(Photo by Levi Meir Clancy / Unsplash+)

What If Non-Drivers Helped Plan Our Transportation Systems?

One-third of Americans don’t have a driver’s license. Anna Zivarts says it’s time for transportation planners to include them in decision-making.

Story by Anna Zivarts

Published on

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In the fall of 2021, I was invited by Roger Millar, the head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, to speak to the board of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials at its annual meeting. Before the meeting, Secretary Millar explained that I’d be presenting to the heads of each state department of transportation, and I started to get nervous.

I am not a civil engineer. I don’t have a degree in urban planning. I have never worked for a transit agency or department of transportation. What I had was my lifetime of experience as a disabled nondriver and stories from the hundreds of other nondrivers from every corner of Washington State. I believed that because of that experience, I had knowledge and experience that people who have driven their whole adult lives do not.

But everything that I had experienced about our transportation system up to the time of this presentation made me doubt I would be taken seriously. I felt it every time I tried to make my way across an eight-lane arterial, skirted bushes and mud puddles inching my way down a road without sidewalks, or sat stuck on a bus with other frustrated travelers in a traffic jam of mostly single-occupancy vehicles.

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“When you were able to come in with the stories, and with the startling conclusion that 25% of Washingtonians don’t drive, that really resonated,” Secretary Millar told me afterward. He said colleagues were texting him while I was talking, reporting that they’d asked their staff to look into how many nondrivers exist in their states.

“We were used to hearing from lobbyists and people in the industry,” state senator Rebecca Saldaña, who served as the vice-chair of the senate transportation committee, tells me. “And for the first time, we were hearing from people who were being impacted by the inequities in our transportation system. That had a profound impact on the investments we were able to make for walking, rolling, and transit.”

Changing who has the opportunity to be in charge of transportation departments, running public transit agencies, and setting transportation research agendas won’t happen overnight. But there are steps everyone in these spaces can take to ensure they are listening to, and prioritizing, the needs of people who don’t have that privilege.

Despite all the rhetoric about equity and inclusion and listening to the next generation, when it comes down to changing who gets to provide input and how that input is valued, too often the people in decision-making roles still fundamentally believe they know what’s best and are unwilling to value community input – let alone hire nondrivers and support nondrivers in leadership roles.

Imagine a highway department staffed entirely of people who do not drive. Maybe they ride as passengers in cars sometimes, or drive when out of town on vacation, in other countries where more people drive, where driving is easier, more comfortable, and more convenient. Our perspective of what a transportation system should look like would be heavily influenced by what people walking, rolling, and taking transit need. Would we be able to know what would work best for drivers at a highway interchange? Probably not.

And yet the inverse of this is the reality for most of the people in charge of our transportation system — to the point where it’s still revolutionary to suggest that engineers or planners get out of their cars and try walking or biking a road project to experience how it works for people outside of cars.

We are all limited by our own experiences of the world. No matter how many planning degrees or expensive consultants are involved in a project, it’s users of the system, especially users who don’t have other options, who will be able to give the most important input about what works and what is needed. The greatest opportunity for true transformation of our transportation systems is ensuring that nondrivers, and in particular nondrivers from communities historically excluded from power, get to be the ones deciding the future of mobility.

“‘Who decides’ and ‘who rides’ are often very different, in three important ways: geography, gender, and race,” according to a 2022 TransitCenter report. The report found that transit boards and agency leadership do not reflect the demographics of transit ridership, and that frontline transit workers are excluded from decision-making leadership roles and voting power on transit boards.

“Instead,” TransitCenter notes, “service planning decisions are typically made by management and transit planners, roles in which white and college-educated people tend to be overrepresented.”

“Because many on these boards tend to be car drivers, they really haven’t internalized what it means to be a transit rider,” Judy Jones explains. Jones is blind and has relied on transit her whole life. She says that the transit board “may make wise decisions regarding budgets but they really don’t feel it in the gut as a transit rider. Those decisions determine whether you, as a transit rider, are going to be able to keep a job, continue to be a caregiver, continue to go to school.”

Jones serves as the chair of the Skagit Transit Community Advisory Committee and has been a transit advocate for many years in both Florida and Washington. Although she has found contact with individual board members to be positive, she is excluded from the board work sessions, which means when it comes to discussing budgets, even as the chair of the Community Advisory Committee, she’s out of the room.

Some transit agencies are structured differently to ensure that transit riders have a voice in decisions. In Washington, Intercity Transit, which serves the state’s capital city and surrounding region, has a nine-person board that includes local elected representatives, a labor representative, and three “citizen” representatives who are also full voting members.

