Toward Universal Mobility in the Chicagoland Region

Author: Jerom Theunissen

Published: December 17, 2019

A new report by the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago lays out 32 recommendations for improving public transportation for the 800,000 people with disabilities in the Chicago region and offers mobility management as a key paradigm to tackling existing disparities in service.

A world-class transit system…for all?

On paper, public transportation in Chicago is among the highest-ranked in the country when it comes to service coverage, efficiency, and effectiveness. Every year, Chicago’s Regional Transit Authority ranks the region against peer cities and their metropolitan areas in their peer review report. In 2017, Chicago-area transit ranked in the top half of the peer regions in fourteen of the sixteen measures included in the report, and as one of the top three performers for nine of the measures. The measures are grouped by service coverage, service efficiency and effectiveness, service maintenance and capital investment, and service-level solvency.

However, these rankings play out differently on the ground, especially for individuals whose age, illness, injury, pregnancy, or genetics affect their everyday mobility. Most Chicago residents don’t realize that there is an entire secondary network of mobility services that serve people with disabilities. These services are a lifeline for the people who rely on them, but due to funding constraints, local politics, and decades of inertia, they’re extremely fragmented. An uncoordinated patchwork of accessible transportation services, missing sidewalks, and poor information force individuals to minimize travel rely on friends and family, or resort to expensive private providers to access everyday destinations. Read more about Chicago’s specific mobility challenges here.

Map of Accessible Transit Services for Northeast Illinois (Chicagoland Region)

Toward Universal Mobility Report

To identify opportunities for the Chicagoland region to move towards a more universal mobility, the local non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) released a report earlier this month titled “Toward Universal Mobility: Charting a Path to Improve Transportation Accessibility.” The report underscores that “nearly every person in the Chicago region, or someone they care for, will face a disability that will impact on their mobility at some point in their life.” Despite long-standing federal law, “the experience of getting around using (Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority and other operators) ranges from fairly reliable and affordable to maddeningly frustrating and expensive.”

The report outlines 32 recommendations that will help transportation accessibility for everyone in nine thematic areas, including service coordination, partnerships with private transportation services, technology to improve the customer experience, improving funding structures, and empowering people with disabilities and caregivers to advocate.

In creating the report, MPC conducted more than 100 focus groups and one-on-one meetings with affected populations and then working with a technical panel of transportation experts to develop final recommendations. The report includes several profiles of people who have one disability or another, humanizing the difficulties of using the current system in their day-to-day life. NCMM was invited to serve on the technical panel for the study and provided resources, shared national best practices, and reviewed findings.

Mobility Management is Crucial to Universal Mobility

Mobility management thrives when there is a coordinated effort and combining of assets among private organizations and public agencies, all working together in pursuit of better service at lower costs for all. The study recognizes this and made the appointment of a regional mobility coordinator the top recommendation. The role would work with transit agencies, nonprofits, and private companies to coordinate services across service boundaries and break down bureaucratic silos. The report says such an individual could work for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Regional Transportation Authority or at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The main objective of the Coordinator would be to:

  • Facilitate collaboration between different units of government
  • Identify gaps and needs in service
  • Work with planners and providers to create accessible mobility solutions and a more seamless service experience
  • Better align paratransit with fixed-route services, facilitating easier and more reliable transfers
  • Lead regional mobility management across all the region’s transportation providers and services

For universal mobility to become a reality, we must take a rigorous focus on elevating the individual needs of each rider, regardless of their ability, age, income, where they live or how they choose to get around. Therefore, it is crucial that the mobility manager understand the lived experiences of diverse ridership groups, and wherever possible, include groups who would most benefit from universal mobility services. Adam Ballard, Housing and Transportation Policy Analyst at Access Living said:

“Processes that include [people with disabilities] from the very beginning work well, and those where we're consulted after the fact, after the deal has been done or after the ink is dry, that's when the problems come up. So bring us into the process from the beginning, when you're designing, when you're figuring out what that partnership is going to look like.”

With new service models and technology, a future where wait times aren’t dramatically different for wheelchair users, where wayfinding tools include braille and audible cues, where confusing and arbitrary service boundaries don't make everyday trips impossible, is not far away. The question now becomes, how can mobility managers bring the pieces together to design transportation systems that get us where we need to go safely, quickly and as comfortably as possible.

MPC hosted a panel discussing the report’s findings and recommendations. From L to R: Risa Rifkind, Audrey Wennink, Jackie Forbes, Judy Shanley, and Adam Ballard

MPC hosted a panel discussing the report’s findings and recommendations. From L to R: Risa Rifkind, Audrey Wennink, Jackie Forbes, Judy Shanley, and Adam Ballard. Image credit: Metropolitan Planning Council.

To view the report release event, you can watch it entirely below.

Image Credits: Metropolitan Planning Council

We’d love to hear from you!

Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Kirby Wilhelm (wilhelm@ctaa.org).