Universal Design and Public Transit

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The United States Department of Education has awarded a $4.7 million grant to a University of Buffalo professor and his son to aid their efforts in making public transportation more accessible for people with disabilities.

   Edward Steinfeld, professor and director of the School of Architecture and Planning's Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA), and his son, Aaron Steinfeld, a systems scientist at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Robotics Institute, will work together to form the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation.

   According to Aaron, UB and CMU will take on different roles in the project. Researchers from UB will try to obtain a better understanding of the requirements for effectively boarding and moving within transit vehicles.

   "[This information] will be used to develop design tools and demonstrated on a concept transit bus," Aaron said.

   CMU is looking at ways to involve riders with disabilities in the process to get firsthand information about the problems they face when using public transportation.

   "This will empower riders, result in a greater understanding of the transportation system, and improve the feedback loop between rider and provider," Aaron said.

   Disabled individuals face numerous problems when using public transportation, according to Aaron. Two main concerns addressed by the center will include vehicle access and adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act Best Practices.

   "The current state of accessible public transportation is a barrier to social participation and particularly employment among seniors and individuals with disabilities," said Jordana Maisel, director of outreach and policy studies for IDEA. "Poor transportation limits their ability to participate in the community and ultimately results in lower rates of life satisfaction."

   The 2000 National Organization of Disability/Harris Survey of Community Participation found that 46 percent of people with disabilities reported feeling isolated from their communities, compared to 23 percent of people without disabilities who also felt detached.

   "Difficulties in looking for work were encountered by more than half of non-working adults with disabilities," Maisel said.

   The study will examine all aspects of transportation including the ability of those with disabilities to efficiently acquire destination information, board and disembark vehicles, and use services and facilities on buses, trains and airplanes, according to Maisel.

   A Web site for professional and academic use for the general public will be created after the study.

   "[The Web site] will provide links to resources that range in scope from highly scientific data required by other researchers, to practical information requested by the public, to news requested by the media," Maisel said.

   The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) and United Spinal Association (USA) will both be involved in the project. The NFTA will provide information about planning, design and operation of transit vehicles, as well as providing researchers access to their buses to take tours with riders in an attempt to gain a better understanding of their experiences.

   "[The NFTA] will help recruit participants and collaborate in developing a demonstration bus to become part of their regular fleet," Maisel said. "USA will work with us to coordinate standards... and serve as the liaison to other advocacy organizations."

   The center will develop a list of features that could enhance the accessibility of transit vehicles, and a demonstration bus will be developed in partnership with Gillig Corp., a California-based company that builds transit buses.

   "Gillig Corp. is interested in exploring how they can advance universal design and improve the accessibility of their buses," Maisel said.


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