The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires the Access Board to issue guidelines for transportation vehicles—including buses, OTRBs, and vans—to ensure that new, used and remanufactured vehicles are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. See 42 U.S.C. 12204. These guidelines serve as the baseline for enforceable accessibility standards issued by DOT for ADA-covered transportation vehicles. 42 U.S.C. 12204.

The Access Board first issued transportation vehicle accessibility guidelines in September 1991. See 56 FR 45530 (Sept. 6, 1991) (codified at 36 CFR pt. 1192, subpts. A-F). These guidelines establish accessibility requirements for new, used or remanufactured transportation vehicles—which included buses, vans, and rail vehicles operated in fixed guideway systems, but excluded OTRBs—covered by the ADA. These accessibility requirements relate to, among other things, ramps and lifts, onboard circulation, wheelchair spaces and securement devices, priority seats, stop request systems, and exterior route or destination signs. Id. With respect to announcement systems, these guidelines require large buses operating in fixed route service to be equipped with public address systems that permit announcement of stops or other passenger information. See 36 CFR 1192.35. The same day, DOT adopted the Access Board’s guidelines as enforceable accessibility standards for transportation vehicles covered by the ADA. See 56 FR 45584 (Sept. 6, 1991) (codified at 49 CFR pt. 37).

In 1998, the Access Board and DOT issued a joint final rule amending their respective existing transportation vehicle guidelines and standards to include accessibility requirements for OTRBs. See 63 FR 51694 (Sept. 28, 1998) (codified at 36 CFR pt. 1192, subpt. G & 49 CFR pt. 38, subpt. H). While many of the accessibility requirements for OTRBs in the 1998 amendments were the same as those applicable to buses and vans, they were not identical. OTRBs, for example, were not required to provide public address systems, stop request systems, or exterior signage identifying destinations or routes.

Other than these 1998 amendments, the Access Board’s vehicle guidelines have not been modified since their initial issuance in 1991. Since that time, new or updated technologies (such as low floor buses, intelligent transportation systems, and automated announcement systems), transit system designs (such as bus rapid transit and level boarding bus systems), and accessibility standards have emerged. Such changes led the Access Board to begin informal efforts to update its existing transportation vehicle guidelines.

First, in April 2007, the Board published draft revisions to the existing guidelines that proposed changes to accessibility requirements for buses and vans. See Availability of Draft Revisions to Guidelines, 72 FR 18179 (April 11, 2007); U.S. Access Board, Draft Revisions to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buses and Vans (2007) (available on the Access Board website) [hereafter, “2007 Draft Revised Guidelines”].2 Among other things, the 2007 Draft Revised Guidelines proposed that large buses used in multiple-stop, fixed route service be required to have automated stop and route announcement systems. This proposed requirement applied to all transit agencies operating fixed route buses regardless of their location or size of bus fleet. The 2007 draft also proposed to decrease the maximum running slope of vehicle ramps to 1:8 (as compared to the existing guidelines, which specify a range of ramp slopes from 1:4 to 1:12, depending on deployment), require additional maneuvering clearance where a wheelchair space is confined on three sides, and require a 36-inch wide onboard circulation path from accessible doorways to wheelchair spaces (as compared to the existing guidelines, which require “sufficient clearance” for passengers who use wheelchairs).

The following year, in November 2008, the Board published a notice of availability for a second set of draft revised guidelines for public review and comment. See Availability of Draft Revisions to Guidelines, 73 FR 69592 (Nov. 19, 2008); U.S. Access Board, Revised Draft of Accessibility Guidelines for Buses and Vans (2008) (available on the Access Board website) [hereafter, “2008 Draft Revised Guidelines”].3 Among other things, the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines reflected a significantly revamped format and organization more akin to the Board’s then-recent revisions to its revised ADA and ABA Accessibility Guidelines, rather than a “conventional” regulatory format. Id. at 69592. The 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines also incorporated changes in several proposed accessibility requirements in response to comments. Specifically, application of the automated announcement systems requirement was narrowed by proposing that only large transit agencies operating 100 or more buses in annual maximum service (referred to as “VOMS”) be required to deploy automated announcement systems on their large, fixed-route buses. This 100-bus VOMS threshold was added at the behest of commenters, including the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), who urged the Access Board to add a “small fleet exemption” to the automated announcement system requirement. Additional proposed changes in the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines included: increasing the maximum running slope for ramps and bridgeplates to 1:6 when deployed to the roadway; decreasing the proposed maneuvering clearances for wheelchair spaces; and, decreasing the proposed minimum clear width for circulation paths to 34 inches. Additionally, the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines included proposed accessibility requirements for OTRBs and level boarding bus systems, which the 2007 draft revised guidelines had not addressed.

In July 2010, the Access Board formally commenced the rulemaking process by issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking to update the existing guidelines for buses, OTRBs, and vans. See Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines for Transportation Vehicles, 75 FR 43748 (July 26, 2010) (hereafter, “2010 NPRM”). Aside from minor editorial changes, the proposed rule was substantively similar to the draft revised guidelines issued two years earlier. In particular, based on strong support from commenters to the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines, the automated announcement systems requirement (including a VOMS 100 threshold for large transit agencies) and the 1:6 maximum ramp slope requirement were carried forward to the proposed rule. To augment the written notice-and-comment process, the Board also held public hearings on the proposed rule in Chicago, IL and Washington, DC.

