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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
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CHAPTER 1

Introduction

Emergency situations can rapidly impact service demand and the safety of service delivery for organizations that directly provide or administer transportation services. Depending on the circumstances of the emergency, transportation organizations may need to temporarily reduce service in the area impacted by the emergency, transport people away from the emergency, or provide special transportation services to address challenges resulting from the emergency. During the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation organizations faced the challenge of providing service safely while keeping riders and employees separated or far enough apart from each other to prevent and reduce transmission of the coronavirus.

Transportation organizations’ responses to emergencies impact all riders and employees, but these impacts can be particularly challenging for people with disabilities and older adults who need to take trips as well as access goods and services during an emergency. As transportation organizations prepare for and respond to an emergency, sometimes the accommodations and requirements needed to provide service to these customers can get lost in the shuffle.

The purpose of TCRP Research Report 243: Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response, is to discuss the research findings on transportation organizations’ actions during the recent pandemic period, spotlighting how those actions either directly or indirectly impacted people with disabilities and older adults, and propose strategies to ensure that the needs of these customers are understood and addressed in future emergencies.

Scope of the Research

This research focused on people with disabilities, regardless of age, and older adults (i.e., people over 65), regardless of whether they have a disability affecting their use of transportation services. The research aimed to identify the actions of transportation organizations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and understand how these actions addressed the accessibility needs of people with disabilities and older adults (and how well the needs were met). A misconception about transit riders with disabilities is that they only use complementary paratransit service required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA); in fact, people with disabilities and older adults may use all forms of public transportation as well as specialized transportation services. This means the actions of a transportation organization to reduce service on a given fixed route may have a greater impact on people with disabilities and older adults needing to use the service compared to other riders.

The research included an examination of transportation service and policy changes that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, including all fixed-route and demand-response transit services. The research team focused on the transportation organizations and services in

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×

North America during the pandemic period. Transportation modes included in this research were the following:

  • Fixed-route transit (bus and rail),
  • ADA paratransit,
  • Dial-a-ride or microtransit service,
  • Volunteer driver programs,
  • Specialized transportation providers,
  • Contracted taxicabs,
  • Alternative services [taxis or transportation network companies (TNCs)], and
  • Incidental use services (such as meal and goods delivery programs).

The information in this report is intended to be relevant for transportation organizations of varying sizes and operational contexts, including large and small transit agencies, specialized transportation providers, volunteer driver programs, human service transportation providers, emergency planners, and other local government agencies and stakeholders. Some of the lessons learned presented in this document focus more on long-term, widespread emergencies (e.g., pandemics, large earthquakes, or hurricanes) rather than short-term, localized events (e.g., flooding, tornados).

Information compiled for this report is the result of multiple tasks undertaken to learn about transportation service during the pandemic and the experiences of both customers and employees during this time. The research team first conducted a literature review and industry scan to gather available information about the pandemic experience. Researchers then sent out a request for information to transportation organization contacts to receive additional information in the form of questionnaire responses, documentation, and virtual phone interviews (see Appendix A). For additional context, researchers conducted virtual focus groups with transportation organization customers on their firsthand experiences during the pandemic (see Appendix B). Finally, the research team conducted a virtual workshop with a mixture of large and small transportation organizations from across the United States to learn more about the effectiveness of actions taken in response to the pandemic and lessons learned on how organizations can better approach future emergencies.

Needs of People with Disabilities and Older Adults

For some people with disabilities and older adults, transportation challenges were particularly heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. People may have different types of disabilities or impairments that affect their ability to access transportation, including (but not limited to) impairments in mobility, vision, hearing, immune system, cognitive capability, and others. People without reliable access to a vehicle in the household or who cannot drive may need assistance with asking for a ride, finding an available driver/vehicle, securing their wheelchair or mobility device, and getting into and out of a vehicle (Cochran, 2020); this assistance is required under the ADA (effective 1991) for both private and public transportation (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2015). Older adults may also feel reluctant to ask friends and relatives for assistance in transportation (Cochran, 2020). Issues of social isolation were exacerbated with the emergence of COVID-19 because transportation service was reduced and many businesses temporarily closed (Theunissen, 2020). Sometimes people with disabilities and older adults deferred trips to healthcare appointments during the pandemic to avoid using transportation services with other people (Palm et al., 2021).

