a city bus pulls up to a bus stop, with its route information clearly visible in lighted scrolling text

When you are managing a disabling condition, taking the bus may be your primary option for independent travel. 

I feel very lucky, living in New Jersey, that I have a relatively large variety of options for traveling, but I understand that in the South and areas of the Midwest especially, trains are few and far between.  

Generally, the more rural an area you live in, the fewer options will be available, and the more time there will be between rides. 

It may be that taking the bus simply won’t work for you, but a lot of times, people simply don’t think about taking the bus when they are used to driving. 

Learning bus routes and knowing where the buses go and getting used to traveling by bus does take some effort, but it often is worthwhile and can give you a sense of freedom and independence that can be hard to come by when you are managing a disabling condition.

Know your rights!

For people who use wheelchairs, I know that there are often a plethora of issues, including missed pickups, only enough room on each bus for two to three wheelchairs, tops, and general ignorance. 

You definitely should still be able to take the bus, I’m just sharing that actual accessibility varies, and you’re going to want to read over your area’s rules carefully to ensure that you can use the bus.

For people using other mobility devices, if you can get yourself on and off the bus, there is less likely to be an issue on that front, but people can be ignorant and stare or glare at you for being too slow, and all that fun stuff.   

If you are blind or have low vision, buses are legally required to announce intersections and where they are on the route, but these features are not always well maintained.

I have had several times when the announcement system announced wrong stops or simply wasn’t working at all. 

If you board the bus and that appears to be the case, let the driver know where you want to stop, and you’ll likely want to sit near the driver so that you can check in and remind the driver that you need to be told your stop. They are legally required to notify you of your stop.

view from the middle to back of a bus.  Near the ceiling of the bus is a lighted marquee which reads 'next stop Russel street'
An accommodation for Deaf and hard-of-hearing passengers, this scrolling marquee keeps you informed of when you approach your stop. As long as it’s working correctly!

If you are Deaf or hard of hearing, many buses will have a light board where stops are announced. Just as the announcements are occasionally out of sync or not working correctly, the light boards will sometimes also be inaccurate, but they should be correct for the most part. 

You may want to check with a fellow passenger if the signs on the bus are correct, and if they are not, you will need to tell the driver what stop you are looking for.  

It’s frustrating that all disability accommodations aren’t perfectly reliable, but it’s one of the things that often fails or breaks down, and it seems like the places that maintain the bus routes are less concerned about accessibility than they are about making sure the buses run.

If you are living in an area with buses and no other services, you will want to get a map of the routes and see what you may be able to do independently—whether it’s to minimize how often you need to ask others for help or to save yourself money in the sense of taking the bus instead of hiring a cab or calling for a Lyft or Uber. 

Even if you can’t get yourself directly to your destination, taking the bus can reduce your expenses by shortening the distance that you need to hire the ride for.

If you aren’t sure about accommodations or feel like you might face discriminatory issues, here is the ADA requirements and what you can do if your local buses aren’t complying with the law.

Tickets and travel apps

Another thing you will want to look into is how you can pay for your ride. Often, buses have a dollar and coin slot where you put in your payment, and the driver prints out a little ticket that in theory should be given to you. It almost never is, at least in my experience.  

If you are making a transfer, they often want you to tell them and they give you a transfer slip which slightly reduces your total cost.  

If you are traveling at the disability rate, make sure you tell the driver that, as they may assume otherwise and try to charge you full fare.

New Jersey Transit now has an app for purchasing tickets. It works for both trains and buses and has made my life tremendously easier. 

Now, instead of worrying about having the right change for the bus, I buy my ticket through the app and just show that to the driver as I board.  

The main frustration I have found with that is that you need to know not only your line but also how many zones you are traveling, and the zones aren’t always clearly marked. 

Also, each ticket is only good for one bus, so if you transfer buses, you basically have to buy a ticket for each one. The app charges my credit card or bank account, so I don’t need to worry about having the correct change anymore, which has reduced a lot of stress for me. 

A smartphone with a variety of apps visible on the screen.  A finger is clicking on the wallpaper
If you plan to use public transit regularly, it’s worth your while to see if they’ve created an app for tickets and/or scheduling.

