How many Virginians with disabilities lack reliable transportation? Right now, we don’t know.

March 18, 2022 12:01 am

Two people using mobility devices to cross over Interstate 95 in Richmond. (Wyatt Gordon / For the Virginia Mercury

As frustrating as the recent rise in gas prices may be for people who rely upon cars to get around, for the 1.6 million Virginians with disabilities the ability to drive at all in our car-dependent society is a luxury many cannot imagine. How hard is it for the disabled community to access reliable transportation in the commonwealth? A study before the General Assembly this year sought to answer that question — until Republicans let it die.

As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William understands how often government policy and investments overlook people with disabilities. That’s why the lawmaker proposed HJ112, a transit equity study that would have instructed the Virginia Department of Transportation to examine opportunities to improve the mobility of the commonwealth’s disabled community. On a party- line vote that bill was laid on the table in a House Rules subcommittee last month.

“We have not shown that we are willing to make the funding and legislative commitments that we need to to make sure people with disabilities have access to transportation,” King said.  “We have all of these wonderful jobs in the commonwealth and a big group of talented people who can’t access them just because they don’t have reliable transportation.”


Data disabled

The lack of interest in an issue that impacts roughly one in four Virginians would be surprising if the neglect were not so widespread.  The first step to tackling any problem is to understand its extent, but even that step has proved nigh impossible for advocates, according to Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative.

“Barriers to transportation is always in the top three list of problems people with disabilities face, but what is shocking is how little data there is,” said Zivarts.  “The census doesn’t even ask who in a household has access to a vehicle or the ability to drive.  It ends up erasing a lot of people for whom a car never will be a solution.”

Her organization successfully lobbied the Washington state legislature this year to fund a study similar to the one proposed by King to the tune of $400,000. That victory took years of grassroots engagement and education on a scale Virginia has yet to see.

Such small wins require so much work because “society doesn’t know how to deal with people with disabilities,” according to Matthew Shapiro — the founder and CEO of 6 Wheels Consulting LLC, a Richmond-based firm that assists institutions in becoming more disability-friendly. “They would rather sweep us under the rug, which is not the right approach. Disability is the only minority group that any of us can join in the blink of an eye and the only group that all of us will eventually join as we age into health challenges.”

The defeat of King’s study proves all the more worrisome considering how quickly the commonwealth’s population is aging. Today one in seven Virginia residents are age 65 or older. By 2030, the University of Virginia anticipates that figure will be nearly one in five. In more rural parts of the state the elderly already exceed 30 percent of the population.

As baby boomers age, the number of Virginians with disabilities will only grow. In a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, 18.4 percent of 70-year-olds self-reported travel-limiting disabilities. At age 80 that figure reached 31.9 percent. Such statistics explain why the AARP has become one of the country’s leading advocates for creating more walkable, transit-friendly communities.

“Especially as more of the boomer generation ages out of driving there are going to be real challenges because we have created car-dependent communities,” Zivarts explained.  “People want to age in place, and the current places many live in leave them unable to access a grocery store without a car, for example.”

Inclusive solutions

Although the potential VDOT study proved exciting to many members of Virginia’s disabled community, Shapiro believes the challenge is less about seeking out solutions and more about finding the political will and funding to implement them.

“We already know what our transportation system needs and what the issues are,” said Shapiro.  “To study it again is helpful if it makes it into an issue, but traditionally the General Assembly studies this problem and then never does anything about it. That is very exhausting as a person with a disability. We’ve had these conversations before and nothing has changed.”

Shapiro’s fear that such plans often end up as unused binders on a shelf is borne out by experience. Last year, he assisted Rebekah Cazares, a VCU graduate student, with her capstone project on how to build out a more inclusive transportation system in central Virginia.  

The duo presented the report to Plan RVA — the local metropolitan planning organization — twice, but that body still released a draft long range transportation plan that included zero dollars dedicated to the mobility of people with disabilities and instead allocated nearly 90 percent of funding to highway expansion and road projects.

Although some elected leaders may not be listening, the solutions disability advocates are calling for are simple. Cazares’ study outlined three major fixes: remove first- and last- mile barriers by investing in sidewalks compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, expand public transit (both fixed-route and paratransit service), and provide the disabled community with opportunities for input on transportation planning and funding.

Since Cazares joined Plan RVA as an environmental planner there have been discussions of reviving an advisory commission composed of people with disabilities. The potential for putting dollars behind the disabled community’s demands appears far less promising.

Any investments towards creating a more inclusive transportation system wouldn’t just benefit Virginians with disabilities, according to Cazares. “If we make things easier for people with disabilities, then we’re making things easier for everyone,” she said.  “If we make a public transit system that works for people with disabilities, then we have a system that works for everyone.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]