This is 30: On the struggle to get wheelchair lifts on buses

In 1974, the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) passed a historic resolution requiring that all future buses purchased by the agency must be equipped to accommodate older adults and people with disabilities. It was the first transit agency in the nation to do so. Still, this didn’t mean that the struggle for inclusive transportation was over. Cynde Soto is a disability activist who has been fighting for accessible transit for over 40 years. Here’s (just one) of her stories. 

By Cynde Soto

I was born with a physical disability. I have never been able to walk. I grew up in a one car household, and my dad needed it to get to his job. That meant that my mom and sisters often took the bus.

“If I didn’t ride the bus, I wouldn’t know about anything. Being able to ride buses and trains has been our path out of isolation and poverty toward liberation and freedom. ” — Cynde Soto

There were no lift-equipped buses back then.[i] So my mom would scoop me up beneath my armpits to lift me up the stairs, and my three younger sisters folded up my wheelchair and hoisted it onto the vehicle. Keep in mind that there weren’t necessarily any sidewalks either.

After I graduated from school, I met up with a disability rights activist from a newly formed organization called ADAPT (American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit). They’re still around today. Their number one issue? Accessible fixed route public transit. I was all over that!

If you’re disabled, public transit is your lifeline. Without it, you can’t go to work or school. Keep in mind that wheelchairs don’t fit into most cars. There were some paratransit services back then that could pick you up in a mini-bus, but they weren’t very fast or reliable. You might need to book weeks before a ride was needed. Or if you did catch a ride, you could spend hours circling the city before you were dropped off. If you had an interview or an appointment with a timeslot, well … good luck.

During the early 1980s, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) [the precursor of today’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA)], sparked a new and heated debate. Should the government compel transit agencies and bus companies to make vehicles accessible to people in wheelchairs? People had a lot of strong opinions. The technology was available, and many RTD bus lines had implemented lifts, but not many of the most popular routes because officials feared that assisting disabled passengers would slow down service times.[ii]

After writing to legislators and getting nowhere, my friends at ADAPT decided to take action. Remember, there was no internet or many personal computers back then, so we contacted people through phone trees. One person would make two calls, and then each of those people would call two more. And so it went.

ADAPT had a motto. “We will ride.”

Coverage of the protest in the Los Angeles Times: November 19, 1984.

We went to transit malls [bus divisions] and sat in front of the buses in our wheelchairs. This was happening all over the country –– not just in Los Angeles. When the police moved us away, two more people in our army of wheelchairs would come to take our place. It was exhilarating, but also a little scary coming into such close contact with law enforcement. There’s one interaction in particular I’ll never forget.

“I support you,” whispered the cop as he wheeled me away from the protest. “My sister is in a wheelchair. I’m just doing my job.”

No one got arrested during the protest, but a few of us got tickets. Yet the penalties meted out to us in some ways actually proved our point! How were we going to be able to go to a courthouse and pay a fine if those spaces weren’t wheelchair accessible?

By 1991, 100% of SCRTD’s bus lines and 97% of its buses had wheelchair lifts. That didn’t mean our work was finished, but it was a huge moment for me.

For much of my life, I’ve thought of myself as a nobody. That no one is going to look at me. It’s easy for all of us to fall down that rabbit hole. But linking up with fellow activists and advocating for our rights changed my outlook. In 2006, I was interviewed by a panel made of SCAG and Metro administrators and appointed to the Metro Gateway Cities Service Council. Now, I was actually at the table where all the decisions were being made. This has been a dream come true for me. A big one on my bucket list.



[i] Until the mid-1970s, riding the bus with a wheelchair was a pretty awful experience. Wheelchairs were not allowed during rush hour, the chairs had to fold up to a certain size, and wheelchair-bound riders were required to have a “responsible passenger” accompany them. Once SCRTD passed its historic 1974 resolution and a critical mass of new bus deliveries arrived with the new lifts a few years later, ADA service was added line by line, shake-up by shake-up, until the entire fleet had been converted. Read the 1974 resolution here (pp. 26-7).

Disabled riders demonstrate for wheelchair lift-equipped buses outside of the Los Angeles Times building, 1974.

[ii] Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time that this issue came up. In 1999, Metro entered into a consent decree with the disabled community over the pickup rate. The old wheelchair lifts were slow to operate, required a separate key, and some operators ended up passing up riders in wheelchairs, supposedly to stay on schedule. Converting to low floor buses with the ramp at the front helped operators improve bus service to the ADA community. Since then, Metro has worked hard to make its services increasingly accessible to the elderly and people with disabilities, and continues to learn and grow. Curious? Learn more here.

