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ADA Transportation Series

Rapid Rail Systems -- Draft

Please be advised that this document has not been reviewed for legal sufficiency by the U.S. Department of Transportation or the U.S. Department of Justice.

Questions and Answers

This document is part of a series devoted to increasing the understanding and awareness of the transportation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The U.S. Department of Transportation is responsible for the enforcement of ADA transportation requirements. This information is intended solely as informal guidance. It is neither a determination of legal rights and/or responsibilities under the ADA, nor is it binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA.

The requirements of 49 CFR Part 37 address the acquisition of accessible vehicles by public and private entities, requirements for complementary paratransit service by public entities operating a fixed route system and provision of nondiscriminatory accessible transportation service. Accessibility specifications for transportation vehicles are addressed in 49 CFR Part 38. Answers to the questions in this series are quoted directly from the transportation rules, with subsection locations shown in parenthesis.

The ADA Transportation Regulations cover public entities operating a rapid rail system (that is, the typical subway system). This document addresses some of the most common questions about Rapid Rail Systems.


1. How is disability defined for purposes of transportation?

A person with a disability is an individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. The definition also includes individuals with a record of such an impairment or an individual who is regarded as having such an impairment. (§37.3)

2. What is meant by "rapid rail"?

A rapid rail system is a subway-type transit vehicle railway operated on exclusive private rights of way with high level platform stations. Rapid rail may also operate on elevated or at grade level track separated from other traffic. Rapid rail is distinguished from inter-city or commuter rail systems. (§37.3)

3. What is meant when a transportation provider is said to be "Not Primarily Engaged"?

Many private businesses have transportation as their primary business. For example, taxi companies and inter-city bus companies are primarily engaged in the business of transporting people. Many other businesses transport people, but do so only as a secondary part of the business. These businesses include hotels that operate a shuttle to the airport or schools that provide bus transportation. Such businesses are not primarily engaged in the business of transporting people. Such businesses must adhere to different rules than those that are primarily engaged in the business.

The line between primarily engaged and not primarily engaged entities is drawn with respect to the specific bus, van, or other service which the entity is providing. For example, there is an obvious sense in which an airline or car rental company is primarily engaged in the business of transporting people. If the airline or car rental agency runs a shuttle bus from the airport terminal to a downtown location or a rental car lot, however, that shuttle service is covered by the not primarily engaged requirements of the regulations. This is because the airline or car rental agency is not primarily engaged in the business of providing transportation by bus or van. The relationship of the bus or van service to an airline's main business is analogous to that of a shuttle to a hotel. For this purpose, it is of only incidental interest that the main business of the airline is flying people around the country instead of putting them up for the night. (§37.105)

4. What is paratransit?

Paratransit is a comparable transportation service required by the ADA for individuals with disabilities who are unable to use fixed route transportation systems. Paratransit has a specialized meaning in the context of the transportation regulations. The term refers to the complementary paratransit service, comparable to public fixed route systems, which must be provided. Typically, paratransit is provided in a demand responsive mode. Obviously, the regulations refer to a wide variety of demand responsive services that are not "paratransit," in this specialized sense. (§37.3)


5. Is a person with a disability required to use special transportation services if they are provided?

No, an entity must allow an individual with a disability an opportunity to use the entity's transportation service for the general public, if the individual is capable of using that service. (§37.5(b))

6. Is a person with a disability required to use designated priority seating?

An entity may not require an individual with a disability to use designated priority seats, if the individual does not choose to use these seats. A person with a disability may choose to take advantage of this accommodation or not. (§37.5(c))

7. May an entity impose special charges on people with disabilities?

An entity may not impose special charges on individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, for providing services required by the regulations or otherwise necessary to accommodate them. For example, if a shuttle service charges $20.00 for a ride from a given location to the airport for most people, it could not charge $40.00 because the passenger had a disability or needed to use the shuttle service's lift-equipped van.

Higher mileage charges for using an accessible vehicle would likewise be inconsistent with the rule. So would charging extra to carry a service animal accompanying an individual with a disability. If a taxi company charges $1.00 to stow luggage in the trunk, it cannot charge $2.00 to stow a folding wheelchair there.

This provision does not mean, however, that a transportation provider cannot charge nondiscriminatory fees to passengers with disabilities. The taxi company in the above example can charge a passenger $1.00 to stow a wheelchair in the trunk; it is not required to waive the charge.

