This section outlines the requirements to accommodate riders who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices on transit systems. This section builds upon the General Requirements for All Service Types section of the toolkit. As introduced in the General Requirements section, transit agencies are required to maintain accessibility features including vehicle Iifts and ramps, ensure they are in operating condition, and accommodate individuals and their mobility devices if the lift and vehicle can accommodate them. This section of the toolkit provides more in-depth information on accommodating riders with mobility devices than is provided in the General Requirements section. It is organized into the following subsections:
The primary sources of information presented in this section are the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations in 49 CFR Part 37- Transportation Services for Individuals with Disabilities (ADA), 49 CFR Part 38 - Accessibility Specifications for Transportation Vehicles, Subpart B, and FTA Circular 4710.1 - Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Guidance. Readers are also encouraged to review National RTAP’s Oversized Wheeled Mobility Devices Technical Brief as well as the U.S. DOT Questions and Answers Concerning Wheelchairs and Bus and Rail Service Disability Law Guidance web page.
Mobility devices assist people with disabilities with locomotion. A wheelchair is a type of mobility device. This section of the toolkit primarily focuses on the types of mobility devices that fall under the U.S. DOT ADA definition of wheelchair. The U.S. DOT defines a wheelchair as “a mobility aid belonging to any class of three- or more-wheeled devices, usable indoors, designed or modified for and used by individuals with mobility impairments, whether operated manually or powered” [49 CFR Section 37.3]. This definition includes three-wheeled scooters.
Other types of mobility devices include canes, crutches, and walkers. These other devices must be accommodated by transportation providers on the same basis as wheelchairs, as stated in Appendix D to 49 CFR Part 37, under Section 37.3.
As explained in Appendix D to 49 CFR Part 37, under Section 37.3, as well as in Section 2.4.2 of the FTA ADA Circular, devices that are not primarily designed for use by individuals with mobility impairments, such as shopping carts, bicycles, and skateboards, are not required to be accommodated.
Section 2.4.2 of the FTA ADA Circular also notes that transit agencies are not required to permit other types of assistive devices to be used in ways that depart from or exceed their intended uses. The circular provides the example of walkers with built-in seats: transit agencies are not required to permit riders who use these devices to ride in securement areas while seated on their walkers; these individuals can be required to transfer to a vehicle seat.
Accommodating the wide range of mobility devices used in the U.S. is the focus of TCRP Report 171: Use of Mobility Devices on Paratransit Vehicles and Buses. Published in 2014, this report summarizes research on equipment design and challenges in securing different types of devices, Trends in equipment design discussed in this report include not only mobility devices but also in transit vehicle design, including lifts, ramps, interior layout, securement systems, seating, and fare payment equipment.
Also note that U.S. DOT definition of wheelchair is different from that of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In Section 35.104 of 28 CFR Part 35, U.S. DOJ defines a wheelchair as “a manually-operated or power-driven device designed primarily for use by an individual with a mobility disability for the main purpose of indoor, or of both indoor and outdoor locomotion.” The U.S. DOJ definitions also include the term “other power-driven mobility device” which is defined as “any mobility device powered by batteries, fuel, or other engines––whether or not designed primarily for use by individuals with mobility disabilities––that is used by individuals with mobility disabilities for the purpose of locomotion, including golf cars, electronic personal assistance mobility devices (EPAMDs), such as the Segway® PT, or any mobility device designed to operate in areas without defined pedestrian routes, but that is not a wheelchair within the meaning of this section” [28 CFR Part 35 Section 35.104].
An accessible vehicle is needed to accommodate riders using mobility devices that fall under the U.S. DOT definition of wheelchair. All vehicles acquired for use in fixed route public transit service, by a public entity or by a private entity considered to be “standing in the shoes” of a public entity, must be accessible. The vehicles acquired for use in providing demand response service must also be accessible, unless the demand response system, when viewed in its entirety, provides equivalent service to individuals with disabilities.
When procuring new passenger vehicles that are required to be accessible, the vehicles must be manufactured to comply with U.S. DOT ADA regulations. Minimum vehicle accessibility specifications for buses and vans are defined in 49 CFR Part 38, Accessibility Specifications for Transportation Vehicles, Subpart B. The Vehicle and Facility Accessibility section of this toolkit summarizes the accessibility features and specifications that are required under 49 CFR Part 38.
