As transit agencies cut service, people in wheelchairs get stranded

By: - December 12, 2022 6:03 am

Leroy Mitchell steers himself into one of two wheelchair securement zones onboard a Route 18 bus. Reduced service has resulted in drivers passing wheelchairs by at a rate higher than before the pandemic began. Photo by H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

One day in late August, a Metro Transit driver of a Route 18 bus, which runs between Minneapolis and Bloomington on Nicollet Avenue, told Leroy Mitchell to get off of his scooter-style wheelchair or disembark to make room for riders boarding an already-crowded bus. 

Mitchell, a south Minneapolis resident, wasn’t able to. “I said [to the driver] I can’t walk anywhere because my COPD eats [me] away,” Mitchell said as he boarded the 18 at Nicollet and Grant one day last month. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows transit agencies to suggest — not require — riders who use a wheelchair to move to a different seat on the bus. 

Mitchell told Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid about the incident, which is investigating and may sue. “We have reason to believe his allegations are accurate,” says Justin Page, who is a supervising attorney at the Minnesota Disability Law Center. 

Getting around on Minnesota public transit with a wheelchair is difficult. Transit agencies are cutting back service due to changes in commuting patterns and a driver shortage. Many greater Minnesota transit agencies rely on a dwindling cadre of volunteer drivers to fill the gap when they can’t. 

Metro Transit passing by people in wheelchairs — usually because there’s no room in the wheelchair section — is not new. As of the end of October of this year, 20 riders using wheelchairs are denied boarding for every million total bus riders, up from pre-pandemic levels. (Because ridership is just 75% of pre-pandemic levels, the total number of wheelchair riders getting passed is down.) The agency documented more than 425 people in wheelchairs being passed by buses as of late October. 

However, Mitchell’s incident was not documented by the agency. Neither was an incident in early June, when I watched a rider in a wheelchair get passed by a Route 18 bus at Nicollet and Franklin Avenues during the afternoon rush hour. 

People who use wheelchairs are being passed up because the zones designated for them are already occupied, in some cases by people with strollers and children, who cannot or will not move, says Metro Transit spokesperson Drew Kerr. Although federal law allows transit agencies to implement rules requiring riders — including ambulatory riders who have a disability — to move out of the zones designated for wheelchairs, they do not require agencies to do so. 

Indeed, Metro Transit has their reasons why they don’t. “Some people who are using priority seating may have reasons to use this space that are not visible to others,” Kerr said. 

People using wheelchairs can take the service for the elderly and people with disabilities called Metro Mobility, but the Metropolitan Council — which runs Metro Mobility and Metro Transit — has trouble keeping up with demand. The Met Council on Nov. 28 reduced Metro Mobility services to places including Arden Hills, Chanhassen, and Minnetonka, who can only now ride if Metro Mobility is not overburdened, as well as reducing hours of service to communities such as Richfield and Bloomington. 

Myrna Peterson (L) and Lisa Arnold (R) behind a goMARTI autonomous vehicle shuttle in Grand Rapids. The shuttle, which will operate for 18 months, is the first deployment of an autonomous vehicle in the rural United States and is supported by those who have mobility needs for delivering increased independence. Photo by H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Riders interviewed by the Reformer prefer riding fixed-route buses because they don’t want to call Metro Mobility for a ride and are tired of the service’s unreliability. (Metro Mobility has a high on-time performance rating, but that’s partly because federal law allows agencies like Metro Mobility to pick up riders up to 30 minutes late and still be considered on-time.) 

“You only take Metro Mobility if you’re desperate,” said Judy Schmidt, who also uses a wheelchair to get around, on a bus on Nicollet Mall as she made her way to the light rail in early November. “They won’t pick you up on time. Let’s say you’re going to the [State] Fair. They won’t come and see if you’re the ride. They’ll just take off and say you’re a no-show.” 

The situation is not much better in greater Minnesota, where most transit agencies focus on 9-to-5 commutes and also face driver shortages. “It’s a huge barrier to get transportation [in the evenings and weekends] because all we have out here [is] cab service, which [is] very expensive,” says Ashley Nordlie, who runs individualized services at the Buffalo workforce development organization Functional Industries.

To fill the gap, some agencies rely on a dearth of aging volunteer drivers, who transport people in their personal vehicles and are reimbursed at the IRS mileage rate. That option does not exist in Buffalo. Trailblazer Transit, which serves Buffalo, as well as Wright, Sibley, McLeod and parts of Carver, Hennepin, and Sherburne Counties, discontinued their volunteer driver program in 2019 because they decided they were better off recruiting professionally trained drivers and paying them well

Relief may be on the way, especially as the transit-friendly DFL trifecta takes control of state government in January. Lawmakers could deliver a dedicated funding source for public transit throughout Minnesota, allowing providers to pay their drivers well so they can increase service. 

Meanwhile, agencies across Minnesota are working to make it easier for people who have mobility challenges. Metro Transit has 87 standard-sized buses, all built after 2015, with seats by the rear doors that can be flipped up to accommodate strollers, freeing the designated wheelchair zones for wheelchairs. 

In Grand Rapids, the Minnesota Department of Transportation partnered with the city and Mobility Mania — a local advocacy organization for those with mobility needs — to launch the first autonomous vehicle pilot program in rural America in late September of this year. Myrna Peterson, who uses a wheelchair because of a 2004 car crash, likes using the autonomous shuttles because she doesn’t have to depend on other people who have schedule constraints to take her around.

Both Trailblazer Transit and Metro Transit are also paying their drivers more so they can maintain and expand service, which would mean more space on buses for people in wheelchairs. In Trailblazer’s case, they increased their drivers’ wages to $24 per hour this year, and will offer their drivers health care starting next year, along with a $1 per hour wage increase. “It hasn’t solved the problem. But it has helped,” says Trailblazer Transit Executive Director Gary Ludwig.

Metro Transit also increased their starting wages to $26.16 per hour in October, but we won’t know about its impacts to service for several months.

Nonetheless, the agency forges ahead, because they believe frequent and reliable service is the best solution to keeping everyone — including those who use wheelchairs, moving. But until then, the best the agency can do is to offer drivers refresher training, as well as a video and placards onboard buses reminding riders to give up their seats for those with wheelchairs.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

H. Jiahong Pan
H. Jiahong Pan

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues.