Public Transportation Needs To Be More Family Friendly in Major Cities—a New Program Aims to Do That

Funding to help transit stations better comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act could have a ripple effect on families, including those with young children in strollers. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg weighs in.

Father pushing a stroller in a subway platform waiting for the train.
Photo: Jimena Roquero / Stocksy

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turned 32 on July 26. The landmark civil rights legislation, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, prohibited discrimination based on disability. It required, among other mandates, that public transit stations provide reasonable accessibility accommodations.

But more than 900 stations that serve millions of Americans, including those in public transportation-dependent cities like New York and Boston, were exempt from complying because they were built before the ADA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1 in 7 adults have a mobility issue, and stations' ability to skirt the ADA has made life—getting to doctor's appointments and work and seeing family members—more challenging for those who need accessibility accommodations. Also in need of those accommodations are parents of young kids who are traveling with strollers.

The exemption has led to multiple lawsuits in New York City, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) recently announced it will spend billions of dollars to make stations more accessible by 2055. But relief and funds may come sooner for transit authorities around the nation. On July 26, the Biden Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the start of the application process for the All Stations Accessibility Program, or ASAP for short.

"Everyone should be able to get where they need to go safely, quickly, and cheaply," says Mitch Landrieu, the White House infrastructure coordinator. "Everyone should be able to get to work easily. Everyone should be able to get to the people and places they love and the activities they enjoy. Accessibility should never be a barrier."

The program, part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021, will allocate $1.75 billion in grant funding over the next five years. In year one, $343 million is available. Transit authorities must apply for the funding.

"What's so exciting about the program is that it will actually support those local authorities that have wanted to become more accessible for a long time but haven't had the dollars to do it," says Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. secretary of transportation.

How Better Transportation Access Helps Caregivers

Buttigieg says the funding is the right thing to do for Americans with mobility issues. But he also notes it will have a ripple effect on caregivers. For one, parents caring for adult children with mobility issues or adult children caring for parents will get hours back in their day and money back in their pocket because they won't have to arrange special, more expensive transportation like taxis or Uber rides.

"This will ultimately benefit all Americans," Buttigieg says.

Meaning that it will also help people without a mobility disability who don't care for someone with these challenges, either. How? First, any of us could eventually have a mobility issue, due to age or an accident. But think about the last time you traveled with multiple bags. Did an elevator or escalator help? And parents of young kids—who literally and figuratively have their hands full when navigating public transportation—also run into issues when they have to walk down several flights of stairs with an infant car seat, stroller, diaper bag, and child or children in tow. There simply aren't enough hands to carry all of that.

"This is a great example of how taking care of a barrier for anyone brings benefits for everyone," Buttigieg says. "It's already the right thing to do because millions of wheelchair users in America deserve to get around safely so they can go to the workplace, see loved ones, and do anything they need to do. So many others have found that a simple improvement like a curb cut or a major upgrade like the availability of an elevator is an absolute game-changer. Certainly, it has been for [my husband] Chasten and I when are wrangling our twins in a stroller."

And those experiences with his children, who will turn 1 in September, have given Buttigieg a first-hand look into the challenges many Americans face, making this grant money a bit personal.

"It certainly helps me see concerns a little more directly than I would have maybe a year ago," Buttigieg says. "There's a different level of challenge when they become parents, and part of that is bringing kids around where they need to go."

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a mother of two who lost both her legs and mobility of her right arm while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq, is also excited for families, whether they include someone with a disability issue or a child in a stroller.

"Too many Americans still have trouble getting to work or picking up their kids from school," Duckworth says. "More [parents] will be able to take their newborns to their pediatricians' appointments."

It's unclear how many of the 900 legacy stations will be able to benefit from the first round of funding. Still, Duckworth and Buttigieg believe the future is not only bright but more accessible for millions with disabilities, injuries, children in strollers, or traveling with heavy luggage around the country.

"This is envisioned the first of five years, 1.75 billion dollars overall," Buttigieg says. "When you have a big program like this, you learn a lot in the first year based on the applications that come in, the process, making decisions that will serve us well in future years."

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