The standards represent minimum specifications. Transit agencies can acquire vehicles that exceed these specifications in order to accommodate more riders who use mobility devices. For example, 49 CFR Part 38 requires that vehicles in excess of 22 feet to have at least two securement locations, and smaller vehicles to have at least one [Section 38.23(a)]. However, a transit agency that serves a high number of riders with disabilities may elect to procure vehicles with three or more securement positions. Chapter 4 of TCRP Report 163: Strategy Guide to Enable and Promote the Use of Fixed-Route Transit by People with Disabilities provides several examples of transit vehicles that allow for more than two wheelchair positions.
Another example of exceeding minimum specifications involves the weight capacity of lifts. 49 CFR Part 38 requires that vehicle lifts accommodate a minimum of 600 pounds [Section 38.23(b)]. Transit agencies may wish to procure vehicles with lifts that accommodate a higher weight.
Riders who use mobility devices also need access to facilities in the transit system, including bus stops, shelters, transit centers, customer service offices, sidewalks, and other structures. New public transportation facilities constructed by public entities (and private entities that “stand in the shoes” of a public entity) must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids [49 CFR Section 37.41]. If a public entity alters an existing facility or part of an existing facility used for providing designated public transportation services, and that alteration affects or could affect the usability of the facility, alterations must be made in a way that is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities (Section 37.43). This applies to improvements made at bus stops, such as installing shelters or constructing sidewalks. The Vehicle and Facility Accessibility section of this toolkit summarizes the accessibility standards for transit facilities.
In addition to having accessible infrastructure in place, a transit agency also must ensure that vehicles and facilities are maintained in operative condition so that they are usable by individuals with disabilities [49 CFR Section 37.161(a)]. This includes keeping vehicle lifts/ramps in operative condition through a system of regular and frequent maintenance checks of lifts [49 CFR Section 37.163(b)], such as cycling the lift as part of each pre-trip inspection as well as conducting interval-based preventive maintenance. All accessibility features must be promptly repaired if they are damaged or out of order, and reasonable steps to accommodate individuals with disabilities who would otherwise use the feature must be taken until it has been repaired [49 CFR Section 37.161(b)]. More information on this requirement is provided in the General Requirements for All Service Types section of this toolkit.
As discussed in the Fixed Route Requirements section of this toolkit, when a lift on a fixed route vehicle is found to be inoperative, and there is a spare vehicle available, the vehicle with the inoperative lift must be taken out of service before the beginning of the vehicle’s next day of service and the lift must be repaired before the vehicle returns to service. If there is not a spare vehicle available, or if taking the vehicle out of service would reduce the availability of transportation service provided, a transit agency may keep the vehicle with the inoperative lift in service for no more than five days in a rural area (or three days in areas with a population of over 50,000) [49 CFR Section 37.163(e)].
Many of the following operating policy requirements are also addressed in the General Requirements for All Service Types section of this toolkit. National RTAP’s Wheelchair Securement Topic Guide provides links to additional relevant resources.
Transit agencies must ensure that vehicle drivers and other personnel make use of the required accessibility-related equipment or features [Section 37.167(e)]. As discussed in the FTA ADA Circular, it is not enough for a transit agency to have the accessibility-related equipment or features. Staff must use the equipment or feature (such as deploying lifts and ramps) in order to provide accessible service to riders. In addition, staff must be trained to proficiency in the safe use of the accessibility equipment [Section 37.173].
Transit agencies must permit a passenger who uses a lift to disembark from a vehicle at any designated stop, unless the lift cannot be deployed, the lift will be damaged if it is deployed, or temporary conditions at the stop, not under the control of the transit driver, preclude the safe use of the stop by all passengers [Section 37.167(g)].
Transit agencies must provide individuals with disabilities adequate time to complete boarding or disembarking from the vehicle [49 CFR Section 37.167(i)]. Riders who use mobility devices typically need a little extra time to board and disembark, because of the time involved in deploying the lift or ramp as well as in securing the mobility device and releasing it at the rider’s destination. Transit agencies should build a cushion into fixed route schedules (often referred to as recovery time) to ensure that fixed routes can both stay on time and accommodate riders with disabilities. Likewise, when scheduling rides on demand response service, additional boarding time should be factored in for riders who use mobility devices.
