Connecting Normative Standards to Results Information: Accessible Transit

At the time of writing, 167 countries had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which contains specific obligations imposed on states regarding the development of accessible public facilities, including transportation facilities. Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of Disabilities provides, in part, that:

1. To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate frilly in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities [have] access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation ... and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas. [...]

SDG 11 sets a goal for sustainable cities and communities, including target 11.2 which provides that states should:

By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

In Montreal, Canada, public transit policies and programs are the responsibility of the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), a municipal authority that operates under provincial law. STM policies and plans support sustainability, as well as overall user service and accessibility, but beyond the rhetorical emphasis on sustainability and citizens, the STM does not offer accessible services to persons with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities tend to be underemployed and undereducated in relation to the general population and experience health issues that are more significant than the general population. The combination of economic disadvantage and social isolation means that accessible public transit is critical to ensuring that people can get to work and school and participate in public and social life. Lack of accessible transit therefore disproportionately affects people with mobility restrictions, people with visual limitations, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and people with cardiovascular disease, and arthritis, to name a few. A HRB A for one group will often improve the service's accessibility for many other groups as well. Improving accessibility for persons with disabilities using more universal and integrative principles of design also benefits parents with small children, frail or elderly persons, people who are injured, poor people, recent immigrants and refugees, and people travelling with packages, bags, or baby strollers for whom staircases can be awkward or even dangerous.

Traditional development approaches to accessible public transit typically focus on general infrastructure metrics and effectiveness indicators. For example, common standard metrics include bus route distances and the percentage of geographic areas within a specific range of accessible transit facilities. The demand for results information in a needs-based approach might therefore include the number of subway lines or bus routes, or the percentage of a metropolitan population covered by the service. Traditional metrics will also include the program’s efficiency (usually the cost per ride).

A HRBA. on the other hand, operates to change the orientation of the program and the results information. By being people-centered, rather than infrastructure-centered, a rights-based approach asks who is accessing the transit system, how, and from where. It involves determining the particular needs of disadvantaged and marginalized communities, including people with disabilities, and looking at the relevant standards in law. A HRBA requires the policy developer to determine the number of persons with disabilities in the relevant geographic area, and the extent to which persons with disabilities can access public transit using both conventional and adapted facilities. As noted in the previous section, consultation with the most affected groups, undertaken in an appropriate manner, will reinforce the dignity and inclusion of transit system users, and identify the quality of their experiences, as well as the extent to which the existing system meets accessibility standards.

In Montreal at the time of writing, 11 of the 68 metro (subway) stations were accessible to persons with disabilities (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse [CDPDJ], 2017). Only one of six regional trains was accessible. Based on STM statistics, it will not be until the 23rd century that the metro system will reach full accessibility. Very little user information from people with disabilities is available on the official municipal websites and the information that does exist points to significant problems in accessibility for this group (Eliadis, 2014). Following several human rights complaints and advocacy for improved infrastructure, the STM says it has and will make significant investments in public infrastructure to improve accessibility and sustainability for transit systems but there is little in the way of concrete solutions for the thousands of people who cannot use the system.

STM users with disabilities have complained for years about the inaccessibility of the overall system. Human rights complaints to the provincial human rights body have not been successful because the municipal authority argues that it cannot afford the improvements and the human rights commission took that at face value (CDPDJ, 2017). It may be that the human rights commission in Quebec, as a state-appointed body, is intimidated by the idea of forcing a public authority to invest in a significant and particular program. Whatever the reason, disability groups have now been forced to turn to the courts and file representative claims (similar to class actions) before the courts, to force the STM to adapt the transit system. The views and perspectives of these users and their public protests have generated crucial information and awareness about the inaccessibility of the system’s usability. The STM responded with a needs-based and service-provider-oriented approach, rather than a people-first approach, arguing historical factors, technical difficulties, and lack of political will. In short, the system was designed to be inaccessible and the current plans for the future are merely sustaining the cycle of inadequate accessibility. The failure to accommodate people with disabilities has led to a contentious public discourse. Fixing the transit system will require hundreds of millions of dollars, simply because no one bothered to build in accessibility at the outset or to plan for it until two decades after accessibility standards were developed. The cost is borne mainly by people with disabilities and older people. In the absence of political will to change the transit system for the 10 to 15 percent of the population who need it most, the sad reality is that the status quo will continue.

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