We're joined by UC Davis researcher Prashanth Venkataram as we continue to explore the state of public transit accessibility around town and across the nation. Are self-driving cars the future of paratransit? Tune in to find out!
Today, a follow-up on our January show looking at transportation challenges and opportunities for people with disabilities. We’re joined by Prashanth Venkataram. Prashanth is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. In that role, he focuses on the state of current and future transportation systems for people with disabilities and what policies may lead to better outcomes for our community. He is currently co-facilitating a study looking at the needs, desires, and challenges that people with disabilities in California face with transportation and housing. Prashanth received a BS in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an MA and PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton University.
CARLY PACHECO, HOST: From KVMR and in partnership with FREED, this is Disability Rap.
PRASHANTH VENKATARAM: My general area of focus is trying to better understand the challenges that people with disabilities face with transportation and trying to get involved with policy discussions at the state and national levels.
PACHECO: Today we speak with UC Davis researcher Prashanth Venkataram about current and future transportation for people with disabilities in the US.
VENKATARAM: It’s not guaranteed that companies who are developing autonomous mobility solutions are necessarily going to take into account the needs of people with disabilities. I really believe at this point it’s incumbent on the companies to do their due diligence in reaching out.
PACHECO: That’s all coming up right here on Disability Rap. Stay tuned.
PACHECO: Welcome to Disability Rap. I’m Carly Pacheco.
Today, we bring you a follow-up to our January show looking at transportation challenges and opportunities for people with disabilities. We're joined by Prashanth Venkataram, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis. In his role at UC Davis Prashanth focuses on the state of current and future transportation systems for people with disabilities, and on what policies may lead to better outcomes for our community. He's currently co-facilitating a study looking at the needs, desires, and challenges that people with disabilities in California face with transportation and housing. Prashanth received a BS in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MA and PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton University.
My co-host, Carl Sigmond, spoke with Prashanth in March.
CARL SIGMOND, HOST: Prashanth, welcome to Disability Rap. I want to begin by asking you how you got interested in transportation.
VENKATARAM: I myself identify as having a physical disability and that largely means that I need to use a wheelchair to get around outside of the home. And so, when I started in graduate school and I continued in my time there, I started to have to travel more independently, especially to go to conferences and other things like that. And that more so than anything I’d been able to do before started giving me first-hand experience into how transportation for people with disabilities can be quite challenging, not just for long distance travel, but even for just local travel within very car-dependent suburban areas.
I can tell you a little bit more broadly about my research, too. My general area of focus is trying to better understand the challenges that people with disabilities face with transportation and trying to get involved with policy discussions at the state and national levels. So I’ve been able to contribute to some of the discussions going on at the California Public Utilities Commission about the accessibility of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, as well as the accessibility of future autonomous mobility companies and similar discussions at the federal level with NHTSA’s new safety standards. NHTSA is the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. I might have slightly messed up that acronym, but just for those who don't know. And they have been coming out with new safety standards for autonomous vehicles, too, and they have an interest in also trying to make sure that it is a technology that is available to people with disabilities, too. So I’ve been able to help contribute to some of those discussions.
But my main research is really trying to understand, at a more basic level, what some of the challenges are, what people with disabilities want from their transportation, instead of trying to just provide seeming solutions that are based on outdated data or outdated stereotypes about what people with disabilities want.
SIGMOND: And what are you finding?
VENKATARAM: We've been able to do a focus group with people with disabilities from across California, and we really tried to make sure that we included people from across the state, as well as people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. And so, these include people who identify as having physical disabilities, people who identify as Deaf or hard-of-hearing, people who identify as blind or low vision, people who identify as having certain mental disabilities, or cognitive, or IDD, as well as people with in other circumstances, as well.
And so, what we found is that, whether people live in more urbanized areas or more rural areas, people who participated in the focus group almost uniformly wanted to live closer to the places that they go to typically. Or maybe putting it another way, they wish that those places were closer to where they went.
The problem is that we aren't really supporting the kinds of development patterns that would make that possible in the state of California and more broadly in most places in the US, too. Some of those things in California are starting to change, but that change will probably not come very quickly, because these kinds of changes in land use just generally tend to take a long time to really flesh out.
A lot of the people walk or use their wheelchairs or scooters to get to where they need to go, and many of the other respondents do drive, as well. And they uniformly spoke of the need for things like better kept roads, better kept sidewalks, better lighting for both pedestrians and drivers, because this affects people who not only walk from origin to destination but also people who walk to and from public transit stops, too.
They want alternatives to driving, because driving and maintaining a car is really expensive. But they also don't necessarily want to be financially penalized for having to drive or own a car in a set of circumstances where there really are no other viable options. So those - I thought - were some of the most interesting findings from the focus group.