Transit agencies must permit individuals with disabilities who do not use wheelchairs, including standees, to use a vehicle’s lift or ramp to enter the vehicle. [Section 37.165(g)]. This applies to riders who use canes, crutches, walkers, or other mobility devices (as well as riders with disabilities who do not use any type of assistive device) who request use of the lift or ramp [Section 37.165 of Appendix D to Part 37].
Transit agencies must permit a rider using mobility devices to use the lift either facing into the vehicle or facing out from the vehicle. Under 49 CFR 38.23(b)(11), lifts must permit both inward and outward facing of wheelchair and mobility aid users.
Transit agency personnel are required to assist individuals with disabilities with the use of securement systems, ramps and lifts [Section 37.165(f)]. As stated in Section 2.5.1 of the FTA ADA Circular, transit agency personnel may also need to assist riders who use manual wheelchairs on and off lift platforms, or up and down ramps. This requirement is discussed in Appendix D to Part 37, Section 37.165, which states that the driver may have to assist in pushing a manual wheelchair up the ramp (particularly where the ramp slope is relatively steep). The FTA ADA Circular notes that the regulations do not set a minimum or maximum weight for an occupied wheelchair that drivers are obligated to help propel, but indicates that the assistance would not be required if it would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of the driver, and that transit agencies will need to assess whether a particular level of assistance constitutes a direct threat on a case-by-case basis.
49 CFR Part 38 requires that vehicles accommodate occupied wheelchairs weighing a minimum 600 pounds and measuring 30” x 48.” However, many vehicles and lifts are manufactured to accommodate larger and heavier wheelchairs. A transit system is obligated to carry a wheelchair and occupant if the lift and vehicle can physically accommodate them, unless doing so is inconsistent with legitimate safety requirements. “Legitimate safety requirements” include such circumstances as a mobility device of such size that it would block an aisle or would interfere with the safe evacuation of passengers in an emergency [49 CFR Section 37.165 and Appendix D to Part 37 under Section 37.165].
There is a potential way to accommodate a rider using a wheelchair or other mobility device that together are to heavy be safely accommodated on the lift. Provided that the weight of the individual or the device alone does not exceed the design load for the vehicle lift, the individual could potentially board separately from the device. Example 8 in Appendix E to 49 CFR Part 37 states that the transit agency should generally grant a wheelchair user’s request to board a fixed route or paratransit vehicle separately from their device when the occupied weight of the device exceeds the design load of the vehicle lift as a reasonable modification of policy. In situations where the combined weight of the person and their mobility device exceeds the design load for the vehicle lift, the transit agency should offer the rider the option of boarding separately from the mobility device. Another individual, such as a personal care attendant (PCA), would need to operate the unoccupied mobility device. The transit agency is not required to provide a PCA. As stated in Section 2.4.1 of the FTA ADA Circular, vehicle drivers are not required to assume the controls of power wheelchairs to assist riders with boarding vehicles. Providing assistance with a power wheelchair falls under the category of attendant-type services, which the regulations do not require. Example 27 in Appendix E to Part 37 states that hand-carrying a passenger is also a PCA-type service. And, the regulations do not require transit agency personnel to ride the lift with the rider.
Riders who use wheelchairs (as defined by U.S. DOT) need access to one of the securement areas on a vehicle in order to ride. Under 49 CFR Section 37.167(j), when an individual, because of a disability, needs to occupy a wheelchair securement location, and individuals are occupying the securement location, the driver must ask the other individuals (including other individuals with disabilities) to move so that the individual with a disability can occupy the needed location. The transit agency has an obligation to ask them to move, but is not required to enforce the request if the other individuals refuse. Section 6.3 of the FTA ADA Circular provides additional information about this requirement.
Note that there is nothing in the U.S. DOT ADA regulations that requires a transit agency to install fold-down seating in the securement area, although such seats are permitted under 49 CFR Section 38.23(d)(2) so long as they do not obstruct the securement area when it needs to be occupied by a person using a wheelchair. Also referred to as “flip” seats, fold-down seats fold up when the securement area is needed, and can fold down for use by other passengers when the securement area is not needed. Fold-down seats installed in the securement area are often designated as priority seating for seniors and people with disabilities. Transit agencies are allowed to remove seating from the securement area, as long as priority seating meeting the regulatory requirements in 49 CFR Section 38.27 is provided elsewhere in the vehicle.
