her physical therapy school, she was a direct support worker and program manager for adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities.

Brad Corr is an Assistant Professor and physical therapist with 12+ years of clinical practice experience. He currently serves as the Director of Adult Programming in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center Munroe-Meyer Institute and is enrolled as a PhD student. He is interested in promoting and tracking community based mobility and physical activity for adolescents and adults with intellectual and or developmental disabilities.

Anne and Brad are interested in how participation in physical activity can be increased with improved community mobility and access, including elimination of transportation barriers and engaging in more active forms of transit.

We asked them five questions:

1. Are their specific transportation challenges that face everyone with disabilities or do different populations present unique challenges?

The People First of Nebraska group, a group of self-advocates, put together a report addressing this question based on their lived experiences. It was shared by Liz Sigler, a self-advocate who uses public transportation daily to get to and from work. The report is quoted below, all directly quoted from the self-advocates:

We talked about problems people with disabilities have with transportation. Some of them are the same problems other people have with transportation. Some are more complicated.

o   We can’t drive a car
o   We can’t get a car
o   Cabs are expensive and we don’t have much money
o   It takes a lot of time to get from one place to another
o   We might not feel safe, maybe we’re afraid of falling off the ramp or lift
o   Living where there is no public transportation
o   Buses aren’t always running when you need them or go where you need them to go
o   MOBY only runs when the regular buses run
o   MOBY only runs close to the regular bus routes
o   We can only use MOBY if we have health problems or can’t walk to a bus stop alone
o   Sometimes when you call to get a ride the operators are rude
o   If you use a wheelchair you might not be able to get down the sidewalk
o   Lots of times the buses don’t go where the jobs are
o   Public transportation doesn’t always come on time
o   Unsafe bus drivers
o   Buses not always well taken care of
o   Bus stops can be covered with snow and ice

We thought up some things that might help:

o   Set up a transportation account with discounts for cabs, Uber, Lyft, and/or other ways to get around
o   Service providers should not stop current transportation without providing something else
o   Take better care of vehicles
o   Vehicles should be checked daily to make sure they are safe; especially lifts and ramps
o   Have local groups to discuss creative solutions for those communities
o   Find ways to have more people using public transportation
o   Make directions easy to understand
o   Longer hours of operation
o   Clear the bus stops of snow and ice”

One gentleman, who uses a power wheelchair, shared his experience of falling off a wheelchair van lift in the past. He is now scared to ride in unfamiliar transit, which greatly limits his options to access the community. He was hoping to attend the annual Arc Senatorial Dinner in Lincoln this year to advocate for disability rights but stated, “The reason I turned down Lincoln was because I am afraid of the lift and I am afraid of riding out of my way. Next year I will try it. I really want to go to Lincoln next year because I feel I can bring up some valid points. I really want people to hear what I have to say…when I ride I am a nervous cat. I have to practice my breathing techniques and wear a seat belt. That is the only way I feel safe when riding. On MOBY it is the same way. What I have to realize is that one day I may get over my fear completely…I honestly believe that if I went to Lincoln I could be a voice for them.”

2. What are the greatest transportation challenges facing people with disabilities in Omaha? 

Financial, lack of spontaneity, safety…I address these more in detail in questions 1 and 4

3. UNMC has made great strides with promoting active transportation. Has that also been to the advantage of the MMI clients?

UNMC’s TravelSmart program was thoughtfully designed and is an incredible, valuable resource for UNMC employees. It does not directly affect MMI clients since it is specifically for employees, but I like to think that any infrastructure developed that increases active transportation sets the stage for improved overall access.

4. What are some unique challenges your clients/served community encounter that the rest of the population wouldn’t expect?

Inequity in innovation:

o   Transit apps often are not accessible, accurate, and in plain language (intuitive and easy to understand)
o   Uber and Lyft are technically technology companies, which allows them to skirt the ADA regulations that transportation companies have to adhere to that mandates they have a certain percentage of accessible vehicles in their fleets. There are pending lawsuits addressing this issue.
o   Alternative modes of transit are often not accessible for people with physical disabilities such a B-cycle and Omaha’s scooter trial
o   Autonomous vehicle companies will need incentives to manufacture accessible vehicles. Retrofitting is extremely cost-prohibitive ($20-$80K to retrofit the vehicle-and most of these are already expensive vehicles to begin with). Additionally, states should be encouraged not to make laws that are more restrictive that federal ones based on fear. Some states want to require a licensed driver to always be present in an autonomous vehicle. This would be prohibitive for people with disabilities, elderly individuals, and people with medical conditions such as epilepsy who cannot get a driver’s license. These are the people who stand to benefit the most from the use of autonomous vehicles!

Vulnerability-people with physical and cognitive impairments are at a greater risk of being taken advantage of. With inconsistent transportation providers, their risk increases.

