by Ron Brooks
Every year, the ACB Environmental Access and Transportation Committees collaborate on a workshop where we focus on issues impacting the mobility of people who are blind and visually impaired, and as the new decade dawned across America, we had very high hopes. Chicago, which is just down the road from where we thought we would be in July of 2020, is home to one of the largest transit agencies in the country as well as an entire host of organizations and companies who are recognized leaders in the field of transportation and infrastructure development. With this in mind, we planned a four-day forum we called “To Mobility and Beyond.” Our goal was to field speakers who could provide a basic education on how transportation and infrastructure projects and services are planned, funded and regulated, to delve into the challenges that blind and visually impaired people face when using transportation and infrastructure services, and to develop a platform of transportation- and infrastructure-related goals to guide our national advocacy efforts.
So when ACB’s board of directors voted to hold the 2020 conference and convention virtually, I knew it was the right decision, but I still cringed. How would we pull off a virtual four-day transportation forum? Where would we find speakers? How many people would actually show up?
As it turns out, I need not have worried because our virtual ACB convention shattered all past attendance records, and this was as true for our transportation sessions as for the rest of ACB’s workshops and sessions. The virtual workshop also gave us the ability to recruit speakers from literally anywhere and everywhere, so the quality of our speakers was unparalleled.
Beginning on Sunday, July 5, the Environmental Access Committee, chaired by Becky Barnes-Davidson of Charlotte, N.C., and the Transportation Committee, chaired by Sheila Styron of Kansas City, Mo., hosted approximately three hours of content each day for a total of four days. All of these sessions were broadcast live via Zoom, and several were also simulcast on ACB Radio. All of the sessions were also recorded, and those recordings are archived online at http://acbradio.org/content/eac-transportation-transportation-and-beyond. Additionally, handouts for all sessions are available at https://acb.org/2020-acb-virtual-convention-sessions. These materials are available to anyone who wants them, ACB member or not, and at no charge, so ACB members, friends and other website guests should feel free to share these resources widely.
Mobility Forum Highlights
“To Mobility and Beyond” began with an educational workshop where speakers shared details about how transportation and infrastructure projects are planned and funded, how laws like the ADA impact transportation and infrastructure projects, and an exploration of how emerging mobility technologies (everything from transportation network companies to microtransit, e-bikes and e-scooters, to self-driving cars) are impacting the potential future of transportation and mobility. Next, we engaged in four informal topical conversations where we invited participants to share their observations, questions and concerns on everything from how emerging mobility technologies are impacting pedestrian access, to transportation services and their availability in major urban areas and smaller communities, to a survey of ideas for how we might innovate paratransit from the ground up. On the final day, we summarized key take-aways from each of the topical conversations and heard from Dr. Judy Shanley, Director of the National Center for Mobility Management, on strategies for building strong local coalitions.
Key Transportation Advocacy Findings
One of the most important goals we had for the mobility forum was to gather a series of recommendations that might serve as the starting point for a national transportation and environmental access advocacy platform. To be certain, these are local issues, but having a general set of strong advocacy recommendations available for state affiliates and local chapters can help to accelerate and simplify the critically important work of grassroots advocacy. So what follows is a brief list of general conclusions which are being refined by the Transportation and Environmental Access Committees, the Resolutions Committee, and the national staff. It is our hope that a series of policy recommendations (perhaps in the form of ACB resolutions) will result from these general recommendations and that we will be able to use these policy recommendations to support national, state and local advocacy efforts.
Recommendation #1 – We need strong and consistent requirements for where and how Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) and Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs) are installed along with assurances that once installed, these devices are not removed. We also need to develop strong advocacy positions on anything and everything that impacts pedestrian rights of way.
Recommendation #2 – We need to explore strategies for delinking the ADA requirement for paratransit and the existence of local bus and light rail transit. Since 95% of Americans travel primarily by car, the meaningful access challenge that paratransit should solve is a lack of access to car transportation rather than access to public transit.
Recommendation #3 – We need to advocate for paratransit models that introduce more technology (including mobile trip booking and payment technology), more flexibility and more reliability.
Recommendation #4 – We need to actively pursue strategies for addressing transportation in smaller and rural communities where almost 20% of Americans, including those who are blind or visually impaired, live, work and play.
There was one final recommendation, and the strength of this recommendation was borne out by the fact that we had literally hundreds of people attending every session of the mobility forum, either by Zoom or by ACB Radio, as well as by the fact that we have been receiving repeated requests ever since. Our members and friends are clamoring for a more routine and ongoing transportation conversation. They want a place to learn, to get their questions answered, and to share their own ideas for improving the transportation services and environmental access we all encounter every day.
And to that end, we are launching a new monthly community call. Beginning in August, To Mobility and Beyond will feature guest speakers addressing hot topics within the transportation and environmental access spaces, and the calls will provide members and other attendees with the opportunity to receive timely information, to share advice and opinions, to get questions answered, and to ensure that their voices are heard as we all seek the path “To Mobility and Beyond.” As of this writing, the ongoing schedule for these calls is being determined, but we anticipate a 90-minute call once per month — probably on a Thursday beginning at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. Calls will be hosted on the Zoom platform and will be broadcast on ACB Radio, so stay tuned for the details as they become available.