Transit agencies are not required to permit wheelchairs to ride in places other than designated securement locations (49 CFR Section 37.165), nor are they required to permit other types of mobility devices to occupy the securement locations. Transit agencies can require an individual using a device other than a wheelchair, such as a walker with a built-in seat, to transfer to a vehicle seat, as noted in Section 2.4.2 of the FTA ADA Circular.
Transportation providers are required to use the securement system to secure wheelchairs, and may or may not require that an individual permit their wheelchair to be secured. However, the agency may not deny transportation to a wheelchair or its user on the grounds that the device cannot be secured or restrained satisfactorily by the vehicle’s securement system [Section 37.165]. On the other hand, a transit agency is not required to transport an individual who refuses to allow their wheelchair to be secured if the agency’s policy requires securement [FTA Circular 4710.1, Section 2.4.3, page 2-14].
Some transit agencies provide the rider using the mobility device with tether straps or loops to secure to their device, and then use the vehicles securement system to connect with the tether straps/loops. More information about this approach can be found in Chapter 4 of TCRP Report 163: Strategy Guide to Enable and Promote the Use of Fixed-Route Transit by People with Disabilities (see pages 32-33).
Wheelchairs meeting the standard set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), ANSI/RESNA standard WC-19 have standardized securement attachment points. For more information on this standard and its applicability to transit and wheelchair transportation, see University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s summary of WC19: Wheelchairs.
In addition to a securement system for the mobility device (wheelchair), vehicle standards in 49 CFR Part 38 require a seat belt and shoulder harness for the user of the mobility device. Such seat belts and shoulder harnesses must never be used without also ensuring that the wheelchair itself is secured [Section 38.23]. Transit agency personnel must assist with securing the seat belt and shoulder harness upon request as part of the overarching requirement to make use of the accessibility features.
However, a transit agency cannot require that individuals using wheelchairs use seat belts and shoulder harnesses, unless this is the policy for all riders, including those sitting in vehicle seats.
According to Section 2.4.4 of the FTA ADA Circular, in some cases, state law could require an operator to adopt such a policy based on size/weight of the vehicle. Unless prohibited by state law, FTA encourages transit agencies that do require seat belts for all riders to have a policy that allows a rider to present documentation demonstrating that using seat belts and shoulder harnesses would pose a health hazard and allow that rider to travel without a seat belt and shoulder harness.
Transit agencies must note that 49 CFR 38.23(d)(7) prohibits the use of seat belts and shoulder harnesses in lieu of a device which secures the wheelchair or mobility aid itself. This means that if the passenger’s wheelchair cannot be secured, the seat belt and shoulder harness must not be used.
For more information on seat belts, see U.S. DOT Questions and Answers Concerning Wheelchairs and Bus and Rail Service Disability Law Guidance web page.
Transit agencies cannot require that a rider using a wheelchair transfer to a vehicle seat; however, they can make a recommendation to that effect [37.165(e)]. They may not require a rider to sign any kind of waiver should they choose not to transfer.
As stated under Section 2.4.5 of the FTA ADA Circular, the regulations do not address the opposite scenario of riders wishing to transfer from their wheelchairs into vehicle seats. In these situations, FTA suggests honoring the request, but drivers are not required to lift the person or provide other attendant-type services to facilitate the transfer.
Section 2.4.2 of the FTA ADA Circular notes that transit agencies can require an individual using a walker with a built-in seat to transfer to a vehicle seat.
If a stroller is designed to be used by an individual with a disability—child or small adult, the stroller is a mobility device. A 3-or more-wheeled stroller that is usable indoors and designed or modified for and used by an individual with a mobility impairment meets the U.S. DOT definition for a wheelchair.