That also means that I just buy tickets with the disability discount, and I don’t need to worry about explaining it to the driver. I have noticed, though, that they have been the biggest sticklers on being shown proof that I’m disabled.  

New York City not only has the depositing change option, but you can also charge rides on your Metrocard. Most people in the city board the bus and just dip their Metrocard instead of worrying about change.

I highly recommend checking to see if your bus program has alternative payment options to paying the fare when you board. 

It often can reduce your stress (I always feel like I’m fumbling for change and that putting it in takes forever—I suspect it’s just my anxiety, but I feel like everybody on the bus is impatiently waiting for me to just get it DONE already), and it can make your life that much easier. 

This also can be a budgeting tool for you, by doing things like depositing your monthly bus expenses at the beginning of the month.  

Complaints, compliments, and other concerns

Generally, each bus line has some form of complaint line or similar services. 

I highly recommend knowing what it is before you board, and being prepared to speak up for yourself through it. 

If something isn’t working properly or a driver is inordinantly late, filing a complaint is often the only way to make the provider aware.

When it comes to lateness, a five- or even ten-minute delay can be understandable due to traffic or other unexpected events, but if they cause you to miss a connection or are more than ten minutes late, then they deserve to be reported (unless there is a very good reason, like large-scale traffic delays or severe weather conditions and similar issues).

You don’t actually need to file the complaint when it’s happening either—instead just record the bus number (often the route and time are enough, but if you have the ID number of the bus, they can be positive about which driver was responsible), and then file your report after you’re home or when you have downtime. 

Very often you can do this on your smartphone.

neon orange sign that reads 'change'
Unfortunately, the primary way to get services improved is to complain about the system’s failures. Don’t be afraid to file a complaint.

I’ve had a few times when I’ve filed the complaint while waiting for the bus.

If no complaints are made, then they assume all is running well, so be sure to make some noise when needed.  

If accessibility aids aren’t working, let them know. If the bus doesn’t stop to pick you up, let them know; and if the driver runs late or treats you inappropriately, let the office know.

You deserve to be treated right, and the bus is there for your transportation, so please stand up for yourself and make sure that your needs are met—and let the transportation company know when they aren’t.

Unfortunately, it’s the only way to push for changes with these systems.

What if you can’t take the bus?

There are some disabilities that make taking a bus unsafe or impossible. There are also places that buses just don’t go, or you may live too far from the nearest bus stop be be able to reasonably get there. 

If you are in such a situation, you may want to see if your transportation service offers accessible travel support. You should be able to google your transportation system plus “accessible” or “disability” and pull up the details of your program. 

In New Jersey, it’s called “Access Link,” and in NYC it’s called Access-a-Ride. You may need to apply directly for these programs, but they may be worth it. 

Each program will have its own foibles and rules, but they are definitely better than not being able to get places! 

I have done some research into ccess link, and it has never served my purposes, but I also have usually had a relatively easy time arranging rides for myself and live near family, so have a lot of supports others might not. 

I’ve also thought a lot about transportation options each time I have moved, and used access to transportation as one of my critera in my searches for apartments.  

public bus with a scrolling sign across the front that lists the bus route. A small blue sticker identifies it as an accessible bus
Even when buses are designed to be accessible, there still are people who can’t use them, either due to distance from your home or your particular condition being incompatible with taking fixed-route transportation.

Generally, you call these programs at least 24 hours before you need a ride and let them know when you need to be picked up. 

For Access Link, I believe the stated pickup window is 40 minutes, meaning that your ride will show up any time between 40 minutes before and 40 minutes after your scheduled pickup time. 

Usually, they will honk and wait about five minutes or so before declaring you a no-show and driving off. You also need to give a pickup time, which gets interesting when you are going to doctor’s appointments and other things that will take an indeterminate amount of time.  

On the plus side, these rides generally have a similar cost to taking the bus, and they will take you anywhere within their rules. 

You can hire Access Link to take you most anywhere. So another positive is that, like public transportation, you don’t need to be going to appointments. You can use it to go out for errands or pleasure.  

