Mass transit systems have operated in major U.S. cities since the 1830s. Horse-drawn streetcars and omnibuses initially carried people to and from their destinations.
Even with improvements in the 19th century, the vast majority of mass transit systems weren’t accessible to people with disabilities. It was just another barrier that kept people at home, unable to attend school, go to work and take part in community life. Anyone without family or friends to help with transportation was out of luck.
There was also the issue of transit systems ownership. An example is found in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and how the core cities and suburbs had separate streetcar and bus systems. The first talk of a regional “metropolitan transit commission” was in 1950. The head of the state’s railroad and warehouse commission called for changes.
That proposal launched years of debate between legislators, city and suburban officials, and transit advocates. The commission was finally established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967.
One of the first significant steps toward improvements in transit was passed 60 years ago by Congress. The 1964 Urban Mass Transit Act. The act initially provided $375 million for large-scale urban public or private rail projects, in the form of matching funds to cities and states.
The act also created the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, which is now known as the Federal Transit Administration.
The act is recognized by many historians as one of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s most successful Great Society efforts. Actually, President John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress laid the ground for the federal government to become involved in local transportation funding. Kennedy saw transit and transportation systems development as ways to promote urban renewal and development. Johnson carried the idea forward when he succeeded Kennedy as president.
The act and its related funding launched expansion of transit and transportation systems nationwide, providing funding to help expand existing systems and build new ones.
It would take longer for the needed access improvements to be seen. The Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1970, known as UMTAA, made key transit funding and development changes.
Most importantly, UMTAA mandated that transportation planners prepare environmental impact analyses, hold public hearings and make what were described as “special efforts” to accommodate elders and people with disabilities. That was followed in 1974 by the National Mass Transportation Assistance Act, which included a provision calling for reduced fares or people with disabilities and elders.
More access-related changes followed . Paratransit began to emerge in the 1970s, with a focus on disability ridership. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was strengthened to place stronger emphasis on providing rehabilitation services to people with severe disabilities. It is meant to provide an array of services including enhanced transportation.
Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 spurred along the development of paratransit and ridership options for those who live with disabilities.
Paratransit services around the nation saw skyrocketing demand for service as they were added. We now see Metro Transit adding incentives to get riders with disabilities to use regular route transit due to demand on Metro Mobility.
Read about Metro Transit and its history at Metro Transit (Minnesota)
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org