Using grants awarded by the Transportation Planning Board, three agencies and organizations in the Washington region are making it easier for more than 1,000 people with mobility challenges to use the region's public transit network by providing one-on-one or group "travel training" to help them use the system safely and effectively on their own.
The programs are a response to the needs of older adults, people with disabilities, low-income individuals who cannot afford a car, and people who speak English as their second language for whom navigating the region's network of rail and bus services can be so daunting that it keeps them from using the system altogether, severely limiting their ability to get to jobs, services, family visits, shopping, and entertainment.
The grants are funded by two Federal Transit Administration (FTA) programs, Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) and New Freedom, which support initiatives to expand transportation options for low-income commuters and people with physical or cognitive disabilities. The TPB is responsible for reviewing applications for the grants and selecting agencies and organizations in the Washington region to receive the federal funds.
One of the three programs to provide travel training to people with mobility challenges was sponsored by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates the region's Metrorail and Metrobus transit services. With a 2009 grant, WMATA partnered with three Centers for Independent Living in the region to provide training over a two-year period for 600 people with significant disabilities. Under the program, each person received up to 32 hours of individualized training, which included comprehensive, specially-designed instruction in all aspects of how to get from a given origin to a given destination on public transit. The instruction included field trips in which individuals practiced skills like paying fares, boarding, identifying and requesting a stop, and transferring between routes or modes.
Another project, sponsored by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, is training 200 blind or visually-impaired individuals on useful techniques for accessing various modes of public transit. The project also provides trainees with information on traveling in various weather conditions and opportunities to use alternatives to cane travel, including guide dogs, electronic, and optical aids.
The third project funded under the FTA grant was sponsored by the Jewish Council for the Aging, which taught 250 older adults, through a combination of classroom learning and field trips, how to use transit as part of an independent lifestyle.
The services provided by these and other similar programs span a wide range of approaches, each tailored to the particular needs of a given individual or group. Services range from classroom-based transit orientation -- which teaches individuals how to find out what transit services are available in their neighborhood, how to read bus and train maps and schedules, and how to plan a trip, including transfers -- to the step-by-step, guided field training that WMATA used as part of its program.
The benefits of travel training are many and lasting, both to the individuals who receive the training as well as to the agencies that operate the transit services. After receiving one-on-one or group travel training, individuals can enjoy significantly greater independence, self-reliance, and mobility as they start using public transit, in some cases for the first time. This can often provide respite for family and caregivers who may previously have been responsible for providing transportation. Individuals can also feel more included in their communities when they're able to use the same public transit services as most everyone else. And public transit can offer lower transportation costs compared with taxis, paratransit services, or owning a private automobile.
Meanwhile, the agencies that operate public transit services benefit from reduced reliance on more expensive paratransit services by helping those with specialized transportation needs gain the skills that enable them to navigate fixed route rail and bus services with confidence. Transit operators, especially bus operators, will also benefit, as riders that have received travel training will require less special attention or assistance.
Since 2007, the TPB has awarded 50 grants totaling more than $17 million under the JARC and New Freedom programs aimed at expanding transportation options for low-income commuters and people with disabilities. At its June 20 meeting, the TPB will approve a new round of programs and projects for FY 2013. Together, these and earlier initiatives will make it easier for older adults, people with disabilities, low-income individuals who cannot afford a car, and people who speak English as their second language get around the Washington region.