Low-entry motorcoaches are the next advance in wheelchair-accessible transportation, said Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). The organization assisted in the design of the Motor Coach Industries (MCI) D45 CRT LE commuter coach.
A curb-level, mid-coach door and ramp opens to a patented vestibule on the same level. The vestibule holds wheelchair securements, seating for companions, power outlets and USB ports. Bicycle racks are optionally available.
“It is so much easier than boarding buses with lifts,” Buckland said. “You don’t have to worry about a lift working. If the ramp doesn’t deploy automatically, the operator can do it by hand in a few seconds. You get in, back into the securement and off you go.”
The U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990 and required that carriers purchase or lease only accessible vehicles for service provided over a prescribed route on a fixed schedule. “Demand responsive” carriers, such as charter and tour operators, “must provide service in an accessible bus to passengers with disabilities on a 48-hour advance notice basis.”
“Close to 100% of fixed-route buses operated by public transit agencies are now accessible,” reported a 2014 study, “Accessible Transit Services for All,” prepared for the Federal Transit Administration. About 15 million accessible trips were provided by transit agencies annually before passage of ADA. The total increased to 106 million trips in 2012.
While wheelchair lifts have provided millions of accessible trips, Buckland acknowledged, they have drawbacks.
“If you ask me about city buses, I would tell you they are doing very well. I don’t think I have seen a city bus without a ramp or a lift in I-don’t-know-how-long. In the motorcoach industry I have had different experiences. I haven’t done any research on how they are doing specifically, but in the motorcoaches I have ridden they have not worked well,” he said.
“I got locked in one motorcoach because the lift was broken. I had one stop working when I was about halfway up. In the ones that worked successfully, I was sitting so high up I couldn’t see anything. The lifts, to be completely honest, are kind of scary. Once you get to the top it feels like you are way up there.”
When the lifts do work, wheelchair travelers can feel uncomfortable about the attention they attract, he added. “The driver has to get out, put the lift down, put you up on the lift, secure you and then get back in the bus and take off. It can take 10 to 15 minutes. All the other riders are wondering what is going on and staring at you.
“With this low-entry ramp, you just get in and out. It is a lot less time and you don’t have all of the staring from the other passengers,” he said.
The D45 CRT LE vestibule also provides a view and companionship, Buckland said. “You can see where you’re going and see the same scenery as everyone else. You can’t see that in motorcoaches with lifts.”
When NCIL board members consulted with MCI on the design of the commuter coach vestibule, companion seating was stressed.
“One of our concerns was seclusion. With wheelchair lifts, people in chairs are in a different part of the bus from everybody else. The MCI vestibule has one seat and a couple of jump seats that can be pulled down. The issue around seclusion went away quickly,” Buckland said.
The vestibule can seat five passengers without wheelchairs. With wheelchairs in both of the available securements, three seats remain available.
NCIL represents organizations and individuals with disabilities across the country. MCI invited NCIL to offer advice on the low-entry vestibule about five years ago, Buckland said.
“We were happy to do so. It is a lot better to give input in the beginning than try to fix something later. I asked my board members to look at their blueprints and they invited me to Winnipeg to their bus manufacturing plant to look at a mock-up of the vestibule module. I gave them a few pointers, but for the most part I was very impressed,” he said.
Other than discussing the seclusion of wheelchair riders, “We gave some advice about where to place buttons. They valued our advice and made us feel like we were part of the process. We really appreciated that.”
MCI built the first highway bus equipped with a wheelchair lift six years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 25.5 million people, about 8.5 percent of the population, have travel-limiting disabilities.
A battery-electric version of the motorcoach, the D45 CRTe LE, is scheduled for production beginning in 2020 along with the D45 CRT, a high-floor commuter coach without the vestibule. It will be available with an optional wheelchair lift. A 40-foot version without the vestibule, the D40 CRT with an available wheelchair lift, is scheduled to enter production in 2022.