After the close of the comment period on the 2010 NPRM, the Access Board received reports from transit operators and a transportation consultant that some passengers who use wheelchairs were experiencing problems with new ramps that had been designed to meet the proposed 1:6 maximum running slope for ramps when deployed to the roadway. Accordingly, the Board reopened the comment period on the proposed rule and held two on-the-record public meetings to gather additional information on the feasibility and safety of the new ramp designs. See Notice of Public Information Meeting and Reopening of Comment Period, 77 FR 50068 (Aug. 20, 2012). 

III. Major Issues

Automated Announcement Systems

The Access Board’s existing guidelines require large buses (i.e., more than 22 feet in length) operating in fixed route service to be equipped with onboard public address systems to announce stops and other passenger information. See 36 CFR 1192.35. Current DOT regulations, in turn, specify the requisite characteristics of stop and route announcements; however, there is no requirement that such announcements be provided through automated messages, as opposed to vehicle operators. See 49 CFR 37.167(b) & (c). Transit agency announcement programs that primarily rely on operator-based announcements have proven to be problematic. Compliance reviews conducted by DOT, as well as multiple Federal lawsuits, have shown that, in vehicle-operator-based announcement programs, compliance with the existing regulatory standards is rarely above 50% of requisite stop or route announcements. See Final RA, Section 3.2 (summarizing results of DOT compliance reviews of transit agency announcement programs and Federal lawsuits raising ADA challenges to vehicle operator-based announcement programs). Consequently, despite the promulgation of the existing announcement requirement more than two decades ago, transit users with disabilities, along with transportation researchers, continue to identify inadequate stop and route announcements as significant impediments to the use of public bus transportation by persons with disabilities.

Since the early 2000s, deployment of various advanced technologies in transportation—commonly referred to as “intelligent transportation systems” (ITS)—has grown substantially. For public transit systems, ITS deployments generally include a “core” set of applications for Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) and Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) that facilitate management of fleet operations by providing real-time information on vehicle location. Additional functionalities, such as automated announcement systems, are also becoming increasingly common. Automated announcement systems help ensure that required stop and route announcements are made, and made consistently and clearly. Automated announcement systems also lessen the need to rely on operators of non-rail vehicles for compliance, and, thereby, allow operators to pay more focused attention on driving or other operational tasks.

Both ITS/AVL deployments generally, and deployments that include automated announcement systems, have exhibited tremendous growth in recent years. For example, as of 2013, DOT annual statistics tracking ITS deployments show that nearly 90% of fixed route buses are now equipped with AVL, which represents a 177% increase in AVL deployments since 2000.4 Moreover, according to the annual Public Transportation Vehicle Database maintained by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the number of fixed route buses in the United States that provide automated announcements has increased from 10% in 2001 to 69% in 2015.5 

The 2010 NPRM, as did the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines, proposed that public entities operating 100 or more buses in annual maximum fixed route service (as reported in the National Transit Database) must provide automated stop and route announcement systems on their large buses that operate in fixed route service and stop at multiple designated stops. Automated announcement systems, as proposed, must have both audible and visible components. For route announcements, the automated messages must be audible at boarding and alighting areas and the visible component must include signs on the front and boarding sides of buses. Stop announcements must be audible within vehicles, and the visible component must include signs that are viewable by passengers seated in wheelchair spaces and priority seats. The 2010 NPRM also posed several questions seeking public input on the proposed scoping for automated announcement systems, technical requirements, and costs. See 2010 NPRM, Question Nos. 16 – 20.

Overall, the vast majority of commenters to the 2010 NPRM were strongly supportive of the Board’s proposal to require automated stop and route announcements. Supporters of the requirement, who represent a broad cross-section of commenters—including persons with disabilities, advocacy organizations, academia, and transit industry associations—expressed their firm belief that automated announcement systems would bring much-needed consistency to stop and route announcements on fixed route buses and, thereby, ensure that passengers with disabilities have access to critical information needed to use public transportation systems. Supporters also noted that, by requiring audible and visible components, the proposal would broadly benefit not only passengers with vision or hearing-related disabilities, but also persons with other types of disabilities, including cognitive impairments. Automated announcement systems would also, they believe, promote universal access by aiding passengers who are unfamiliar with particular bus routes (e.g., out-of-town visitors or infrequent riders) and generally improving customer satisfaction.

Commenters in favor of the automated announcement systems requirement also expressed uniform support for the VOMS 100 threshold (i.e., limiting scope of requirement to large transit agencies that operate 100 or more buses in annual maximum service in fixed route systems), viewing this limitation as striking a sensible balance between accessibility and economic considerations. For example, APTA – one of the nation’s largest organizations involved in the public transportation industry – praised the VOMS 100 threshold as a reasonable approach to limiting application of the automated announcement systems requirement. Other commenters voicing support for the VOMS 100 threshold included a statewide transit organization, a large disability-rights organization, and a national association of accessibility professionals. Several large transit agencies also noted that they have already equipped (or are in the process of equipping) their buses with automated announcement systems.

