For the 61 million American adults with a disability, limited or inadequate transportation options can make leaving home difficult. Disabled Americans must schedule their days around the few available transportation options, often multiple days in advance, which limits their mobility and independence.
More than a quarter of US adults have a disability, and about half of disabled Americans have a travel-limiting disability, defined as the use of medical devices, including canes, wheelchairs, and seeing-eye dogs. Disability is especially common among older adults (those ages 65 and older) and women. People with disabilities earn lower wages, are much less likely to be employed, and are more likely to live in poverty than nondisabled people in the US.
Currently, there are few available, accessible, and affordable transportation options available to people with disabilities, so providing more and better options could improve societal equity. Some advocates argue that autonomous vehicles (AVs), or self-driving cars, could help fill that gap because they could have lower operating costs than taxis, cover more ground than public transit, and offer convenient seating designs that meet the needs of people with disabilities. In many parts of the country, AVs are undergoing safety testing and could be deployed extensively in the coming years if they prove to be as safe as human-driven cars.
But despite their potential, AVs don’t guarantee positive outcomes. Depending on how AVs are deployed, they could just as easily be expensive to use, provide little service to people living in high-poverty neighborhoods, and remain inaccessible for people with certain disabilities. Given this range of outcomes, policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels can work to develop regulations for AVs that allow them to benefit people with disabilities.
Access to transportation for Americans with disabilities
Although the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public transportation to be fully accessible, many forms of transit remain inaccessible because transportation infrastructure built before 1990 is exempt. In the New York City Subway system, 76 percent of stations don’t have elevators. The All Stations Accessibility Program through the Federal Transit Administration partially addresses this shortcoming by funding retrofitted accessibility improvements to station infrastructure.
Currently, many transportation agencies provide paratransit services to connect those unable to ride fixed-transit routes. By offering accessible vans and other connective transportation options, paratransit has helped fill the gaps in accessible mobility for many disabled people. Used by about 100 million riders annually before the COVID-19 pandemic, paratransit ridership has recently begun to rebound.
Yet across the country, paratransit riders—and people with disabilities in general—frequently confront challenges to accessing services, such as absentee drivers, late pickups, and incorrect charges for rides. Without flexibility or reliability, paratransit can’t offer people with disabilities adequate control over their schedule and daily lives, which restricts many peoples’ ability to maintain employment and enjoy life to the fullest.
Human-driven ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are often cited by transportation agencies, local officials, and transit companies as an alternative to paratransit. But these services present their own difficulties, like too few wheelchair-accessible vehicles. And ride-hailing services have claimed to be tech companies, rather than transportation companies, to avoid ADA compliance.
Potential benefits and concerns related to AVs
Recent advancements in self-driving technology could make them a staple of ride-sharing fleets. Shared AVs could be hailed like Uber, Lyft, or taxis and arrive within minutes across metropolitan areas, allowing riders to schedule rides with greater flexibility. Driverless options are currently being tested in cities nationwide.
Depending on how the technology evolves, AVs could be more affordable than other forms of on-demand transit. One expert in our recent study on AV regulations estimated that the cost of operating an AV would be 80 or 90 cents per vehicle mile. Although greater than current costs of an individually owned car (55 cents per mile), this option would be less expensive than Uber, Lyft, and, in some cases, transit fares.
The lower price is also in part a result of the reduction in labor costs in fully self-driving cars (which has other implications for socioeconomic and racial equity among drivers). Providing paratransit through accessible AVs could reduce costs for local governments, which sometimes subsidize more than 90 percent of paratransit costs for riders.
AV design can also offer an opportunity to provide service to people who lack reliable, accessible options. Because AVs don’t need steering wheels or a dashboard, they can be built with wide doors and flat floors for people who use assistive devices. And AVs could provide a new option for people who are blind or have low vision and can’t currently drive.
But a lot of groundwork must be laid for shared AVs to provide a truly accessible, affordable option for disabled Americans. Experts we spoke with estimated that truly autonomous vehicles could be five years to many decades away from being a reality.
Currently, neither the federal government, nor any state, requires AVs to be accessible for people with disabilities. Automobile manufacturers could offer AV services, but only at a cost too high for many people in poverty to pay. They could limit coverage options to large cities, leaving people living in rural communities, where many people with disabilities live, without options. And they could build AVs that don’t work for people in wheelchairs, leaving millions without access.
Policymakers can help ensure positive outcomes for people with disabilities using AVs
As AVs are deployed through private companies as a new transit option, each level of government can have an important role regulating the vehicles and ensuring they are disability accessible. Policymakers should work with disability groups to promote regulations that advance accessible design as AVs are deployed.
The federal government bears responsibility for developing vehicle design requirements and setting safety standards that ensure disability equity:
- Design accessibility standards for AVs. AV technology allows a reimagining of vehicle design, dropping many features of traditional human-operated vehicles. The Federal Transit Administration could require that new designs account for wheelchair access and the needs of deaf and blind people.
- Enforce ADA requirements for AV ridesharing. The federal government could close the loophole and dictate that ADA requirements apply to ride-hailing services.
States regulate vehicle operation, including licensing, insurance requirements, and traffic laws:
- Reduce requirements for passengers and operators of AVs. Some states now require that AV operators have a driver’s license to use driverless vehicles. To ensure shared AVs provide increased mobility for people with disabilities, states can drop driver’s license requirements for vehicles that meet extensive safety and accessibility standards.
- Ensure equity for disabled passengers. State governments can provide subsidies or vouchers to support riders with low-incomes, disabled riders, and those who qualify for government assistance, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or Social Security Income. States could also require service to public housing and other communities where people with low incomes are more likely to live. One in four public housing residents is disabled, and one in five is an older adult.
Cities regulate the roads and traffic laws in their jurisdictions and can take steps to improve AV accessibility:
- Regulate curb access. By designating pickup and drop-off curb space for AVs, cities can improve safety for disabled and nondisabled people, create easier methods for boarding, and facilitate a smoother integration of AVs into the urban environment.
Disabled people need better mobility options to participate in the world freely and with greater flexibility. Shared AVs could be a solution to the limited accessibility of transit options.