This does not prohibit the fares for paratransit service which transit providers are allowed to charge. (§37.5(d))

8. Is a person with a disability required to travel with an attendant?

An entity may not require that an individual with disabilities be accompanied by an attendant. However, the entity is not required to provide attendant services (e.g., assistance in toileting, feeding, dressing, etc.) (§37.5(e))

9. Are there any circumstances under which an entity may deny service to a person with a disability?

An entity may refuse to provide service to an individual with a disability because that individual engages in violent, seriously disruptive, or illegal conduct. If the entity legitimately refuses service to someone, it may condition service to him on actions that would mitigate the problem. For example, the entity could require an attendant as a condition of providing service it otherwise had the right to refuse.

However, an entity may not refuse to provide service to an individual with disabilities solely because the individual's disability results in appearance or involuntary behavior that may offend, annoy, or inconvenience employees of the entity or other persons, but which does not pose a direct threat. For example, some persons with Tourette's syndrome may make involuntary profane exclamations. These may be very annoying or offensive to others, but would not be a ground for denial of service. Nor may the entity deny service based on fear or misinformation about a disability. For example, a transit provider could not deny service to a person with HIV disease because its personnel or other passengers are afraid of being near people with that condition. (§37.5(h))

Service Requirements

10. What are the maintenance requirements for accessibility equipment?

Public and private entities providing transportation services must maintain in operative condition those features of facilities and vehicles that are required to make the vehicles and facilities readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. These features include, but are not limited to, lifts and other means of access to vehicles, securement devices, elevators, signage and systems to facilitate communications with persons with impaired vision or hearing.

It is not sufficient to provide features such as lift-equipped vehicles, elevators, communications systems to provide information to people with vision or hearing impairments, etc. if these features are not maintained in a manner that enables individuals with disabilities to use them. Inoperative lifts or elevators, locked accessible doors, accessible paths of travel that are blocked by equipment or boxes of materials are not accessible to or usable by individuals with disabilities.

Allowing obstructions or out of order accessibility equipment to persist beyond a reasonable period of time violates the transportation regulations of the ADA. Mechanical failures due to improper or inadequate maintenance are also a violation. Failure of the entity to ensure that accessible routes are free of obstruction and properly maintained, or failure to arrange prompt repair of inoperative elevators, lifts, or other accessibility-related equipment, would also violate the regulations.

The rule also requires that accommodations be made to individuals with disabilities who would otherwise use an inoperative accessibility feature. For example, when a rail system discovers that an elevator is out of order, blocking access to one of its stations, it could accommodate users of the station by announcing the problem at other stations to alert passengers and offer accessible shuttle bus service around the temporarily inaccessible station. If a public address system were out of order, the entity could designate personnel to provide information to customers with visual impairments. (§37.161)

11. Are service animals allowed on transportation vehicles and in transportation facilities?

Service animals are always permitted to accompany their users in any private or public transportation vehicle or facility. One of the most common misunderstandings about service animals is that they are limited to being guide dogs for persons with visual impairments. Dogs are trained to assist people with a wide variety of disabilities, including individuals with hearing and mobility impairments. In addition, other animals (e.g., monkeys) are sometimes used as service animals as well. In any of these situations, the entity must permit the service animal to accompany its user. (§37.167(d))

12. May a transportation provider require an individual with a disability to use securement devices provided in a vehicle?

A transportation provider may require that wheelchair users use securement systems for their mobility devices. The entity, in other words, can require wheelchair users to "buckle up" their mobility devices.

Further, the entity is required to use the securement system to secure wheelchairs. This requirement is a mandate to use best efforts to restrain or confine the wheelchair to the securement area. The transportation provider does the best it can, given its securement technology and the nature of the wheelchair. Entities with relatively less adequate securement systems on their vehicles are encouraged to retrofit the vehicles with better securement systems, that can successfully restrain a wide variety of wheelchairs. (§37.165(c)(3))

13. If all securement locations are filled may the transportation provider refuse to pick up a wheelchair user?

Entities may require wheelchair users to ride in designated securement locations. That is, the entity is not required to carry wheelchair users whose wheelchairs would have to park in an aisle or other location where they could obstruct other persons' passage or where they could not be secured or restrained. An entity's vehicle is, therefore, not required to pick up a wheelchair user when the securement locations are full, just as the vehicle may pass by other passengers waiting at the stop if the bus is full. (§37.165(b))