Transit entities, on the other hand, had mixed views on the general notion of an automated announcement systems requirement. APTA and a statewide association of transit managers noted their general approval for this proposal. A large transit agency also expressed support for the automated announcement systems requirement, but noted that the cost for such systems might impose hardships on small transit agencies. Another large transit agency observed that, while automated announcement systems are “a highly desired feature for improving customer information systems,” they can be costly and technically challenging to implement in some environments. Several other transit entities took no position on automated announcement systems, but offered suggestions for improving the proposed requirement, such as clarifying its application or adding technical specifications for audio quality. Lastly, three transit agencies opposed the automated announcement systems requirement outright, expressing concern about costs and the fact that the requirement mandates use of automated announcement systems, rather than allowing transit agencies to choose among competing priorities at the local level, particularly with respect to rural bus service.

After careful considerations of these comments, the Access Board has decided to retain the automated announcement system requirement in the final rule, albeit with several, small editorial changes that respond to commenters’ requests for clarification. (These editorial changes are discussed in Section IV.H below.) The Board strongly believes that automated announcement systems improve communication access for passengers with disabilities, which is a crucial factor in facilitating new or expanded use of fixed route bus transportation systems. Automated announcement systems have proven to be far superior to transit agency announcement programs that rely solely on vehicle operator-provided announcement systems. See Final RA, Sections 3.2 & 3.3 (discussing comparative performance of vehicle operator-based announcement programs and automated announcement systems). Indeed, even though the existing guidelines requiring stop and route announcements have been in effect since 1991, significant problems persist, as evidenced by commenters’ anecdotes, DOT compliance reviews of transit agency announcement programs, and Federal ADA litigation.

Moreover, while the Access Board acknowledges that deployment of automated announcement systems by large transit agencies to comply with the final rule will necessarily impose costs (as well as lead to substantial benefits for bus passengers with disabilities), the cost impact of this requirement is tempered by several considerations. Foremost is that its application is limited to large transit entities that operate 100 or more fixed route buses in annual maximum service – a limitation that was added at the behest of APTA. See 2010 NPRM, 75 FR at 43753. By establishing a VOMS 100 threshold, the Board believes that the automated announcement systems requirement is appropriately and narrowly tailored to larger transit agencies that have the financial resources to deploy ITS with automated announcement system functionality and potentially serve the greatest number of passengers with disabilities.6 Significantly, as discussed below in Section V.B (Regulatory Process Matters - Regulatory Flexibility Act), no small governmental entities (i.e., public transit authorities with service or population areas under 50,000) are expected to incur compliance costs under the 2016 Non-Rail Vehicle Guidelines.

Additionally, extensive deployment of ITS in public transportation systems over the past decade means that, for most large transit agencies, the automated announcement systems requirement will not impose significant incremental costs. As noted above, transit industry statistics show that about 70% of fixed route buses nationally are already equipped with automated announcement systems, and nearly 90% are equipped with AVL. For large transit entities that have already installed (or are planning to install) automated announcement systems as part of their ITS deployment, this new requirement will impose no additional costs. For large transit agencies that have already deployed ITS/AVL system-wide, but do not yet have automated announcement systems, the incremental cost of complying with the new requirement will, in all likelihood, only be the cost of adding automated announcement system functionality, rather than purchasing an entirely new ITS system. Thus, the Access Board expects that only a few large transit agencies will have to purchase and deploy entirely “new” ITS with automated announcement system functionality in order to comply with the final rule.

Finally, it bears emphasis that, while DOT has sole discretion to determine whether (or to what extent) the automated announcement system requirement will apply to new, remanufactured, and existing non-rail vehicles, the Department’s past practice in ADA rulemakings suggests that it is highly unlikely that existing transit buses would need to be retrofitted to comply with the automated announcement system requirement. Typically, DOT has imposed more stringent, “full” accessibility requirements on new or remanufactured vehicles, and exempted existing vehicles entirely. See, e.g., 49 CFR §§ 37.71, 37.75, 37.103, 37.183, 37.195 & 37.197. The only exception to this practice was the Department’s 1991 ADA rulemaking, which, in pertinent part, requires public entities acquiring used vehicles for operation in fixed-route service to ensure that such vehicles are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. However, public entities are still permitted to purchase used vehicles that are not fully accessible so long as they document good faith efforts to obtain an accessible vehicle. See 49 CFR § 37.73. Indeed, the Access Board is not aware of any instances of DOT adopting ADA transportation regulations that required current owners of existing buses to retrofit such buses to comply with newly promulgated standards. The Board appreciates that DOT will exercise its discretion concerning application of the automated announcement system requirement to existing vehicles based on its own assessment of costs and benefits, and will do so while bearing in mind past regulatory practices.

