Study finds Boston mass transit difficult for disabled

Ross Koppel

Ross Koppel’s study of Boston’s mass transit system unearthed serious flaws in its treatment of people with disabilities. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is spending $310 million to fix the problem.

Photo credit: Candace di Carlo

It’s rare that a company will commit to spending hundreds of millions of dollars based on the findings of one study.

But that’s just what happened when Boston’s transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, agreed to spend $310 million improving access to trains and buses, in part because of a study by Ross Koppel, a lecturer and adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology.

The Penn researcher found that while bus drivers usually try to accommodate people with disabilities, passengers face problems aplenty—from failed equipment to untrained drivers to denials or refusals of service. “The number of people out there with disabilities who are trying to get to work, to doctors’ offices, to friends’ [houses] is really quite large,” says Koppel. “The fact that they can [use transit] is really liberating on a social level. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than having the individual paratransit.”

From October to December 2004, Koppel’s two person tester/observer teams boarded MBTA buses at random points throughout the system and conducted a total of 896 observations. The observers were asked to assess whether the lifts that help people in wheelchairs or with canes onto the bus actually work; if the driver helped secure the person into the seat; if the call buttons worked; how the driver responded to passenger requests; and if the drivers were courteous. All the testers were people with disabilities. The observers were mainly physical therapy graduate students.

The teams were trained before embarking on the buses, and instructed to act as though they did not know each other. Observers noted what they saw and heard and also used cell phones wired with microphones linked to hidden tape recorders that recorded driver-tester interactions.

The results showed that lifts failed 19 percent of the time and boarding denials—where the bus did not stop, the driver stated the bus was full or stopped to allow others on the bus but did not acknowledge the person with a disability—occurred in another 11 percent of cases. In sum, a person with a disability had a 20.5 percent chance of not being able to catch the bus for which they were waiting. Sometimes, Koppel says, testers waited 30 to 40 minutes for a bus; at other times they waited up to two hours.

When they succeeded in boarding a bus, more than 91 percent of the time the wheelchair or other device was not properly secured in the designated areas. Koppel notes that if the bus driver had to suddenly stop, a poorly secured two-to three-hundred pound electric wheelchair could injure not only the disabled person but also other passengers. On the plus side, most drivers were not hostile.

After the study’s completion Koppel made the observers’ forms available to the MBTA and to the transit authority’s new general manager. “When he finally saw our study, he was totally blown away, and he said this is the definitive study on public transit and the disabled. He did not contest our study.”

Koppel, who is also principal investigator in a Penn Medicine study about hospital stressors and medication errors, and whose wide-ranging research includes an assessment of the costs of Alzheimer’s disease to U.S. businesses, has been appointed to monitor Detroit’s public transit system, which has promised to improve access for people with disabilities. While Koppel hasn’t taken a hard look at how SEPTA operates—having only performed trial runs on the system here—he thinks this Boston settlement has grabbed the attention of transit authorities everywhere.

“The culture has to be modified to be more accepting of the needs of people with a disability,” he says. “I hope the technology is used by other transit systems to find out if they are doing what they are legally obligated to do, but also [it’s] what they should want to do for this increasingly large community.”

Originally published on May 11, 2006