New website simplifies search for accessible public transportation in Michigan

One of the barriers to accessing COVID vaccinations for the disability community has been transportation. In response, Disability Rights Michigan has unveiled an interactive guide to help users navigate the complex transportation system in the state.
Kristen Milefchik grew up in an area in Oakland County where there were few public transportation options. It was a barrier for Milefchik, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy. 

“It was really hard because when I wanted to look for a job and start being more independent, there were very few options for me,” she says.

A portrait of Kristen Milefchik taken at the TRU office.
Years later, that experience drove Milefchik’s approach when she oversaw the creation of a statewide transportation website for Disability Rights Michigan (DRM).

“We are so proud to launch this statewide resource,” says Milefchik, vaccine advocate for DRM, who worked on the project for 14 months. “I have seen the confusion on many of our clients’ faces having to plan and rely on public transportation. I hope this guide allows them to learn about the transit system and the rights afforded to them.” 

This interactive guide will help users navigate Michigan’s complex transportation system by allowing them to search for options by city, zip code, or a keyword. It also has sections to help travelers know their rights and access community resources. The guide includes a transportation map, a statewide list of transit providers and their information. 

Transit issues hindered vaccinations

The guide is a response to an issue that people were having as they tried to obtain the COVID vaccines and boosters.

“We discovered that one of the biggest barriers to getting to a clinic for a vaccine was transportation,” Milefchik says. “A lot of people have mobility disabilities so they are not able to drive themselves, and there's very little in the way of affordable, accessible transportation in the private sector.”

She adds that accessible vehicles are more costly than regular vehicles, and Uber and other rideshare programs aren't required by federal law to be accessible.

Kristen Milefchik with a participant at a Disability Rights Michigan event.
“We would get calls sometimes from people who would say that they had no transportation. And they didn't even know that there actually was a public transit option, like a demand response transit option,” Milefchik says. 

“We thought we would make a printed guide for people to refer to about public transportation, and it morphed into something bigger.” 

Issues of equity

As Milefchik was researching the guide, she realized how disconnected all the information was, making it difficult to find. That includes details about public transportation that are relevant to people with a variety of disabilities. 

For example, she says, “Even if there is a curb-to-curb service, people with disabilities need to know there are lift- or ramp-equipped vehicles.” 

Photo shows a woman in a wheelchair at a bus stop.
Federal and state law require that public transportation be accessible to individuals with disabilities. The state’s Ridership Report shows that over 30 million public transit rides were provided in 2021. Individuals with disabilities rely heavily on public transportation, yet often face barriers that result in lack of employment and health care access. 
“Through our advocacy work during the COVID-19 pandemic, DRM saw the need for significant systemic changes to advance health equity for Michigan’s disability community. This includes transportation,” says Mark McWilliams, director of advocacy at DRM. DRM is the private, nonprofit organization based in Lansing designated by the governor to advocate for and protect the legal rights of people with disabilities.

“One in 5 people in Michigan have a disability, and transportation resources are not always available to them. We believe this guide will provide clarity and simplicity.” 

The website plays an important role in making transportation more accessible, says Renee Roederer, senior director of programs and community care at the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan.

“Because seizures can render a person unable to drive, either for a six-month window or for a lifetime, it is of vital importance to the epilepsy community to have available, accessible, and affordable transportation resources in all communities across Michigan,” Roederer says. 

Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan is grateful that DRM put together the transportation guide, Roederer says.

“This will help all people with disabilities know how to best access transportation locally, and it will also reveal where transportation gaps persist, so we can work continually to ensure transportation equity across the state.”

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United (TRU), says the new website addresses a gap.

“Having this important information shared so clearly from a trusted source is hugely needed by people all across the state. Kristen and her team have done a great job with this. We're sharing it throughout our networks,” Owens says.

Milefchik serves on the board for TRU, a nonprofit advocating for better transit.

State slow to invest

The state lags behind other states when it comes to public transportation. Michigan's per capita spending in transit in Detroit is less than state investments in 38 other metro regions nationwide.

“It creates reliability issues,” says Milefchik, “and it's a Catch-22 because people need to know that transit exists and use that in order for decision makers and policy makers to understand the value of investing in transit. 

Kristen Milefchik speaks to a crowd at an event promoting a transit millage.
“There's an assumption that people don't use transit because they don't need that. It’s more of a case that people don't use it because there's not enough of it.” 

Milefchik says that because of her Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a disorder affecting the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement, she’s never walked. She uses a power wheelchair, which doesn’t easily fold up and fit into a regular car, further limiting her transportation options.

“When I moved to Wayne County, I had a van by then, but I did use the bus a few times when it was just convenient to be able to just get out,” she says. “It feels so empowering for a person who has so little freedom of movement to do that without having to ask somebody else to drive them.”

Milefchik remembers how a transformational trip to Chicago showed her the potential of accessible public transportation.

“When I visited Chicago as an adult for the first time and got to use the transit system in Chicago, it was like a light bulb went off. I was like, wow, this is a thing. This is possible,” she says.

Gaps in the system

In 2022, all of Oakland County opted for a millage to fund public transportation. Before that, the system looked like swiss cheese, with large holes where some communities were shut out from the service.

The SMART system in neighboring Macomb County is expanding to all of Oakland County, providing access to a variety of transit services, including standard fixed routes, FAST (high-frequency fixed routes), Connector (demand response), ADA Paratransit, Flex (on-demand micro-transit), and community partnership programs.

Milefchik points out that outside of Detroit, Wayne County still has areas without access to public transit.

“That's one of those hurdles that we still need to come together on,” she says. “Regional transit plans are a huge, huge issue throughout the state – having a more regional, connected and coordinated system so that people can get from county to county without having to transfer so many times to get where they need to go.” 

Her vaccine advocacy team has sent emails to many facilities and community organizations to let them know about DRM’s new transportation website. 

“I’m going to keep on fighting the good fight and try to help transit move forward,” she says. “It’s great that it exists, but it could grow so much more and be so much better than it is now.” 

Photos courtesy of Disability Rights Michigan and Transportation Riders United.

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of Michigan’s growing disability community. This series is made possible through a partnership with Disability Rights Michigan.

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