Wheelchair Securement Systems

The Access Board’s existing guidelines require buses, OTRBs, and vans to provide wheelchair securement systems that comply with specified technical requirements at each wheelchair space. The 2010 NPRM proposed two changes to these technical specifications based on transportation research that post-dated the issuance of the existing guidelines. See 2010 NPRM, 75 FR at 43752. First, in large non-rail vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 30,000 pounds or more, the proposed rule reduced from 4,000 pounds to 2,000 pounds the minimum force that wheelchair securement systems must be designed to restrain in the forward longitudinal direction. This proposed revision was made in light of research showing that a lower design force would be sufficient to accommodate force generated on wheelchairs and their occupants in large non-rail vehicles under common conditions (e.g., maximum braking, maximum acceleration, frontal collision). Second, the proposed rule modified the technical requirements for rear-facing wheelchair securement systems by adding a specification for forward excursion barrier to the current technical requirements. The forward excursion barrier is a padded structure designed to limit forward movement of a rear-facing wheelchair and its occupant relative to the vehicle. Additionally, the 2010 NPRM also asked two questions seeking commenters’ views on potential cost savings from the proposed design force reduction and proposed technical requirements for forward excursion barriers. See 2010 NPRM, Question Nos. 13 – 14.

With respect to reducing the minimum design force for wheelchair securement systems, commenters to the 2010 NPRM expressed near universal support. Commenters who supported this proposal included several vehicle manufacturers, three public transit agencies, an individual with a disability, and an accessibility consultant. They applauded the proposed reduction in design force because it would, they believed, potentially foster more innovative designs that were lighter or easier to use than currently available securement systems. These commenters further opined that reducing the minimum design force would likely produce marginal (if any) cost savings. Only two commenters opposed the proposed reduction of the minimum design force, with one commenter (an equipment manufacturer) merely stating general opposition to the proposal and the other commenter (a public transit agency) expressing concern about safety in light of larger mobility devices and rising obesity levels.

The Access Board has decided to retain the proposed reduction in minimum design force for wheelchair securement systems in the final rule. The revised design force would potentially spur greater innovation in wheelchair securement systems (which is an area in need of new approaches), but without sacrificing safety given that the 2,000-pound specification is based on findings from transportation studies.

With respect to the proposed addition of technical specifications for forward excursion barriers in rear-facing wheelchair securement systems, commenters expressed mixed views. Those who supported inclusion of specifications for forward excursion barriers (including individuals with disabilities and a transit agency), noted that, while rear-facing wheelchair spaces were not yet commonly used on fixed route buses in the United States, it was nonetheless important to specify a standard to keep pace with potential future changes in transit system designs. Other commenters (including a research center and a bus manufacturer), did not oppose inclusion of requirements for forward excursion barriers, but instead took issue with the Access Board’s particular set of proposed specifications. They viewed the proposed requirements for forward excursion barriers as inadequate to protect wheelchair users. They suggested that, in the final rule, the Board should instead harmonize with international standards for rear-facing wheelchair securement systems, particularly since rear-facing wheelchair positions are much more common in Canadian and European public transportation systems. Finally, one transit agency objected outright to the inclusion of any requirement for forward excursion barriers.

In the final rule, the Access Board retains the requirement for forward excursion barriers for rear-facing wheelchair securement systems, but modifies the technical requirements for such barriers in response to commenters’ expressed concerns about the specifications in the proposed rule. Specifically, T603.5 requires rear-facing wheelchair securement systems to provide forward excursion barriers complying with ISO 10865-1:2012(E), “Wheelchair containment and occupant retention systems for accessible transport vehicles designed for use by both sitting and standing passengers — Part 1: Systems for rearward facing wheelchair-seated passengers.” The ISO standard specifies design and performance requirements and associated test methods for forward excursion barriers. The Board has determined that the added safety research used in the development of ISO 10865-1:2012(E), and its acceptance as a global standard, provide additional benefits to transit users and agencies that warrant its incorporation in the final rule.

Running Slope of Ramps Deployed to Roadways or Curb-Height Bus Stops

In the 2010 NPRM, the Access Board proposed to simplify and update the existing guidelines addressing the running slope of ramps in non-rail vehicles by establishing a single standard – 1:6 maximum (17 percent) – for ramps deployed to roadways or to boarding and alighting areas without boarding platforms (i.e., curb-height bus stops). See 2010 NPRM, T303.8.1.7 The Board proposed these changes for two primary reasons: to address concerns about the safety and usability of ramps when deployed at the steepest maximum slope permitted under the existing guidelines (1:4); and to update ramp slope requirements in light of the evolution of bus and ramp designs in the 25 years since the existing guidelines were promulgated. The Board’s proposed 1:6 maximum ramp slope engendered the largest volume of comments of any of the proposed regulatory changes in the 2010 NPRM. Commenters overwhelmingly acknowledged the need to modernize the Board’s existing guidelines for vehicle ramp slopes, but expressed differing views on the best approach for their revision. For the reasons discussed below, the final rule retains the proposed requirement that ramps in non-rail vehicles must have running slopes no steeper than 1:6 when deployed to roadways or boarding and alighting areas without boarding platforms, such as curb-height bus stops. However, the text of the final rule has been revised to make clear that the requisite maximum running slope is a design standard to be measured to ground level with the bus on a flat surface; when deployed to roadways or curb-height bus stops, ramps must have the least running slope practicable under the given field conditions.

