Kalamazoo area’s accessible transit system has been almost 20 years in the making

Twice Sharon DeHaan’s power wheelchair has been struck hard enough by motorists that she was ejected from the scooter. 

But that is not the only reason this Kalamazoo woman has served on committees to establish and improve safe public transit options for nearly 20 years.

“Without public transportation, I wouldn’t be going very much,” said DeHaan, 75, who uses a wheelchair because of the effects of childhood polio. 

DeHaan said she cannot afford an automobile, but thanks to the Kalamazoo area’s robust public transportation system, she is able to get to medical appointments and to the grocery store, and volunteer once or twice a week as receptionist at Disability Network Southwest Michigan. 

DeHaan rides city buses -- which travel fixed routes with planned stops in metropolitan areas in the core of Kalamazoo County – once or twice a week at a cost of 75 cents per ride. 

Four to six times a week she also uses Kalamazoo County’s call-to-ride Metro Connect vans, which charges $3 per ride.

From March 2020 to August 2021, when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions kept most people at home, authorities running the city and county services suspended fares altogether. But the buses continued running with marginally diminished service. 

The transit system is not perfect, DeHaan said. Nevertheless, because leaders listen to recommendations from riders like herself, she said that each year the transit system becomes more exemplary for all riders -- including riders with disabilities.

Beginnings

Paul Ecklund said a multi-dimensional approach to improving public transportation in Kalamazoo County began about the time he became the systems advocate at Disability Network Southwest Michigan in 2003.

A Transportation Accessibility Group (TAG) made up of riders with disabilities such as DeHaan, as well as professionals who serve people with disabilities, met monthly at Disability Network to help affect change. A Public Transit and Human Services group came together. A Friends of Transportation committee also formed to explain how a more robust transit service could spur Kalamazoo County’s economic development.

“The truth is, people who take public transportation are almost always on their way to make money or spend money,” Ecklund said. “It’s not typical that it’s just for a social purpose.”

The first order of business, led by TAG chairwoman Linda Teeter, was to champion a change in Michigan laws to permit the county to have two transportation millages for different types of service.

This was essential, Ecklund said, because residents of Kalamazoo, Portage, Comstock and more developed areas of surrounding townships would not be keen to also pay for the dial-a-ride service that is effective in rural areas. Conversely, voters living in less populated parts of the county would be unlikely to support the more costly urban transit system if they never used it.

Kalamazoo Metro Transit System, now known as Metro, had operated the region's transit system since it went under public ownership in 1967. Metro Connect, its demand-response system, began to be managed by the Kalamazoo County Transportation Authority (KCTA) in 2006. After the state law was changed to allow two transportation millages in a single county, the Central County Transit Authority (CCTA) was created in 2014 to manage the fixed route system. That system previously was managed by a department of the city of Kalamazoo and Metro Connect as a county-funded system.

The CCTA and KCTA millages come up for renewal every five years. Voters last approved the CCTA millage in 2020. The KCTA millage was last approved in 2021. 

Fares typically generate only 20% of a transportation system’s operating budget, with locally approved millages and state and federal money funding the rest.

The Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines stipulate that all public buses and vans must accommodate riders in wheelchairs. All buses and vans in use in Kalamazoo County can transport at least two riders using mobility devices at a time.

Tackling the wish list

Adding late evening and weekend service was important to all riders, who desired the option of taking the bus if they worked shift work or wanted to shop for groceries on Saturdays. 

Advocates whose focus was creating a system more accessible to people with disabilities encountered resistance until Sean McBride became executive director of the Kalamazoo County Transportation Authority in 2012, Ecklund said.

“The previous director viewed the ADA as an unfunded mandate, so change was difficult,” said Ecklund, a regular user of Metro buses because of childhood-onset macular degeneration. “The leadership change made a big difference.”

The ADA requires that stops be announced so that riders who are visually impaired know the bus’s location, but many drivers initially skipped the announcements. So, TAG members became “mystery riders” who compiled data to document the extent of the neglect. Now drivers routinely announce stops.

Ecklund also started advocating for accessible bus stops that have space to deploy a ramp to a 5-foot by 8-foot concrete pad that safely leads on a low grade to a curbed sidewalk that is separate from the motorized right-of-way. 

