Transportation emissions are 44.9% of Washington state’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than half of which come from gas-powered cars. From a climate perspective, switching to electric vehicles is not enough. Washington has to reduce how much we drive every day if we are to reduce our climate emissions to survivable levels. So as we envision a society that is less reliant on driving, who better to learn from than people who already don’t drive?
To most people in power, we are largely invisible. And driving by us, as we wait at the bus stop or walk down the shoulder of a highway, you probably pity us — if you notice us at all. But, incredibly, 25% of Washingtonians don’t have driver’s licenses, and the cost of purchasing and maintaining a vehicle means many others rely on other means of transportation. In particular, Black, Indigenous and people of color, immigrants, poor people, elderly and disabled people are much less likely to have a driver’s license or access to a vehicle.
To get where we need to go in a system not designed for us, those of us who can’t drive have become experts in weaving together bus schedules across counties, in planning our grocery trips and doctor’s appointments days in advance so we can request rides. We have figured out how to patch together accessible ways to get to the local community center, and to cross highways that not only block fish passage, they keep us from visiting our neighbors. And if you ask us, we can tell you exactly what kinds of investments are needed to make it possible for more people to be less dependent on driving.
That’s why the Disability Mobility Initiative is creating this storymap — viewable at disabilityrightswa.org/storymap — featuring interviews with people from across our state who rely on transit, paratransit, walking, rolling or community rides to get where we need to go. As the Legislature makes critical decisions about how to prioritize transportation funding — both in the biennial transportation budget and in a potential transportation package — we believe our elected leaders should be leaning on our expertise to move our state toward a healthier, less carbon-intensive future.
In these interviews, two major themes have emerged. First, in many communities across our state, there aren’t accessible sidewalks or safe ways to cross streets. This means that instead of being able to walk or roll to the nearest transit stop or a grocery store, we get trapped at home, reliant on paratransit or on rides from others. Our cities and counties are eager to make investments — this year, the Washington Department of Transportation received 242 applications requesting $190 million for Safe Routes to School and Pedestrian and Bicycle Program grants. However, they anticipate only being able to support less than 20% of the proposals with available funding. On state highways, WSDOT has recently identified $5.7 billion in needed investments to repair gaps and barriers that exist for people trying to walk or roll through our communities.
Our interviewees also emphasized the critical importance of frequent and reliable transit service. While some disabled people exclusively rely on paratransit or rides from community providers, the overwhelming majority of people we spoke with use fixed-route transit exclusively, or in combination with paratransit — for example, using paratransit in the winter when sidewalks are inaccessible. The Regional Mobility Grant Program at WSDOT, which supports transit agencies and is especially critical for smaller agencies in more rural regions, was overprescribed by more than $30 million (or 60%) for the 2021-2023 funding cycle.
Funding paratransit and “special needs” transportation isn’t sufficient (though it’s also critically important). Disabled people across our state also rely on fixed-route transit. For us to be able to have jobs, visit friends and participate in our communities, we need our state to invest in fixed-route transit, and the sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure to be able to use it. These are the investments that will actually move us toward a more equitable, accessible and climate-friendly transportation system, a system designed to work better for all of us.