The existing guidelines specify a range of maximum running slopes for non-rail vehicle ramps depending on the nature of their deployment. While ramps must generally have the “least slope practicable,” the guidelines go on to specify several different maximum running slopes depending on whether the ramp is being deployed to the roadway or to a curb-height bus stop. See 36 CFR 1192.23(c)((5) (ramp slope requirements for buses and vans), 1192.159(c)(5) (OTRB-related ramp slope requirements). When a ramp is deployed to the roadway, the existing guidelines require its slope to be 1:4 maximum. For ramps deployed to bus stops with an adjacent 6-inch curb, the existing guidelines specify a range of maximum ramp running slopes depending on the differential in height between vehicle floor and curb. The existing slope requirements for vehicle ramps deployed to curb-height bus stops are shown in Table 2 below. Running slopes are expressed as the ratio of the vertical rise to the horizontal run.

Table 2 - Existing Guidelines: Maximum Slope of Vehicle Ramps Deployed to Curb-Height Bus Stops

Height of vehicle floor above 6-inch-high curb Maximum running slope
3 inches or less  1:4
more than 3 inches and equal to or less than 6 inches  1:6
more than 6 inches and equal to or less than 9 inches 1:8
more than 9 inches 1:12

In 1991, when the Access Board issued the existing guidelines for ramp slopes, ramp and vehicle designs were not as advanced as they are today. Standard transit buses had high floors (usually 35 inches above the roadway) and steps at doorways. For this type of bus, lifts are the only means of providing accessible boarding and alighting. Yet, in public transit settings, lifts can sometimes be slow to deploy, costly to maintain, and have reliability issues. These and other factors spurred development and adoption of “low floor” transit buses in the early 1990s. Low floor buses have a lower vehicle floor (typically 15 inches or less above the roadway) that permits a flat – rather than stepped – area at doorways. Most low floor buses also have a “kneeling” feature that hydraulically lowers the front end of the vehicle several inches closer to the curb to aid in boarding. Because of their lower floor and flat entry area, low floor buses can use ramps (instead of lifts) to provide access for passengers with disabilities. These features tend to make boarding and alighting easier and more user-friendly for all passengers and, consequently, reduce dwell times.8 As of 1991, however, low floor bus technologies in the United States – as well as related vehicle ramp designs – were still in their infancy. Consequently, the maximum ramp slopes specified in the existing guidelines, while fairly steep for some types of deployments (such as 1:4 to the roadway), reflect what was feasible given then-existing technologies.

In the mid-2000s, when the Access Board initiated efforts to revise and update its non-rail vehicle guidelines, two related considerations prompted evaluation of ramp slopes. First, research studies demonstrated that steeper ramp slopes – particularly ramps with a 1:4 slope – are difficult to use for many individuals who use mobility devices, most notably manual wheelchairs users.9 There were also documented incidents of wheelchairs and their occupants tipping over backwards going up bus ramps with 1:4 slopes. Second, low floor bus technologies had rapidly evolved and all major domestic bus manufacturers offered one or more models. Indeed, such buses had increasingly become public transit agencies’ vehicle of choice for fixed-route bus service.10

In the 2010 NPRM, the Access Board thus proposed to update the ramp slope requirements in the existing guidelines by establishing a 1:6 maximum slope for ramps deployed to roadways or curb-height bus stops. See 2010 NPRM, T303.8.1.11 The intent of this proposal was two-fold: to lessen the steepness of the maximum permitted ramp slope from 1:4 to 1:6, and to simplify application of the ramp slope requirements by replacing the existing deployment-based range of maximum ramp slopes with a single standard. On balance, commenters strongly supported this proposal.

The proposed ramp slope provision received broad support from a wide spectrum of commenters, including the disability community, APTA, transportation researchers, ramp manufacturers, and several transit operators. These commenters applauded the Board’s efforts to simplify the existing ramp slope requirements by specifying a single standard. They also agreed that the 1:4 maximum ramp slope in the existing guidelines was outdated and too steep. A 1:6 maximum for non-rail vehicle ramp slopes, in their view, was safer and more in line with current technology. Nonetheless, some supporters of the proposed ramp slope standard cautioned that, while a 1:6 standard for maximum ramp slope was preferable and generally feasible, certain local conditions (e.g., narrow urban sidewalk, roadside ditch, or excessive road crown) might make achieving a 1:6 ramp slope impractical or difficult in particular deployment situations. These commenters encouraged the Board to consider adding an exception that would permit steeper ramp slopes when necessary due to local conditions. Lastly, several ramp manufacturers observed that 1:6 ramps were commercially available, had about the same total cost of ownership (i.e., purchase price and maintenance costs) as older (1:4) ramp models, and were already in service on thousands of ramp-equipped low floor buses.

Only a handful of commenters expressed outright opposition to the proposed 1:6 maximum slope for ramps in non-rail vehicles. For two transit operators, this proposal proved problematic because, in their view, a single standard cannot adequately take into account the many variables affecting ramp slope under “real world” operating conditions. The third transit operator expressed concern that 1:6 ramps would increase capital and maintenance costs, could require longer ramps, and might not be compatible with some bus or van models. Additionally, two bus manufacturers, while not expressly opposing a 1:6 maximum slope standard, noted that certain models of smaller non-rail vehicles – such as vans or cutaway buses – might require redesign of suspension systems or other vehicle parts in order to achieve the requisite ramp slope. 