Under the ADA, transit agencies are required to provide ADA complementary paratransit service within ¾ of a mile of transit stops or stations for people who cannot use the fixed-route service due to a disability or other impediment. For such customers, transit agencies provide

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×

ADA paratransit services as either curb-to-curb or door-to-door demand-response services running on the same days and hours as the fixed-route system. People who use ADA paratransit are those the transit agency has determined to be functionally unable to use fixed-route service for some or all of their trips. However, people with disabilities (as well as older adults) may take transit in some combination of fixed-route, paratransit, or other transportation services. During the pandemic, customers who used fixed-route service for some of their trips may have simultaneously lost their usual service option and found it more difficult to schedule ADA complementary paratransit service for those trips. Strong communication channels with these customers and working with local community leaders and organizations are key to understanding the issues of people with disabilities and older adults in the community while also getting feedback and input on service needs from these customers.

Previous Work in Emergency Transportation

Pandemic emergencies can last for a long period of time without a clear endpoint; sometimes, after a lull in the number of cases, there can be another spike in cases and safety concerns. The challenges presented by a pandemic are different from other types of emergencies because the experience of a pandemic is “invisible” relative to other emergencies; riders of transportation services may feel a loss of confidence in the safety of using transportation services due to potential interaction with other riders and drivers.

The research for NCHRP Research Report 963/TCRP Research Report 225: A Pandemic Playbook for Transportation Agencies (Matherly, Bye, and Benini, 2021) found that a small number of transportation organizations had existing pandemic plans, which provided a starting point for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the plans were often outdated or based on assumptions that did not apply. Transportation organizations that typically transport people whose immunity is compromised and/or who have communicable diseases found that their existing plans and procedures were valuable during the pandemic. All organizations had to make some adaptations to plans, especially to address the impact of social distancing on vehicle drivers and passengers, evacuations, and sheltering (Matherly, Bye, and Benini, 2021).

Communication and public relations were found to be especially important during the pandemic to ensure the public and employees that measures were being taken to protect them and to help enforce safety measures (Tirichini and Cats, 2020). In Developing a Pandemic Virus Service Restoration Checklist, APTA suggests scheduling town-hall-style conference calls with employees for updates on safety measures and operations and updating the scripts for employees to use on calls and in passenger interactions to reflect current policies and procedures (APTA, 2020). Previous work on pandemic response also suggests that transportation organizations use all available media for communication, keeping in mind that not everyone has internet or access to email to learn about the latest service changes or guidelines from transportation organizations (Matherly, Bye, and Benini, 2021; APTA, 2020).

NCHRP Research Report 963/TCRP Research Report 225: A Pandemic Playbook for Transportation Agencies noted the importance, and criticality, of balancing safety with service when protecting employees and the public and identified what transportation organizations were doing overall to maintain services for their customers (Matherly, Bye, and Benini, 2021). During the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation organizations often used a phased approach as they returned to “normal” service delivery, recognizing that there may be a “new normal,” requiring changes of habits and modifications of pre-pandemic operations. Phased recovery plans containing “trigger points” and decision criteria for milestones within each phase (e.g., a decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases) could help determine the service level to provide. Prior to

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×

COVID-19, a paratransit toolkit for all-hazards emergency planning was produced by the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) that provides information, recommended practices, templates, and checklists to support routine operations and transportation planning, response, and recovery for emergencies (Bay Area UASI, 2019).

Emergency Management Phases

Emergency management is best thought of as a continuous process to manage risks and hazards to avoid or reduce their impact. For a transportation organization, emergency management involves understanding what the organization needs to do before an emergency happens to be prepared, what it needs to do during an emergency and who is responsible for getting it done, and what to do in specific emergency situations (Matherly, Bye, and Benini, 2021).

There are four phases in emergency management: prepare, respond, recover, and mitigate (see Figure 1). Actions taken during the pre-disaster areas of mitigation and preparedness have the potential to dramatically reduce the impacts of an event and the costs of the response and recovery phases. The response and recovery phases provide an opportunity to identify approaches and procedures to improve the response to an emergency and mitigate the consequences of future events. During an event, transportation organizations need to (1) safely continue transportation services to existing customers, especially people with disabilities and older adults who may have limited alternatives and (2) provide emergency operations as required, especially when unmet transportation needs are identified and requests for additional support are made for those with accommodation needs. During the recovery phase, transit agencies return to normal service (Matherly, Bye, and Benini, 2021).

