Transportation Services for People with Disabilities and Older Adults during a Pandemic and Other Emergencies: Lessons Learned during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Transportation services for people with disabilities and older adults are provided, in most communities, by a complex, and often fragile, agglomeration of public, private, and non-profit fixed-route, paratransit, and demand-responsive services that are essential to the well-being of their customers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers faced reduced demand as many people stayed home due to shelter in place orders and to avoid illness. Yet many individuals with disabilities and older adults still needed mobility services, which required strategies to keep customers and drivers safe and respond to unexpected circumstances precipitated by the pandemic. Some communities faced additional challenges because they confronted multiple emergencies (such as fires, floods, ice storms, other climate-related events, and civil unrest) that further disrupted mobility and transportation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of being prepared and nimble to serve people with disabilities and older adults was evident. While facing many challenges, numerous transportation providers that serve people with disabilities and older adults demonstrated laudable responses to the pandemic and other emergencies they faced, while others struggled to adapt. For example, (1) Drivers’ and passengers’ safety was prioritized by limiting capacity, educating all to stay home if sick or with symptoms, installing partitions in vehicles, checking temperatures, sanitizing vehicles and work spaces, and requiring and providing personal protective equipment (PPE). Other transportation-related employees transitioned to tele-work and continued their responsibilities. (2) The determination of customer eligibility for paratransit services was moved to remote rather than in-person processes enabling those eligible to qualify, as fixed-route transit services were curtailed. (3) Available technologies and data were leveraged and adapted to meet needs revealed by the pandemic. This included communicating with customers about service changes, facilitating COVID-19 testing and vaccination, adding services through subsidized debit card/payment and monitoring systems (i.e., taxi service), and using contactless payment. (4) Relationships formed prior to the pandemic with community-based organizations and government entities that address health, homelessness, and aging and disability-related services were leveraged and expanded. (For example, food was delivered to reduce travel and exposure; special transportation from medical facilities to supportive housing was provided to those who were COVID-19 positive). (4) Direct feedback loops with older adults and people with disabilities informed customers about service changes and design. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of enhancing resilience and assuring that community-wide mobility and other critical needs are met during emergencies. Given this, research is needed to help ensure that the positive and negative lessons learned regarding transportation services for people with disabilities and older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic are documented and understood. The objective of this research is to present strategies for public transportation agencies, paratransit providers, human service transportation providers, emergency planners, and their partners to prepare for and be ready to operate transportation services for people with disabilities and older adults during major service disruptions such as a pandemic, natural disasters, and other emergencies. This research should draw on the lessons learned from diverse communities during the COVID-19 pandemic; provide examples of successful strategies; and present implementation methods that can be emulated. The research should address: (1) Planning for emergencies – including scenario planning and operationalizing scenarios that respond to service disruptions due to an emergency (or simultaneous emergencies) and the effects on customers and transportation service providers, including vehicle operators. (2) Continuity of services, adapting to needs of individuals with disabilities and older adults as emergencies unfold, recognizing that service needs will change throughout the stages of the emergencies, and building flexibility into the service structure. (3) Equity, insuring that individuals with disabilities and older adults (especially low income, people of color, and non-English speakers) have mobility and can access the goods and services that meet their needs throughout an emergency (e.g., employment, medical care, medicine, and grocery stores with healthy food). (4) Relationships and partnerships that allow the many providers, partners, and collaborators to serve individuals with disabilities and older adults effectively by working together throughout emergencies. (5) Communication and engagement with appropriate feedback loops among stakeholders and partners, including input from passengers with disabilities and older adults, so there are effective mechanisms in place to respond quickly to what is and is not working. This should occur in advance of and throughout emergencies. (6) Financial sustainability strategies including innovative reimbursement methods; new funding; and alternate contract options for public and private transportation providers and vendors. (7) New and existing technologies that will facilitate preparedness, responsiveness, and enhanced mobility options. (8) Enduring changes to the planning, operation, and regulation of transportation services for people with disabilities and older adults to make the services more adaptive, responsive, and resilient during emergencies and in normal times.


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  • Status: Proposed
  • Funding: $100000
  • Contract Numbers:

    Project J-11, Task 42

  • Sponsor Organizations:

    Transit Cooperative Research Program

    Transportation Research Board
    500 Fifth Street, NW
    Washington, DC    20001

    Federal Transit Administration

    1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
    Washington, DC  United States  20590
  • Project Managers:

    Schwager, Dianne

  • Start Date: 20211201
  • Expected Completion Date: 0
  • Actual Completion Date: 0

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01758962
  • Record Type: Research project
  • Source Agency: Transportation Research Board
  • Contract Numbers: Project J-11, Task 42
  • Files: TRB, RIP
  • Created Date: Nov 23 2020 3:06PM