After the close of the comment period on the proposed rule, the Access Board received reports that a few transit agencies were experiencing problems with the usability of some 1:6 ramp models that had been recently installed on new transit buses. Accordingly, in August 2012, the Board issued a notice that it was reopening the comment period on the proposed rule and planned to hold public meetings in Washington, DC and Seattle, Washington to receive additional information on the new ramp designs. See Notice of Public Information Meeting and Reopening of Comment Period, 77 FR 50068 (Aug. 20, 2012). 

Information developed during the reopened comment period painted a mixed picture of these 1:6 ramps. On the one hand, several transit agencies and individuals with disabilities confirmed that a few new 1:6 ramp models were indeed creating difficulties on some ramp-equipped low floor buses. They reported that, in order to avoid extending the ramps a longer distance outside the bus, some 1:6 ramps were designed with a fixed slope inside the bus and a variable slope outside the bus. The resulting grade break in the ramp run, along with its close proximity to the vestibule area flat floor, caused some passengers who used wheeled mobility devices to have difficulty negotiating the ramps or maneuvering in the bus vestibule (e.g., paying fare or turning into the aisle). Some of the affected transit agencies had taken these ramps out of service, while others were working with manufacturers to develop modifications for in-use ramps. Several commenters, while characterizing the existing 1:4 maximum ramp slope as “unsafe,” nonetheless urged the Access Board to delay issuance of a final rule until research or field testing documented the safety and usability of 1:6 ramps. They noted the complexity of the issue given the interplay of environmental conditions and in-vehicle space constraints.

A number of other commenters, however, expressed support for 1:6 ramps generally, as well as the particular ramp models at issue. Several bus and component manufacturers strongly supported the proposed 1:6 maximum slope requirement, stating that standard and cutaway bus models were already in production that came equipped with ramps capable of achieving a 1:6 maximum slope to roadways or curb-height bus stops. Additionally, a ramp manufacturer observed that, of the thousands of 1:6 ramps already in service on heavy-duty low floor transit buses across several hundreds of transit agencies, only about 2% of transit agencies had cited ramp grade break as a problem. This manufacturer also noted that, by 2013, it expected to have two new, redesigned 1:6 ramp models in commercial production that would address the cited problems by eliminating the grade break in the ramp run and minimizing the ramp’s impact on the available level floor space within the bus at the top of the ramp. Testing of field prototypes was underway, and initial feedback had been positive.

A third group of commenters – including a disability organization and a research institution – believed that the Access Board’s proposed 1:6 maximum ramp slope was still too steep. While preferable to steeper (1:4) ramps, a 1:6 ramp, they noted, was not “user-friendly” and could be difficult for passengers who use manual wheelchairs to use independently. These commenters urged the Board to instead adopt a 1:8 maximum ramp slope, which would make ramps usable for the vast majority of wheeled mobility device users.

Several years have passed since the comment period closed in late 2012. In the intervening years, 1:6 ramps have become well-established in the transit community. The ramp models at issue when the Access Board reopened the comment period have been replaced by a newer generation of 1:6 ramps; these ramps have been on the market – and in use – for several years without generating similar complaints. See Final RA, Section 3.4. Low floor non-rail vehicles equipped with 1:6 ramps are commercially available from a host of manufacturers, ranging from small cutaway buses to large, heavy-duty transit buses. Id. Moreover, the current version of APTA’s “Standard Bus Procurement Guidelines” (commonly referred to as the “APTA Whitebook”), which are widely used by transit agencies throughout the country for their bus procurements, lists 1:6 ramps as the default specification for large low floor buses. See APTA Standard Bus Procurement Guidelines, § TS 81.3 (May 2013). Indeed, 1:6 ramps have become so integrated into the transit marketplace that, at least for the heavy-duty low floor transit buses, these ramps are now the less expensive production models, whereas steeper (1:4) ramps are more costly special order items. See Final RA, Section 3.4.

After careful consideration, the Board has determined that a 1:6 maximum ramp slope – as proposed in the 2010 NPRM – strikes the appropriate balance between usability and feasibility. We believe that establishing a 1:6 maximum running slope for non-rail vehicle ramps will make such ramps more usable for most passengers who use wheeled mobility devices, while also ensuring a workable standard that manufacturers and vehicle operators can meet without undue difficulty or expense. There is near uniform agreement that the 1:4 maximum ramp slope in the existing guideline is outdated and potentially unsafe. A ramp with a 1:6 maximum slope, while perhaps not independently usable by all individuals who use wheeled mobility devices, nonetheless presents a safer and more usable method of boarding and alighting for most mobility device users. Indeed, a recent peer-reviewed transportation study validated the efficacy of 1:6 ramps in reducing ramp-related incidents and accidents on non-rail transit vehicles.12 This study found that the odds of a passenger using a wheeled mobility device having a ramp-related incident were 5.4 times greater when the ramp slope exceeded 1:6, and the odds of needing assistance were almost as great.