The thrust of this study is to understand how disability affects the choices that people make for how they get around, and where they live, and what their desires are for those things, too. And so we're really hopeful that many people with disabilities across the state - including in FREED’s service area - will look into the survey, will take it, and will share it, too, with others that they know.
SIGMOND: And what are you hoping to do with the data?
VENKATARAM: I have seen that there's really not been a lot of research that policy makers can lean upon to make better decisions for people with disabilities, and so we're really hoping to fill that gap that exists between academic researchers and policy makers on the one hand, and people with disabilities - and especially activists with disabilities - on the other hand.
And make it clear to academic research and policymakers what the most common desires and choices are at the statewide level, so that way, they know - especially if there are differences that can't be explained without the consideration of disability - that they can then focus their efforts to addressing those issues at a statewide level. They might not necessarily be directly overseeing local efforts, but they can at least provide the resources and especially the funding to localities who can make improvements to transportation and housing for people with disabilities - and people without disabilities, too - at the local level.
SIGMOND: You brought up autonomous vehicles a little while ago, and I want to drill a bit deeper into that. We are already seeing some of these vehicles on the road now. So they exist now, and they will only become even more prevalent as time goes on. What are some of the exciting aspects of AVs that you see to expand transportation options for people with disabilities? And then, what are some of your concerns?
VENKATARAM: One of the concerns that I’m aware that many people with disabilities have with transportation - especially if they use paratransit services where they live - is low levels of availability, in the sense that paratransit services typically are only made to go within three quarters of a mile of a public transit route and operate only at the same hours of a given public transit route. They often need to be booked 24, 48, sometimes even 72 hours in advance. So there's no real flexibility with respect to being able to travel on a whim, like many people without disabilities are able to do if they can afford to do so.
So there's that, and then there's the issue that many paratransit vehicles will come hours late, but then if you are even - I mean, not necessarily you, per se - but if a rider is 10 minutes late, they might take off without the rider. And that's a real problem.
And so, I’m hopeful that autonomous mobility systems that are designed to really account for the needs of people with disabilities can move past a lot of these limitations, because as I see it, a lot of these limitations come from the high costs to public transit agencies of providing paratransit rides. I think the typical ride price to the rider is something like five dollars per ride, but for the paratransit agency, that cost ends up being something like sixty dollars for a ride.
And so, one of the exciting things that I’m going to say on the one hand is also going to lead to a real concern on the other hand. And that is the fact that the bulk of that cost - especially in many bigger cities - is the labor cost associated with driving the paratransit vehicle, because if you need one person driving each vehicle, that really adds up if you're trying to provide equivalent service to public transit.
And so, that brings up the concern of what kinds of jobs are these people going to be able to get if they're no longer able to get public transit or other kinds of bus driving jobs. But if we - and this might admittedly be a bit naive - but if we optimistically assume that we will be able to take care of the employment needs in any given metropolitan area of all of those public transit and paratransit drivers, then that suddenly means that with no labor costs and with much more efficient routing algorithms, we can get transit services to people with disabilities on demand in a point-to-point way at much, much lower cost than was previously possible. And that also then means that it can be provided much more frequently, much more reliably, and with much less hassle on the part of the rider.
The concern that I have is that it's not guaranteed that companies who are developing autonomous mobility solutions are necessarily going to take into account the needs of people with disabilities. And to some degree, this is partly because the needs of people with disabilities are so diverse, partly this is because many companies don't really consider these needs, especially if they don't have people with disabilities guiding their efforts, and partly this is because people with or without disabilities don't necessarily have the best sense of what a - and this not only goes for members of the public but even the people developing the technology - might not necessarily have the best idea of how the technology is going to work and play out in practice, because, by definition, it doesn't exist yet.
SIGMOND: What can the disability advocacy community do to ensure that this technology is made with us in mind?
VENKATARAM: In a sense, I actually think that framing of the question is not necessarily fair to the disability community, because people with disabilities - and especially their advocates and groups that advocate on their behalf, such as FREED and many others that are operating in California - are already doing so much for themselves and trying to advocate for themselves in so many different venues. I really believe, at this point, it's incumbent on the companies to do their due diligence in reaching out to people with disabilities, as well as disability advocacy organizations like FREED, to see if there are experts who work for these organizations who can bring in a broad range of perspectives to help with the design, or to really recruit ordinary people with disabilities from the community itself to provide that diversity in numbers.