Less than 10% of the area’s almost 800 bus stops were accessible by those standards a dozen years ago, but today almost half are accessible. In 2020, the city of Kalamazoo designated $180,000 of its sidewalk improvement budget to creating accessible bus stops in its five core neighborhoods. Other bus stops are being made accessible during routine street improvement projects. 

The pace of bus stop reconstruction could accelerate with federal American Rescue Plan funds earmarked to improve infrastructure, Ecklund said. It is unknown how much of that money will be dedicated to upgrading accessibility.  In some places, he said, a bus stop is still designated by a sign on a pole in a mud hole and nothing more. 

Full accessibility is not achievable

Unfortunately, Kalamazoo County will never achieve 100% accessible bus stops because some communities do not have sidewalks.

“Our drivers don’t want to drop off passengers in the roadway or on a gravel shoulder, but in places where we lack infrastructure, that may be the only option,” said Kathy Schultz, Metro’s planning and development manager. 

Sharon DeHaan depends on public transportation to get to her appointments.

Corners are not the safest choices for picking up and dropping off passengers, either, because motorists do not expect to see buses stopped in intersections, she said.
Schultz’s goal is to have wheelchair-accessible and well-lit bus stops where anyone waiting for a bus, or exiting a bus, can easily see a bus approaching and be seen by the bus driver and other motorists.

Very low unemployment in the area could also be an obstacle to hiring new drivers and keeping all the routes running, Ecklund said.

Planning is key

Schultz said stakeholders providing input on road improvement projects “before the concrete gets poured” is the key to improvements that benefit the most people. 
Monthly meetings with the TAG committee provide valuable feedback on things the transit system is doing well and things that could be better. She said she appreciates that some riders with disabilities will phone her directly to report things like “the ramp on the bus I was waiting for would not deploy” so she can immediately submit a service order.

The greatest obstacle to buses running on time is road construction, which Schultz said she has zero control over. Nevertheless, Schultz said she can often work with construction project access managers to reposition barricades so that buses can get passengers using mobility devices close to medical buildings and other services.

“When I travel, I use other transit systems to get a feeling for how we’re doing,” said Schultz, who has been in her position for seven years. “I think we’re getting up there with the premiere systems in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor because public transportation is no longer an afterthought. We’re usually at the table as a project is being conceived and able to consider things like whether there should be a bench or a shelter and where curb cuts should go.”

Tech innovations to help riders with disabilities 

Because power wheelchairs and scooters can be quite heavy, over the last several years Kalamazoo public buses and vans have upgraded ramps so they are sturdy enough to support up to 1,000 pounds, Schultz said.

Five new buses also are equipped with Quantum Securement Systems, a sort of flip-up chair that people who use wheelchairs can back into and lock their chairs in place without the assistance of an operator. This eliminates the need for the bus driver to leave the driver’s seat to strap down mobility devices.

Retrofitting current vehicles with the new systems would be expensive, but most new buses will likely have the equipment because it improves on-time performance, Schultz said. Typically, a bus driver can take several minutes to tie down a wheelchair. In contrast, a person who uses a wheelchair familiar with how the Quantum device works can secure the chair without assistance in about 30 seconds.

Metro riders can now purchase transit passes from their smartphones using the Token Transit application. Another app, My Stop Mobile, allows waiting riders to look up their stop by its number to estimate how long until the bus arrives. Riders can also use the “Track My Bus” button at www.kmetro.com to determine where their bus is in real time, a nice benefit during bad weather.

Enhancements on the horizon

A comprehensive analysis of the Kalamazoo transportation system has revealed a need for “micro-transit,” which could use Metro Connect vans to shuttle riders from low-demand service areas to high-demand service areas. These shuttles would operate like the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, but be more affordable for passengers, Schultz said.

A weakness of the Metro Connect service is that it can be time-inefficient for riders traveling during peak hours, Ecklund said. 

For example, someone using Metro Connect to get to a 30-minute doctor’s appointment at 10 a.m. on a weekday may have to be dropped off an hour early and picked up an hour afterward. Regular passengers accept that they must schedule a ride seven days in advance to assure they can arrive where they need to be on time.
Micro-transit, which could begin as early as 2023, would reduce the need for so much advance planning, Schultz said.

Prompt snow removal at bus stops also is a significant hurdle, Ecklund said. He thinks someone would have to be hired to develop an “adopt-a-bus stop” brigade of volunteers to clear snow so people using mobility devices can access buses.