“I feel incredibly lucky that Intercity Transit has citizen representation with a voting seat at the table,” says Justin Belk, one of the citizen representatives and the vice-chair of the board. “While the elected officials are there for a reason, we offer a different perspective.”

For some nondrivers, having reliable transit or paratransit is the difference between being able to live in community and being forced to move into an institution like a nursing home. For others, it means being able to get to places without having to call in favors, to have each wish to go somewhere judged and evaluated by someone else. This means that nondrivers tend to care deeply, passionately, about having transit work for us, to a degree that people who have more mobility options may never feel. And because transit, walking, and rolling usually take more time than driving, we have spent countless hours considering our transportation, land use, and housing decisions and what changes, big or small, we wish could be made to have it work better.

Both this passion and these countless hours of contemplation are legitimate reasons transit agencies and the transportation sector more broadly should hire and work with nondrivers. There are potentially a lot of disabled nondrivers who are unemployed or underemployed and would be eager to have the opportunity to share this hard-earned knowledge. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, only a fifth of working-age adults who are disabled work full- or part-time. Over three-quarters of non-disabled adults are employed.

“As the transit industry faces workforce challenges, the timing seems right to consider untapped hiring pools that include potential applicants with disabilities,” stated the 2022 report on disability and higher education for transportation professions by the National Center for Mobility Management. “Our nation’s transportation planning preparation departments have an important role in shaping the future of the transportation workforce. This workforce should and must include individuals with disabilities.”

An easy step for employers is to stop requiring driver’s licenses for jobs where driving isn’t an essential function. This one seems pretty simple, but I find driver’s license requirements all the time on new transportation planning, admin and engineering postings. Someone explained once that a driver’s license requirement was a default setting on their internal HR system for job posts. Until those HR settings are turned off, it will be the default on every new posting.

Having a driver’s license isn’t the only unnecessary exclusionary requirement. I have had a transportation department insist that yes, it was important that a transportation planner be able to carry 40 pounds because they might need to attend a community outreach event and transport a box of outreach materials. Yes, if you’re disabled you can apply for the job and, once you have it, approach your new boss and ask for an accommodation, but knowing how to negotiate that (or even being granted a useful accommodation) isn’t guaranteed.

It’s time for employers, and in particular employers in the transportation sector who would like to learn more from the expertise of nondrivers, to comb through the standard HR language on job postings and think about how much of it is necessary and where it is only excluding or discouraging candidates unnecessarily. Agencies must also consider what kind of knowledge and expertise they are leaving on the table when they prioritize planning degrees over lived experience from people who rely on transit and depend on walking and rolling to get where they need to go.

Change will take more than hiring a disabled or BIPOC person with an urban planning or engineering degree—it means figuring out how to bring people into decision-making roles, into employment or compensated community participation, people who haven’t had the chance to go to college, to pursue unpaid internships, to speak the language of transportation planners.

“There are people who are going around with a checklist of the ADA requirements, but you don’t have people with different disabilities in the room when you’re designing these things,” disability advocate Erica Jones explains. “Part of that problem is the economic system we have requires full-time availability from people to have a job at all. And so, you find that if you can’t work 40 hours or you can’t work 30 hours, you might as well be able to work zero hours. And so, a lot of the disabled people who should be in the room when you’re designing these things are people who only have the energy for 10 or 15 hours a week of work, and so those people have zero chance of getting into the room.”

In addition to people who can’t sustainably work a full-time schedule, there are other disabled people who, in order to qualify for Medicare coverage from the state for their complex medical needs, can’t be paid for more than ten or so hours of work a week. Even if offered a job with full health benefits, those benefits rarely cover the actual care they need, and so to stay alive, some disabled people must choose to limit paid work.

If we’re going to make transportation systems, and our communities more broadly, work for everyone, we need to rethink the underlying fallacy that you are only as valuable as the hours you can work. It’s time to look toward the work of disability justice activists who are challenging employers to rethink how we structure work requirements and workplaces to allow more people to contribute their expertise.

From When Driving Is Not An Option by Anna Letitia Zivarts. Copyright © 2024 Anna Letitia Zivarts. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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Anna Zivarts is a low-vision parent, nondriver and author of “When Driving Is Not an Option: Steering Away from Car Dependency” (Island Press, 2024). Anna created the #WeekWithoutDriving challenge and is passionate about bringing the voices of nondrivers to the planning and policy-making tables. Anna sits on the boards of the League of American Bicyclists, the Pacific Northwest Transportation Consortium and the Washington State Transportation Innovation Council. She also serves as a member of TRB's Committee on Public Health and Transportation (AME70) and the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center Coordinating Committee.

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