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Figure 1. Diagram of emergency management phases.
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×

Actions During COVID-19

Transportation organizations took several kinds of action during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet changing service and safety demands. Many transit agencies with fixed-route service temporarily cut back on it by suspending routes or reducing service frequencies. Organizations with demand-response services, including ADA paratransit, made different decisions on whether to maintain service at normal levels or to partially scale back service (either overall or in proportion with reductions to fixed-route service) (Benedict, Livingston Shurna, and Hansen, 2020). Transportation organizations also provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to riders and staff, conducted frequent vehicle cleanings, and reduced capacity on vehicles through a variety of means (e.g., adjusting scheduling parameters and installing signage on vehicles) (Weiner and Armenta, 2020; Elgart, Walk, and Rodman, 2020; Mader, 2021).

Several other actions concerned policies to ensure safety or new incidental use programs to meet community needs. Face mask requirements and screening questions for riders and staff were put into place at many transportation organizations to further ensure a safe riding environment for customers (TransitCenter, 2020). Many transit agencies implemented rear-door boarding for fixed-route services but had to make exceptions for people with disabilities so that they could board buses using the lifts at the front door (Kamga and Eickemeyer, 2021; Sam Schwartz Consulting, 2020). Updated procedures for wheelchair securement on vehicles and assistance to customers were instituted at some transit agencies; however, drivers needed to assist people with disabilities when requested (Community Transportation Association of America, 2021; U.S. Department of Transportation, 2022).

In response to reduced service access and safety concerns during 2020 and 2021, many transportation organizations implemented incidental use services such as meal and goods delivery as well as direct transportation to medical care, testing, and vaccination centers. These programs along with other responses to the pandemic by transportation organizations are discussed in further detail later in this report.

Overview of the Report

This resource discusses important practices for providing transportation to people with disabilities and older adults during emergencies as well as providing examples of transportation organizations implementing these practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Transportation organizations and other stakeholders engaged in providing or administering transportation in a community can use the examples in this report to bolster their resilience and responsiveness during future emergencies while maintaining accessibility of service for riders.

This report is organized into chapters covering topical areas relevant to emergency management for transportation organizations. Each chapter begins with an overall summary of the topic before getting into a more specific discussion of service changes and policies in anticipation of or in response to an emergency. A section called “Key Points on Service for People with Disabilities and Older Adults” immediately follows the introductory chapter summary.

Throughout the report are callouts of specific transportation organization actions and services during the COVID-19 pandemic period. Each callout provides an example of how a transportation organization took steps to maintain or improve transportation service access. Appendix C presents a topics matrix, based on this research, that shows which transportation organizations took which types of actions during the pandemic. Neither the callouts within the chapters nor the topics matrix are intended to represent an exhaustive list of organizations that had emergency actions during the pandemic.

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×

Chapters 2 through 7 provide discussion on enabling transportation access and mobility for people with disabilities and older adults in emergency situations, based on experiences during COVID-19. The topics covered are listed by chapter in the following:

Chapter 8 presents a collection of proposed emergency management strategies and approaches in transportation service provision, safety, communications, and administration. The strategies are organized into topical areas that include callouts of actions by selected transportation organizations that are relevant to the topic. The topical areas covered in Chapter 8 are the following:

  • Planning
  • Continuity of Services
  • New and Temporary Services
  • Safety Procedures
  • Equity of Service Changes
  • Relationships and Partnerships
  • Communications and Engagement
  • Financial Sustainability

The report wraps up with a discussion of lessons learned from the pandemic for enduring changes that transportation organizations can incorporate into their service planning, provision, and administration (Chapter 9), as well as overall conclusions from the research (Chapter 10).

Page 4
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Page 8
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Page 9
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 - Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2024. Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/27277.
×
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Next: Chapter 2 - Pandemics and Emergency Events Overview »
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The COVID-19 pandemic left many persons with disabilities and older adults without reliable transportation to access essential goods, medical care, and social engagements. Issues of social isolation for older adults were exacerbated with the emergence of COVID-19 because transportation service was reduced.

TCRP Research Report 243: Transportation for People with Disabilities and Older Adults During COVID-19: Lessons for Emergency Response, from TRB's Transit Cooperative Research Program, aims to provide transportation organizations (including transit agencies, specialized transportation providers, and other local government agencies and stakeholders) with helpful information and strategies on providing service for persons with disabilities and older adults in emergency situations.

Supplemental to the report is a pocket guide.

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