14. May a transportation provider require that a wheelchair user transfer to a vehicle seat?

Entities have often recommended or required that a wheelchair user transfer out of his or her own device into a vehicle seat. It is no longer permissible to require such a transfer. The entity may provide information on risks and make a recommendation with respect to transfer, but the final decision on whether to transfer is up to the passenger. (§37.165(e))

15. Is a transportation operator required to announce stops?

On fixed route systems, the transportation provider must announce stops. These stops include transfer points with other fixed routes. This means that any time a vehicle is to stop where a passenger can get off and transfer to another bus or rail line (or to another form of transportation, such as commuter rail or ferry), the stop would be announced. The announcement can be made personally by the vehicle operator or can be made by a recording system.

Announcements also must be made at major intersections or destination points. In addition, the entity must make announcements at sufficient intervals along a route to orient a visually impair-ed passenger to his or her location. The other required announcements may serve this function in many instances, but if there is a long distance between other announcements, fill-in orientation announcements would be called for. The entity must announce any stop requested by a passenger with a disability, even if it does not meet any of the other criteria for announcement.

If the vehicle is small enough so that the operator can make himself or herself heard without a P.A. system, it is not necessary to use the system. (§37.167(b)(2))

16. Are all transportation providers required to provide paratransit?

Only public entities operating fixed route systems must provide paratransit or other special service to individuals with disabilities. The paratransit system must be comparable to the level of service provided to individuals without disabilities who use the fixed route system. This requirement applies to light and rapid rail systems as well as to bus systems, even when rail and bus systems share all or part of the same service area.

Requirements for complementary paratransit do not apply to commuter bus, commuter rail, or intercity rail systems.

Paratransit may be provided by a variety of modes. Publicly operated dial-a-ride vans, service contracted out to a private paratransit provider, user-side subsidy programs, or any combination of these and other approaches is acceptable. (§37.121(c))

Additional material on paratransit can be found in the Paratransit Eligibility and Paratransit Service documents of the Transportation QandA series.

17. What is equivalent service?

A fixed route or demand responsive system is providing equivalent service if the service available to individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, is provided in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individual and is equivalent to the service provided other individuals with respect to the following service characteristics:

(a) (1) Schedules/headways (if the system is fixed route)

(2) Response time (if the system is demand responsive)

(b) Fares

(c) Geographic area of service

(d) Hours and days of service

(e) Availability of information

(f) Reservations capability (if the system is demand responsive)

(g) Any constraints on capacity or service availability

(h) Restrictions priorities based on trip purpose (if the system is demand responsive).

In applying the provisions to this section, it is important to note that they are only points of comparison. For example, if a demand responsive system gets a van to a non-disabled person in 2 hours, 8 hours, or a week and a half after a call for service, the system must get an accessible van to a person with a disability in 2 hours, 8 hours, or a week and a half.

A private entity not primarily engaged in the business of transporting people which operates a demand responsive system must ensure that its system, when viewed in its entirety, provides equivalent service to individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, as it does to individuals without disabilities. Entities in this category are always required to provide equivalent service, regardless of what they are doing with respect to the acquisition of vehicles. The effect of this provision may be to require some entities to arrange, either through acquiring their own accessible vehicles or coordinating with other providers, to have accessible vehicles available to meet the equivalency standards or otherwise to comply with the standards. (§37.171)

Vehicle Acquisition

18. What rules must rapid rail operators follow in acquiring rail vehicles?

A public entity, operating a fixed route system, that makes a solicitation after August 25, 2020 to purchase or lease a new or used rapid rail vehicle for use on the system, must acquire a vehicle that is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs. (§37.79)

A public entity may purchase or lease a used vehicle for use on its fixed route system that is not readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities if, after making demonstrated good faith efforts to obtain an accessible vehicle, it is unable to do so. (§37.81)

If a public entity operating a fixed route system remanufactures a rapid rail vehicle so as to extend its useful life for five years or more or makes a solicitation for such remanufacturing, or purchases or leases a rapid rail vehicle which has been remanufactured after August 25, 1990, the vehicle must be accessible. The rules make it clear that remanufacturing is to include changes to the structure of the vehicle which extend the useful life of the vehicle for five years. (§37.83)