A March 29, 2019 letter from FTA underscores the U.S. DOT definition of wheelchair, the requirement to accommodate other types of mobility devices on the same basis as wheelchairs, and the requirement to accommodate on the lift people with disabilities who do not use wheelchairs. This letter was in response to a complaint which alleged that a transit driver refused to deploy the vehicle lift/ramp for a child with a disability in an adaptive wheelchair stroller, and refused to secure the device. Another complaint regarding a driver’s alleged refusal to deploy the ramp for a passenger traveling with her daughter who uses a pediatric wheelchair was addressed in an FTA letter dated February 20, 2019. FTA’s letters in response to both of these complaints found that the transit agency policies for this situation complied with U.S. DOT requirements. In both cases, the driver did not follow the transit agency’s policies. A bus driver may be unable to discern if a stroller is being used by an individual with a disability; however, drivers must deploy the lift or ramp upon request for a person with a disability, whether or not the person uses a wheelchair, and transit agencies must ensure personnel understand this requirement.
Many transit agencies have policies requiring strollers to be folded and stowed on the vehicle, and some require folding a stroller before boarding the vehicle. A suggested practice for transit systems with such a policy is to instruct transit drivers to ask if the lift or ramp is needed to accommodate an individual with a disability, and if the answer is yes, to deploy the lift or ramp. Even if the child occupying the stroller does not have a disability, the individual pushing the stroller might have a disability that prevents them from folding the stroller and carrying the stroller and child. This is technical assistance and not legal advice; those seeking legal advice should consult counsel.
Transit agency personnel must be trained to proficiency not only in safe operation of equipment but also in properly assisting and treating individuals with disabilities who use the service in a respectful and courteous way. The Passenger Assistance and Customer Service section of this toolkit provides customer service guidelines for riders with different kinds of disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs. National RTAP’s Wheelchair Securement Topic Guide provides links to relevant training resources.
This section has summarized operating policy requirements related to serving riders who use mobility devices. Transit agencies may also receive requests for reasonable modification of policies from riders related to accommodating their mobility device. The requirement to consider reasonable modification requests is discussed in the General Requirements for All Service Types section of this toolkit. Examples of such requests from riders who use mobility devices, from Appendix E to 49 CFR Part 37, include positioning a vehicle to avoid obstructions to the passenger's ability to enter or leave the vehicle at a designated stop location (which should generally be granted), boarding separately from the rider’s wheelchair (which should generally be granted, although the transit agency would not be responsible for operating the wheelchair), assistance with navigating an incline or around obstacles (which should generally be granted unless it would create a direct threat to the health or safety of the driver, or leave the vehicle unattended or out of visual observation for a lengthy period of time), and hand-carrying (which would be a PCA-type of service). Readers should carefully review Appendix E to Part 37 – Reasonable Modification Requests.
- 28 CFR Part 35, Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services
- 49 CFR Part 37—Transportation Services for Individuals with Disabilities (ADA)
- 49 CFR Part 38—Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Specifications for Transportation Vehicles
- FTA, Letter of Finding in response to FTA Complaint No. 18-0323, March 29, 2019 (not available online)
- FTA, Letter of Finding in response to FTA Complaint No. 18-0185, February 20, 2019 (not available online)
- FTA Circular 4710.1: Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA): Guidance
- FTA Federal Register Notice, Vol. 76, No. 181, Monday, September 19, 2011
- Hunter-Zaworski, K.M. and Uwe Rutenberg, TCRP Report 171: Use of Mobility Devices on Paratransit Vehicles and Buses
- National RTAP Oversized Wheeled Mobility Devices Technical Brief
- National RTAP Wheelchair Securement Topic Guide
- Thatcher, Russell, Caroline Ferris, David Chia, Jim Purdy, Buffy Ellis, Beth Hamby, Jason Quan, and Marilyn Golden. TCRP Report 163, Strategy Guide to Enable and Promote the Use of Fixed-Route Transit by People with Disabilities
- University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, web page on WC19: Wheelchairs
- U.S. Department of Transportation Final Rule on Transportation for Individuals with Disabilities at Intercity, Commuter, and High-speed Rail Platforms; Miscellaneous Amendments
- U.S. Department of Transportation Questions and Answers Concerning Wheelchairs and Bus and Rail Service, Disability Law Guidance, February 4, 2013 / Updated: Wednesday, March 16, 2016
- U.S. Department of Transportation Use of "Segways" on Transportation Vehicles Disability Law Guidance, Sept. 1, 2005 updated March 16, 2016
Updated June 2, 2020