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5 replies

  1. In 1977 it began for then RTD (NOW Metro).

    RTD Recieved 200 of the AM General Busses (8000/8100 Series) back then, which were the 1st Wheelchair Lift Busses, but the Problems with the Busses began…

    The AM Generals had problems ranging from Bad A/C Units, Lack of Power Steering & the Quality of the AM General Busses & of Course the Wheelchair Lifts.

    The Lifts Seldom Worked, some Wheelchair Passengers got Stuck on the Lift an Operator would have to Call a Supervisor or Mechanic to Free the Trapped Wheelchair Rider Stuck, it was Awful.

    These were the Problems I’ve seen on the AM General Busses after they were Delivered.

    In the Spring of 1980 RTD started Recieving the 1st of 230 Busses from then Grumman Flixible, but the Lifts couldn’t be used yet for some reason RTD wouldn’t say..

    Just Before Thanksgiving in 1980 RTD recieved the 1st of 940 GM RTS Busses that were Delivered through Spring of 1981 for its Fiscal Year 80/81…again the Lifts on those Busses couldn’t be used yet, because the Lifts on the RTS were Real Door Lifts & RTD wasn’t ready to Operate them yet.

    When RTD Started to use the Lifts on the Grumman Flixibles & RTS, Wheelchair Passengers were Getting Flack from Operators who didn’t want to Deal with Wheelchair Passenger’s & the Complaints Were coming in about it back then.

    By the Late 90’s RTD became Metro & a Lot of the Non Wheelchair Lift Busses were Replaced.

    In 1998 Metro Recieved it’s 1st 20 Low Floor Busses, an Order Metro Piggybacked with the Las Vegas Bus System to get

    In 1999 Metro Recieved it’s Last Hi-Floor Wheelchair Lift Busses & Reverted to Low Floor Busses afterwards which were Easier to Operate.

    Today…Metro’s Bus Fleet is All Low Floor.

  2. I wonder what wheelchair-equipped passengers think of the homeless that take up their areas on the bus with wheelchair laden junk? Or shopping carts, same thing. I see this almost every day and think it’s very unfair to the handicapped. Especially when it’s raining or extremely hot, I don’t see who the MTA can justify this. The MTA policy seems to be leave people alone, let them do what they want, even if they inconvenience others.

  3. Has anyone in Metro thought about reversing the long existing bus boarding order?

    If we let all other passengers board the bus first, then let the wheelchair passenger board the bus last, it will actually make the boarding process as a whole shorter and more efficient, and eliminate the situation of having the other passengers get in the way of the wheelchair passenger.

    I know this is a long shot and probably politically incorrect, but please at least think about this, rather than simply accepting the existing rule.

    • Don’t think this is an LA only issue. I recall in Vegas and Seattle doing the same thing: Always let the wheelchair passenger go first.

      I think it’s just a cultural/subconscious thought: Like. It’s kinda messed up the person in a wheelchair is left behind type of mentality.

      Either or isn’t a bad thing, but that’s always been my assumption.

  4. The first RTD accessible buses came from AMC General, a new company in the bus field. The front door lifts were difficult to operate and often broke down. Next were the Grumman -Flexibles. Grumman, a aircraft builder, had acquired Flexible and long time bus manufacture. GMC was coming out with a new design so Flexible rushed into production their answer. These buses were junk from the start and their lifts were so bad the RTD took them out of service. In early 1981 the RTD began receiving the largest bus order ever placed, approx. 1000 new buses equipped with Wheel Chair Lifts. Although they were via the rear door I as an Bus Operator had little trouble rapidly loading and unloading w/c patrons. The lifts on these buses seldom failed and as a Supervisor a few years later was able to clear the problems immediately. The RTD began to receive front door lifts from both the New Flexible and Neoplan a few years later followed by New Flyer. These lifts were all similar in both operation and failures. Again, I became an expert at clearing them. With the advent of Low Floor Buses lifts were replaced by ramps. And yes ramps at times proved to be a problem. A advantage of ramps is they can be operated manually. However it was my experience that some Bus Operators refuse to manually activate the lifts, they don’t want to get their hand dirty. Yes, loading a w/c patron can delay the bus, but a good, experienced Bus Operator can make up the time. Unless the bus is extremely overcrowded there is no reason to pass up a wheel chair patron and if one is passed up per Federal regulations the Bus Operator is required to call it in immediately and a Supervisor is assigned to ensure that patron is picked up ASAP.