For too long, transportation policy has been written by and for drivers. This is not only failing those of us who cannot drive or cannot afford to drive, but also failing us as a society. The lived experience of nondrivers could help us build a more equitable, economically vital, and accessible transportation system.
At the start of the COVID pandemic, white collar commuters overwhelmingly stopped using public transit. But on routes that serve low-income, immigrant and BIPOC communities, transit ridership remained, and for the first time, those of us who are transit reliant became much more visible.
Nationally, nearly a third of our population can’t drive and people of color, immigrants, low-income people, and disabled people are less likely to have a driver license or access to a car. As planners and policymakers look for ways to increase the number of people walking, rolling, and riding transit, it’s time they recognize nondrivers as the transportation experts we are, having years of experience navigating sidewalks, buses, and paratransit systems that most transportation professionals and decision makers don’t use or rely upon on a daily basis.
In 2022, the Disability Mobility Initiative is releasing a groundbreaking research paper on the transportation needs of disabled nondrivers, based on interviews with 125 Washington residents who cannot drive. It’s not an exaggeration to say almost everyone we interviewed expressed a sense that their mobility needs are afterthoughts and that they are substantially left out of the processes that shape transportation systems.
Most tellingly, we heard many stories that reinforced our belief that transportation professionals would benefit from including more nondrivers in their ranks, from transit board members expressing they are “too busy” to ride the bus, while voting to further decimate service, to planners siting light rail where users have to navigate unsignalized highway onramps to access the station.
One obvious first and easy step is for transportation and transit agencies to stop requiring driver’s licenses for jobs where driving is not an essential job function. In the last year, we’ve found jobs at Washington State Department of Transportation, Seattle Transportation Department, and Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (Sound Transit) requiring driver’s licenses for a public transportation planning specialist, an ADA coordinator, and transit fare ambassadors.
Transportation agencies need to start reviewing every job posting to ensure the job requirements match the job description and remove unnecessary requirements that serve as barriers to exclude low-income, disabled, and BIPOC applicants who have the lived experience to perform the job.
Beyond removing barriers that should have been eliminated by the passage of the ADA, 31 years ago, it’s time for transportation agencies to actively recruit nondrivers for agency and leadership positions, recognizing that there is no more important credential than lived experience.
To be clear, we aren’t asking for new accessibility committees that risk sidelining us. Our voices must be welcomed into rooms and conversations where these decisions are already happening. From broad policy and funding considerations, down to the details about how we board a bus or navigate a ride-booking system, our voices must be sought out for our expertise and that expertise must be reflected in every aspect of existing processes and
structures. Our presence at these tables will help to shift funding and planning priorities, allowing us to more quickly build and repair the infrastructure that our communities need to thrive.
Making these investments not only helps those of us who can’t drive, it also creates opportunities and benefits for others who have been historically excluded. Compared to new highway construction, transit and multimodal projects create more jobs per dollar invested. These contracts are more likely to go to smaller, women and minority-owned businesses who may lack the resources to compete for larger highway projects. And, as it becomes easier for people to choose transit or active transportation over driving, it becomes possible for more low-income households to escape the financial burden of car ownership. This can also improve public health outcomes in frontline communities, who are exposed to air pollution and higher vehicle collision rates because of their proximity to high speed and high traffic roads. Frontline communities are also most likely to suffer the immediate financial and human costs of extreme weather events. Investing in transportation infrastructure and transit service that meets the needs of nondrivers helps us reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the climate crisis.
We believe that in order to plan for the transportation systems of our future, the transportation sector must recruit and hire nondrivers. Now is the time to include our expertise on every planning and policy team, on decision making boards and in executive leadership positions. Our experience using transit, door-to-door shuttles, pedestrian, and bike infrastructure can serve as the foundation for designing a transportation system that gets more people out of single-occupancy vehicles, helping us meet our public health, congestion relief, and carbon emission goals.