Lack of spontaneity: personally, I value transportation most for spontaneous needs. A quick trip to the store to get the chili powder you forgot for your recipe, a drink with a friend who happens to be passing through town, being able to run over to your sister’s house when she needs a baby-sitter last-minute…all those things are important to being an active, engaged adult! This isn’t an option with our current mass transit or paratransit systems, and is cost-prohibitive with on-demand ride hailing systems. MOBY requires you to book at least 24 hours in advance.

People with cognitive or sensory impairments often have trouble problem solving or responding appropriately to unanticipated events. Public transportation is rife with unanticipated events! I have heard stories about meltdowns with people with autism when a bus doesn’t show up on time or an app fails or is giving faulty information. For an adult in a public place, this can turn into a dangerous situation quickly

5. If you could magically change one thing in the Omaha with regard to transportation what would it be?

Accessible microtransit! Microtransit means on-demand transportation for everyone as an extension of regular public transportation services. Ideally this service would be fareless, low-fare, or allow people with disabilities to use their waiver monies to access it (some states already allow people to use their waiver money to access transportation, Nebraska is not currently one of them). There are a few cities that are trialing certain components of this currently. Some are using all public systems while others are using public/private partnerships. Some are using microtransit to connect people to main fixed routes, others are using it as curb-to-curb rideshares. A couple examples below.

Ex. Sioux Falls. Public transportation had limited service area and hours that prevent residents from accessing personal mobility when they need it most. To address these challenges they created the Transit Core Team, a group of 14 City of Sioux Falls employees from across nine divisions.  Together they used human-centered design to find innovative solutions. Their goal was to increase the economic benefit of public transit for residents and the City. Their solution is to launch an on-demand rideshare using their existing fleet. It operates within existing service area, same hours and fares, but it shifts fixed route service to corner-to-corner on-demand service using an app and virtual bus stops. All virtual stops are all 1-3 blocks from home. They are launching a 12 month pilot beginning July 2020 on Saturdays, will iterate if successful.

Ex. Kansas City just made their public transit fareless. Some cities have found that they are only recouping a minimal percentage of their fares because it costs a lot to run the fare system (software, cards, employees to manage systems) but they still must keep fares low so people can afford to ride. They also recently piloted a curb-to-curb on-demand microtransit program in Johnson County, a suburb of Kansas City. It runs 6 am – 8 pm daily with 4 vehicles. Is has served 100 customers a day since its inception in February 2019.

What could a public/private partnership look like? In Omaha, there are day programs who have their own fleets of vans and buses to get people to/from their programs in the early morning and late afternoon. Some vehicles are used during the day for community outings, but otherwise are just sitting around all day and night.

Most importantly in planning, listen to your customers first! Don’t plan a system in response to pressures from boards, politicians, and organizations alone because it is unlikely to meet the needs of your actual riders, and therefore will not be successful or sustainable.

How Lyft is filling transportation gaps that are barriers to getting a job

6 Jan

Blog Post Collaboration between UNMC Munroe-Meyer Institute and Mode Shift Omaha

Last month we highlighted the high number of Nebraska individuals with disabilities that see transportation as a major barrier to living an independent, fulfilling life.  This week we want to share a program that brings hope to many and can fill a gap.

Lyft recently launched a jobs access program that will offer free rides to job interviews, job training programs and to work for the first 3 weeks of a job. Omaha is 1 of 35 cities that will be involved in the program.   Leaders at Munroe Meyer Institute cite many positive benefits to this program. First, many individuals with disabilities need job training and this program provides access to it. A free ride to a job interview and free ride to work during the first three weeks makes the individual more likely to apply for the job and feel like they can take the job if offered.  It also gives the individual a little time to see if they like the job and gives them time to make a plan that can help get them to work. The free ride lasts until the individual gets their first paycheck – that paycheck can open up more opportunities to make it easier to get to work. Some may even be able to move closer to their job or they may be able to purchase a vehicle to gain the accessibility they need if they can’t get to work via the bus or other public transit.  

This program has the capacity to bring a lot of hope and open doors to employment for many.  But, there are still concerns. What if there are still barriers to get to work after the first 3 weeks on the job?  Some employers will help individuals get to work, but that is not the norm. What if the employee doesn’t live where they can walk, bike or use transit? What if they can’t pay for Lyft on a daily basis or can’t afford their own car?

We applaud Lyft for this program as it provides a needed resource that will allow people that don’t have access to a car a much better shot at getting and keeping a job.  At the same time, it doesn’t eliminate or reduce the need for frequent and reliable public transit that reaches all parts of the metropolitan region at varied times of the day.  

You can join Lyft in supporting this important work by donating to partners like the USO through their Round Up & Donate program. With each ride, your donation will help support the USO’s efforts to connect transitioning service members and veterans with Jobs Access rides, as well as support programs for active service members and their families. Tap ‘Donate’ in the main menu of your Lyft app to opt-in. Our friends at Munroe Meyer feel that these donations are valuable and also will help keep the program sustainable for those they serve!

To see Lyft’s press release on this program, click here.