King County Metro: By the People
Today an industry leader in public transit, Metro has been shaped by citizen involvement since its establishment by the voters of King County 60 years ago. One significant area of Metro leadership and citizen engagement has been the development of accessible transit services for people with disabilities.
The Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (“Metro”) was formed in 1958 with a public mandate to improve local water quality. Over time, Metro expanded to other civic projects and services. The Forward Thrust bond campaign, headed by community activist James Ellis, promoted a range of regional projects, such as development of parks and pools and the construction of a multi-use stadium, the Kingdome.
Forward Thrust: A Transit System for King County
In 1968, a proposal for a regional integrated transportation system was brought to the voters as a Forward Thrust bond measure. The first two Forward Thrust transit referendums, in 1968 and 1970, were rejected by voters facing an uncertain economy. But in 1972, King County voters authorized Metro to expand its services and operate a regional bus system that would incorporate the Seattle and Overlake transit systems.
Above: King County Council Motion 900, August, 1972, endorsing the Forward Thrust transit plan. County Council Motions, Series 306, Box 11, 1972, King County Archives.
Above: Schematic of regional transit system, circa 1972. A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, King County Archives.
Buses as public transit in King County – a brief history
Above: Trolley buses in Seattle, 1941. A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, King County Archives.
Commuters, shoppers, and day-trippers in King County’s early years relied on scheduled wagon runs and water transport (the “Mosquito Fleet” of steam ferries) for public conveyance. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, street railways and cable cars provided for most public transit. With the rise of the automobile in the early 1900’s, auto stages — precursors to buses — ran scheduled routes. Trolley and motor buses were introduced in Seattle the 1920s and would by 1941 replace street railways and cable cars as the primary means of efficiently moving large groups of people within and between urban areas. (For more King County transit history, see Metro’s Transit Milestones timeline.)
Above, Seattle Transit bus, 1948. A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, King County Archives.
Opinions about Buses
Civic activism has a long history in the Northwest, and the development of the new Metro transit system in the 1970s was no exception. Residents debated the merits of electric trolley versus diesel and the practicality of articulated buses. They weighed in at meetings and in newspaper articles and letters to editors.
Above: From “Metro Proposal Not a Diesel vs. Trolley Issue,” Seattle P-I, August 24, 1972 p. 12. Misc. clipping for graphics, A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, 1970-1979, King County Archives.
Above: Cartoon by Alan Pratt appearing in the Seattle Times [ca. 1972]. Misc. clipping for graphics, Accession A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, 1970-1979, King County Archives.
Above: Metro Transit Express, circa 1973. Series 1247, Department of Transportation, Office of the Director, Box 1, DVD 001, King County Archives.
The Elderly and Handicapped Transportation Project Task Force
In in the mid-1970s, the Elderly and Handicapped Transportation Project task force was formed. In keeping with the active civic involvement in the development of the transit system, the group consisted of a Citizens Action Committee working with advisors from Metro, King County, and the City of Seattle. The group studied ways to make public transportation accessible to people with disabilities.
The project report included input from local service organizations, transportation professionals and the general public. Their findings, published in 1976, laid out not only the significant physical and economic barriers to access, but social/psychological and administrative/bureaucratic ones as well.
Detail from “The Elderly and Handicapped Transportation Project Task Force findings: barriers to access,” 1976. Department of Planning and Community Development, Planning Division, Series 291, Box 8, 1977-1980, King County Archives. (Click on image to open findings (PDF).)
The Right to Accessible Public Transit
In 1975, Metro put out a bid for 145 new buses to expand the system. Before it was finalized, John Martin, a University of Washington student with disabilities, requested a restraining order on the bid. Martin argued that without including access for persons with disabilities Metro was violating state laws that prohibit discrimination in public transportation.
The restraining order was rejected by the court as not reflecting an emergency situation, but Martin was later called to testify at Metro hearings on the subject. Martin’s protest brought attention to the issue of accessible transit. Metro subsequently revised the bid to include a requirement for wheelchair lifts on all 145 buses. In 1980, the buses, newly outfitted with wheelchair lifts, arrived.
In the resolution accepting the delivery of the new buses, the Metro Council declared, “With the delivery of these buses, Metro was able to begin accessible service.”
The initial wheelchair lifts installed turned out to be flawed, however, and the first buses including them were rejected.
Newspaper clipping: “Metro gets go-sign on bid for 145 buses.” A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, King County Archives.
Engineering a Wheelchair Lift
Above: Modifications to Flyer model bus for wheelchair lift, 1979. A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, Box 2, King County Archives.
Metro committed to finding a wheelchair lift that would work – and put significant effort into making it happen. This was at a time when the majority of transit agencies were not supporting the move toward lift-equipped fleets.