The 2016 Non-Rail Vehicle Guidelines thus require the running slope of ramps in non-rail vehicles used for deployment to roadways or curb-height bus stops to be no steeper than 1:6. However, the text of the provision has been modified to address commenters’ concerns about the difficulty of achieving 1:6 ramp slopes under all deployment conditions.

In the 2010 NPRM, the proposed rule simply established a 1:6 maximum slope for ramps deployed to roadways or curb-height bus stops; the provision did not, on its face, specify whether this maximum applied to a ramp’s designed capability (i.e., ramp must be capable of achieving a 1:6 maximum slope when deployed to the roadway or a curb-height bus stop) or to actual deployments in the field (i.e., ramp cannot be steeper than 1:6 regardless of local conditions under which it is being deployed). See 2010 NPRM, T303.8.1. Several commenters – including some who otherwise supported the proposed 1:6 ramp slope standard – expressed concern that local conditions sometimes make achieving a 1:6 ramp slope particularly challenging or even impossible. These commenters urged the Board to add an exception that would expressly permit steeper ramp slopes when necessary due to local conditions, such as a narrow sidewalk abutting a building in an urban setting, a roadside ditch in a rural area, or an excessive road crown.

To address these concerns, the provisions in the final rule specifying the maximum ramp running slopes for non-rail vehicles (i.e., T402.8 and its two subsections) have been revised to clarify that the specified ramp slope requirements are design standards only. For example, T402.8.1 in the final rule states that, for ramps deployed to roadways or curb-height bus stops, the 1:6 maximum is a design standard that requires such ramps to be capable of achieving this requirement only when the vehicle is resting on a flat surface and the ramp is deployed to ground level. This revision aims to clarify that, although vehicle ramps may be deployed under various roadway and environmental conditions, measurement (and assessment) of compliance with the 1:6 maximum slope requirement is to be taken under one condition i.e., when the bus is on a flat (level) surface, not on a crowned roadway or any other sloping surface. Typically, these ramp slope measurements will be made in the factory or testing laboratory prior to delivery to the field or, after a ramp is serviced, in the transit agency’s maintenance facilities. We believe that these modifications to the final rule text address commenters’ concerns that measurements would be affected by roadway conditions. 

Clear Width of Circulation Paths and Maneuvering Clearances at Wheelchair Spaces

In the 2010 NPRM, the Access Board proposed specific minimum dimensions for the clear width of circulation paths within non-rail vehicles, as well as maneuvering clearances at wheelchair spaces. For the reasons discussed below, these proposals have not been retained in the final rule. Instead, pending further research, the 2016 Non-Rail Vehicle Guidelines retain the approach in the existing guidelines by requiring “sufficient clearances” for passengers who use wheelchairs to move between accessible doorways and wheelchair spaces, and to enter and exit wheelchair spaces. See T504.1; see also 36 CFR 1192.23 (a), 1192.159 (a)(1) (existing requirements for clearances for passengers who use wheelchairs).

Since the initial issuance of the existing guidelines in 1991, various parties—including individuals with disabilities, transit operators, and vehicle manufacturers—have requested guidance on the meaning of “sufficient clearances.” Questions about clearances arose in the context of circulation paths that connect accessible doorways and wheelchair spaces, as well as maneuvering spaces at wheelchair positions, which, on buses, OTRBs and vans, are typically confined on three sides by seats, side walls, or wheel wells.

Over the course of this rulemaking, the Access Board has attempted to clarify the meaning of “sufficient clearances” by proposing specific dimensions for the clear width of circulation paths and maneuvering clearances at wheelchair spaces, as well as more clearly specifying the obligation to ensure that features along circulation paths—particularly in the front vestibule of buses (where stanchions or fare collection devices tend to be located)—do not interfere with the maneuvering of wheelchairs or other mobility devices. For example, in the 2007 Draft Revised Guidelines, the Board proposed a fixed metric for the minimum clear width of circulation paths (36 inches), as well as maneuvering clearances of 6 inches (for front or rear entry wheelchair spaces) or 12 inches (for side entry wheelchair spaces) when wheelchair spaces are confined on three sides. See 2007 Draft Revised Guidelines, §§ 1192.23(a)(2), 1192.23(d)(2). These clearances were in addition to the requisite 30 inch by 48 inch minimum clear floor space for each wheelchair space. The 2007 draft also proposed guidelines for clearances at turns (such as the turn needed at the front of a bus) along circulation paths. Id. § 1192.23(a)(2). 

Many commenters to the 2007 Draft Revised Guidelines were critical of these new proposals for maneuvering clearances at wheelchair spaces and the clear width of circulation paths.13 Accordingly, in the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines, the Access Board modified the proposed requirements for maneuvering clearances and clear width of circulation paths. The proposed additional clearances for maneuvering in or out of wheelchair spaces were trimmed by 1 inch (front or rear entry wheelchair spaces) and 6 inches (side entry wheelchair spaces) respectively. See 2008 Revised Draft Guidelines, Sections T402.4.1, T402.4.2. The proposed minimum clear width of circulation paths was also decreased to 34 inches. Id. at Section T502.2. Additionally, the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines did not retain the proposal for maneuvering clearances at turns; instead, the 2008 draft proposed a more general requirement that features on circulation paths should not interfere with the maneuvering of wheelchairs. Id. at T502.3.