I get the sense that - you know, I am just one postdoctoral researcher at ITS Davis - and if I was able to take the initiative to reach out to disability advocacy organizations across California - because I knew that, although I have a disability and I have my own perspective on what's important to me, that that was not the be-all end-all for what could be important for my work - if I could recognize those shortcomings and try to correct for that by reaching out to disability advocacy organizations and recruit people from the community to help with the design of the survey, then surely companies that are so much bigger, and have so much more funding, and so much more in terms of resources, can do the same.
SIGMOND: Indeed. I want to switch gears a bit. There are vast numbers of train and subway stations in this country that are still not wheelchair accessible 30 years after the ADA. Why?
VENKATARAM: The sense I get is that, yes, money is a part of it. Yes, development patterns are a part of it, but I genuinely believe - after having talked to people who have experience with working in the public transit systems in New York City and in Boston - the problem really is cultural.
Boston is a place where I spent four years and so I have some familiarity with the system. And it's been great to see - each time I visit even since I graduated - the improvements in the system. I’ve never been to Chicago so I can't personally speak for it. But I have heard that there have been many, many improvements in the accessibility of many of the stations, even as so many of those stations are very old and exist in very dense areas where renovation for this sort of work will have some level of disruption. And yet, they're going for it anyway, because they know that this is something that needs to be done to really accommodate everyone who lives in and around Chicago.
The flip side of it is that, okay, this is not in the US, so the US ADA doesn't apply. And perhaps, this is part of the problem, too, but if you look at Montreal, for example… The Montreal metro was built in - I believe - 1967; don't quote me on the exact date. But it was around the late 60s or early 70s that the Montreal metro opened up.
So, this was at a time when disability advocacy was much more at the forefront, compared to say, the late 19th or early 20th centuries when subways opened in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. So, I would have thought that there would have been much less of an excuse to omit disability access from the design of stations in the Montreal metro. And yet, I think it opened completely inaccessible.
And another example I’ll give of that is the DC metro, which was built before the ADA, but again, around the same time as the Montreal metro. I think it was open in the mid 1970s. And so, that was before the ADA, but because of disability activism that had been so visible by that point, the DC… And also it did take a couple lawsuits too, because I think there were a few stations in the original plan for the system that were not going to have elevators. But lawsuits forced the inclusion of elevators. And so, from its opening and for every station that was open thereafter, every station has at least one elevator that allows people with and without disabilities to get to every level.
SIGMOND: And finally, in the couple minutes we have left, I want to bring it back to you. You talked a bit before about how you have a disability, so you are personally invested in the work you do professionally. But I want to ask, what would it mean for you to have universal transportation for people of all abilities in this country and around the world?
VENKATARAM: It's interesting that you should ask that, exactly because, as I mentioned before, yes, my disability has motivated me to get into this line of work in the first place, and I brought with it a lot of the experiences that I personally had using transportation in the US. But I knew from the beginning that I couldn't speak for everyone with a disability.
And I’m still learning, especially because I personally was never that active in broader movements before coming to this. I was personally never that active in broader movements for people with disabilities. My advocacy was basically just limit it to… I mean, with the hope that whatever I advocated for would persist after I left whatever place I was in. But it was mostly limited to things that I needed from wherever I happened to be at that time.
And so, knowing that I still have so much to learn about the needs of people with different kinds of disabilities, and people who live in different kinds of places from where I live, and different circumstances from where I live, too. So, there's no way that I could give anything like a comprehensive answer for what it would mean for me to have a fully equitable transportation system, but I could try to give it a shot.
And that would probably be a system that really is designed with serious input from people with many different kinds of disabilities at the scale which it operates, whether that means across the metropolitan area for an urban transportation system; people from across the state and in very different kinds of neighborhoods - urban, suburban or rural - or statewide transportation policies and statewide transportation systems.
And that really does mean not just restricting focus to making sure that a bus or a train has a ramp, or that a sidewalk has a curb ramp at the end of it when you're crossing the road. But really making sure that people with and without disabilities can try to get to where they need to go without too much hassle, to try to do so also in a sustainable and safe way. Make sure that they aren't being put in danger by having to walk or use public transit just because they can't necessarily drive. And make sure that people who do drive have sufficiently workable alternatives to driving, too.
And one other point I will bring to that is the importance of land use planning, and especially planning for housing, because so much of that will then determine what kinds of transportation people can use.
PACHECO: That was Carl's interview with Prashanth Venkataram, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. Prashanth asked us to clarify that the views he expressed in his interview are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis or of the University more broadly. The survey that Prashanth talked about is now available to people with and without disabilities in California. We will link to it at FREED.org.
And that does it for this show. Disability Rap is produced and edited by Carl Sigmond. Special thanks to Courtney Williams for her support. To listen to the show again go to FREED.org/disabilityrap or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Carly Pacheco for another edition of Disability Rap.