A former Boeing engineer, Ed Hall, became interested in the problem and experimented in his garage with lift designs for public transportation. Hall’s successful design, marketed under the name “Lift-U”, was approved and his wheelchair lifts were installed on the new Metro buses, and eventually on the entire fleet.
Above: Photographs showing belt securing wheelchair in bus, 1981. A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, Box 2, King County Archives.
New Infrastructure and Services
In 1978, Metro applied for and received $1.7 million in Federal Urban System funds to put in place improvements at bus zones, including ramps and other aids for disabled riders.
In addition to the inclusion of wheelchair lifts, Metro staff, working with a Metro advisory committee of blind and deaf-blind transit users, pioneered the use of Bus Identifier cards for blind, deaf-blind and limited English speaking riders. Transit operators were trained in the specific needs of these groups.
Along with accessible buses and services tailored to specific groups with disabilities, a fleet of vans, operating jointly between Metro and local service organizations, were acquired to provide door-to-door service for disabled riders.
Access Van, A10-024, King County Metro Historic files, Box 2, King County Archives.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was ratified in Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. The Act codified the rights of individuals with disabilities to equal access to employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.
The road to the ADA had been long one. Equal access in public transportation had first come to the public eye many years before, spurred by the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964. A later revision in 1974 included provisions for accessible access, but it was not until the late 1980’s that congress took the steps that led to the passage of the ADA.
Changes under the Americans With Disabilities Act
In 1992, King County voters approved the merger of Metro and King County government, bringing Metro transit services into a new County Department of Transportation.
A special task force established at the request of the County Council reviewed Metro’s paratransit programs, both to ensure their compliance with the law and to identify potential cost savings where the needs of seniors and people with disabilities might be met through changes to the overall transit system or through other programs.
A Council report showed that at the time of the ratification of the federal American with Disabilities Act in 1990, paratransit services had accounted for 1% of the Metro transit budget. The report projected that by 2004, that percentage would rise to 11%. Representatives from King County’s Accessible Services Committee, senior and disability interest groups, and the general public participated on the task force, and input was sought from Metro transit customers.
Excerpts from public comments regarding proposed changes to Access transportation’s paratransit program, submitted to the King County Special Transportation Services Task Force in 1998 and 1999. A11-028 Department of Transportation, Transit, Paratransit policy background, 1997-1999, Box 2, King County Archives.
Training for Metro Operators
From Metro Transit’s earliest days, Metro drivers received training in how to serve riders with disabilities. The below excerpts from training videos in the Archives collection instruct drivers not only in policies and procedures, but also in the importance of treating all riders with respect.
Outtakes from “Metro Regional Reduced Fare Permits,” 1995, Metro. A17-035 Department of Transportation, Transit / Paratransit Rideshare Operations, Outreach and training videos, King County Archives.
The following video provides Access drivers training in serving passengers with disabilities who use letter boards to help communicate.
Outtakes from Metro Access driver training video, “Communications with Letter Boards,” (circa 2000), King County Metro. A17-035 Department of Transportation, Transit / Paratransit Rideshare Operations, Outreach and training videos, King County Archives.
Access was providing more than 1,000,000 trips to King County residents by 2006. That year, King County Executive Ron Sims ceremoniously presented keys to 21 new vans, paid for by a grant from the Washington State Department of Transportation, to local service agencies such as Senior Services, Puget Sound Essential Services, and Providence Elder Care.
King County Executive Ron Sims presenting Access van keys to non-profit agencies, 2006. A17-035 Department of Transportation, Transit / Paratransit Rideshare Operations, Outreach and training videos, King County Archives.
Metro Accessible Services Today
Today, Metro accessible services, including Access vans, provide over 1.3 million trips per year.
Community involvement was influential in the development of the regional transit system and the push to provide services to the disabled community. Thanks to the collaborative work of the task forces and the contributions of civic minded residents, King County Metro provides services beyond the requirements established by ADA.
Citizens continue to have an important influence in shaping Metro’s transit and paratransit services. The Transit Advisory Commission, comprised of King County residents, plays an active role in consulting and advising the Regional Transit Committee. In addition, Metro is forming an Access Community Advisory Group to help Metro strengthen its Paratransit Access service.
For more information about Metro’s paratransit services or to learn about joining the Advisory Group, please visit:
For Further Research
This post is based on documentation in the King County Department of Transportation’s historical files, records of the King County Council, and other series in the King County Archives collection. Note that the majority of historical records from the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, prior to merging with King County in 1994, and Seattle Transit are held by the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives.
Please feel free to contact us with your research questions!
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