Vehicle Accessibility

19. What are the specific accessibility requirements for rapid rail vehicles?

Clear Width: Passenger doorways on vehicle sides must have clear openings at least 32 inches wide when open. If doorways connecting adjoining cars in a multi-car train are provided, and if the doorway is connected by an aisle with a minimum clear width of 30 inches to one or more spaces where wheelchair or mobility aid users can be accommodated, then the doorway must have a minimum clear opening of 30 inches to permit wheelchair and mobility aid users to be evacuated to an adjoining vehicle in an emergency. (§38.53(a))

Signage: The International Symbol of Accessibility shall be displayed on the exterior of accessible vehicles operating on an accessible rapid rail system unless all vehicles are accessible and are not marked by the access symbol. (§38.53(b))

Signals: Auditory and visual warning signals shall be provided to alert passengers of closing doors. (§38.53(c))

Boarding Platform: Where new vehicles will operate in new stations, the design of vehicles shall be coordinated with the boarding platform design such that the horizontal gap between each vehicle door at rest and the platform shall be no greater than 3 inches and the height of the vehicle floor shall be within plus or minus 5/8 inch of the platform height under all normal passenger load conditions. (§38.53(d)(1))

Exceptions: New vehicles operating in existing stations may have a floor height within plus or minus 1-1/2 inches of the platform height. At key stations, the horizontal gap between at least one door of each such vehicle and the platform shall be no greater than 3 inches. (§38.53(d)(2))

Retrofitted vehicles shall be coordinated with the platform in new and key stations such that the horizontal gap shall be no greater than 4 inches and the height of the vehicle floor, under 50% passenger load, shall be within plus or minus 2 inches of the platform height. (§38.53(d)(3))

Priority Seating Signs: Each vehicle shall contain sign(s) which indicate that certain seats are priority seats for persons with disabilities, and that other passengers should make such seats available to those who wish to use them. (§38.55(a))

Interior Circulation, Handrails and Stanchions: Handrails and stanchions shall be sufficient to permit safe boarding, on-board circulation, seating and standing assistance, and alighting by persons with disabilities. Handrails, stanchions, and seats shall allow a route at least 32 inches wide so that at least two wheelchair or mobility aid users can enter the vehicle and position the wheelchairs or mobility aids in areas, each having a minimum clear space of 48 inches by 30 inches, which do not unduly restrict movement of other passengers. Space to accommodate wheelchairs and mobility aids may be provided within the normal area used by standees and designation of specific spaces is not required. Particular attention shall be given to ensuring maximum maneuverability immediately inside doors. Ample vertical stanchions from ceiling to seat-back rails shall be provided. Vertical stanchions from ceiling to floor shall not interfere with wheelchair or mobility aid user circulation and shall be kept to a minimum in the vicinity of doors. (§38.57)

Floors, Surfaces: Floor surfaces on aisles, places for standees, and areas where wheelchair and mobility aid users are to be accommodated shall be slip-resistant. (§38.59)

Public Information System: Each vehicle shall be equipped with a public address system permitting transportation system personnel, or recorded or digitized human speech messages, to announce stations and provide other passenger information. Alternative systems or devices which provide equivalent access are also permitted. Each vehicle operating in stations having more than one line or route shall have an external public address system to permit transportation system personnel, or recorded or digitized human speech messages, to announce train, route, or line identification information. (§38.61)

Exception: Where station announcement systems provide information on arriving trains, an external train speaker is not required. (§38.61(a)(2))

Between-Car Barriers: Suitable devices or systems shall be provided to prevent, deter or warn individuals from inadvertently stepping off the platform between cars. Acceptable solutions include, but are not limited to, pantograph gates, chains, motion detectors or similar devices. (§38.63)

Exception: Between-car barriers are not required where platform screens are provided which close off the platform edge and open only when trains are correctly aligned with the doors. (§38.63(b))

Other Sources of Information

Regional ADA Technical Assistance Centers: Toll-Free 1-800-949-4232 (V, TTY)

Federal Transit Administration ADA Toll-Free Technical Assistance Line: 1-888-446-4511 (Voice) or 1-800-877-8339 (TTY);