Also, some insurance programs provide transportation services to and from doctors and hospitals. Those offerings vary by both plan and region, but if you are having trouble getting transportation, it is a route to explore!

Why I decided Access Link wasn’t going to help me

In New Jersey, responsibilities for this program are divided by county, so if you were to use Access Link and needed to travel through more than one county, you basically would get driven to the county line and then need to change over to a car run by that county. 

This is why I haven’t found the program particularly useful for my needs. I mainly looked into them when I was working for the state division of Disability Services, which is located in the state capital, Trenton, in Mercer County. 

I live in Monmouth County and getting there involves going through at least one additional county, depending on what route you take. 

It was possible to go from my home to Trenton via train, but the trip took close to three hours depending on scheduling, as it required traveling north, then changing trains to go southwest. 

I also had about a 20-minute walk to the office from the train station. It’s close to an hour’s drive straight across the state. 

Once I learned how the program worked, I realized that trying to use their program to commute to work would actually take much longer than going by train.  

Conclusion: Traveling by bus

Traveling by bus is far from time-efficient, but is often an affordable and relatively reliable option. 

Buses often cover a fair distance and a variety of locations, so you can often find a way to get to or at least near your destination. 

You do need to be aware of what supports they should have to make your trip easier, and be aware that they may not always work. 

If they don’t work, you are left a little more dependant on the driver or fellow passengers, but you likely can muddle through. 

You have every right to file a complaint if the service provided isn’t ADA-compliant. Often these complaints are the only way to make the necessary changes happen!

If you cannot safely use or access the public transit system, look into your state’s disability transit service. Most states, if they have public transit, also have an alternative form specifically for disabled folks who can’t access those systems. It’s worth checking out, so you at least know what your options are!

Dennis Swaim

You: That was supposed to be to Rina! Fri

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6 Comments

  1. Where I live, rural MI, there is no public transportation. The center for ageing has a van, but I don’t know if anyone under 60 can use it. I really don’t know if there’s anything for those with disabilities, besides friends and neighbors. Thankfully, there are things like Amazon to get things delivered.

    A very thorough article that has captured all the things you would need to think about if taking a bus.

    1. There’s always more to think about, but thank you! Ordering things online has definitely been supremely helpful, especially this past year or so with Covid-19. I do think that it’s important to know how to get out and about when you need to though, and that’s what I’m focusing on with this series!

  2. We do not have a great bus system here but I have been tempted to try it since I can’t drive with vertigo. Unfortunately, all transportation makes that worse so I fear going somewhere and getting worse when I arrive. Moot right now with the lockdown.

    1. Nikki, I feel you on that! I haven’t used public transportation for close to a year now, due to Covid-19, but I figured this would be helpful for folks as they start to think ahead. I remember when I got hit with a migraine as I got on the bus – a nausea one – it was pretty uncomfortable! It is really important to make sure that your plan includes being able to get home safe, and ideally, you’d know of a place or two to recuperate before your return trip! I really hope you’ll be able to find something to help you with the vertigo – I can’t imagine living with that all the time! (says the woman who now has had a few hours at a time headache-free after having a constant headache for almost a year and a half!)

  3. A solid and informative article. Taiwan has a great bus system, but it’s not so great with disabled riders. We are working on changing that, but for now, I prefer calling the disability driver hotline and having them come and get me if I need to go somewhere. I so rarely leave my home, it’s not too expensive that I can’t afford it. Besides driving anywhere gives me a migraine, so I try to avoid it as much as possible if I can.

    1. Carrie – utterly understandable! If you’re not going out often, it makes sense to spend the money to make sure you can enjoy whatever you are going out to do! Part of my decision-making process is about what I can handle and how much I can enjoy the thing I’m going to. Honestly, the reason I don’t drive is the concern about being able to get myself home safely. I had too many times where I got symptomatic while out and decided/realized it wasn’t safe for me to drive home. Having multiple people come to get me AND the car home was a lot more stressful than just getting the ride in the first place. So I figured it out. I’m glad you’ve found your own balance point – because that’s the important thing!

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