In the 2010 NPRM, the proposed requirements for maneuvering clearances at wheelchair spaces and minimum clear width of circulation paths mirror the proposals in the 2008 Draft Revised Guidelines. See 2010 NPRM, Sections T402.4.1, T402.4.2 & 502.5. Additionally, the 2010 NPRM sought comment on a number of issues related to the proposed rule, including sufficiency of the proposals to meet the needs of persons with disabilities, feasibility of proposed clearances on different vehicle types and models, potential seat loss, and views on establishment of performance standards for passengers who use wheelchairs related to movement within vehicles and entry/exit from securement locations. See 2010 NPRM, 75 FR at 43751, Question Nos. 7 – 12.

Commenters’ reactions to the proposed specifications in the 2010 NPRM for maneuvering clearances and clear width of circulation paths were decidedly mixed. The disability community, while generally applauding the Board’s effort to replace the approach in the existing guidelines (i.e., “sufficient clearances”) with quantified minimum clearances, nonetheless expressed some skepticism that such clearances would be adequate to accommodate all types of mobility devices, particularly larger wheelchairs.

Reaction from the public transit community was, on the other hand, solidly opposed to the proposed specifications for minimum clear width of circulation paths and maneuvering clearances at wheelchair spaces. APTA and a large transit agency expressed support for the proposed clearance for side entry wheelchair spaces, but also noted that this clearance could result in some (unspecified) seat loss. Otherwise, the transit community uniformly opposed the clearances proposed in the 2010 NPRM. Several transit agencies submitted detailed drawings demonstrating that the proposed maneuvering clearances would, depending on various factors (e.g., vehicle type, model, and seating layout), have significant consequences, such as: elimination of some models of non-rail vehicles or costly redesign of others, seat loss, discontinuation of flip up seats at wheelchair spaces, or procurement of more expensive seating equipment. Providers of paratransit services also urged the Board to exempt cutaway vehicles (minibuses) used for paratransit because their small size would make compliance difficult, result in loss of wheelchair spaces, or necessitate purchase of larger vehicles. There was broad support among the transit community for development of performance standards for onboard clearances for passengers who use wheelchairs. 

Several bus manufacturers echoed the view that, for some bus models, compliance with the proposed requirements would require modification of designs and seating plans. One manufacturer noted some models of large buses might lose up to two seats for every side entry wheelchair space extended to meet the proposed 54-inch clearance. Another manufacturer submitted drawings showing that the proposed 34-inch minimum clear width for circulation paths would result in the loss of 10 – 14 seats per vehicle, depending on the model of bus. Manufacturers also noted concerns about design constraints due to current axle designs, noise level specifications, and wheel well strength requirements. There was strong support among bus and van manufacturers for establishment of performance standards. 

Lastly, a university-based transportation research center stressed that development of suitable dimensions for maneuvering clearances and clear width of circulation paths on transit buses depended on multiple inter-related factors, including: types of mobility devices, orientation of nearby seats, and relationship of wheelchair spaces to adjacent elements. Because of the complex relationship between these factors, the research center urged the Access Board to first undertake an in-depth study to better understand their interplay before promulgating criteria for clearances—criteria which, in their view, should be performance based, rather than prescriptive, to provide flexibility and foster innovation.

After careful consideration of commenters’ views, the Access Board has determined that enumeration of dimensions for clearances is not advisable at this time. Ensuring that passengers who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices can safely and easily move from doorway to wheelchair space, as well as into and out of the securement system at that space, is a complex challenge that, as commenters rightly note, calls into play numerous variables and considerations. Throughout the course of this rulemaking, dating from the 2007 Revised Draft Guidelines through the 2010 NPRM, the Board has attempted to provide better guidance on the meaning of “sufficient clearances”—as provided in the existing guidelines—by proposing various minimum dimensions for maneuvering clearances at wheelchair spaces and clear width of circulation paths. Each iteration of these regulatory proposals, however, has been met with mixed reviews. Commenters made plain that a “one size fits all” approach—such as the establishment of specific minimum dimensions for clearances in the proposed rule—might provide modest benefits to some passengers who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices, but would also come at a steep cost in terms of vehicle redesign or seat loss. There was also uniform agreement that, given the complex interplay of factors, performance standards for onboard circulation of passengers who use wheelchairs would be useful and preferable.

However, while there are ongoing research studies aimed at improving the interiors of transportation vehicles for passengers who use mobility aids, the current state of information does not provide a sufficient basis for development of performance standards. The Board is hopeful that these ongoing research efforts will help to inform future rulemaking efforts. For example, the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation (RERC-APT) is conducting human factors research on boarding and disembarking vehicles by passengers with disabilities, as well as improved vehicle interiors, which may provide some of the evidentiary bases needed for the development of performance standards.14

In the meantime, however, the 2016 Non-Rail Vehicle Guidelines do not specify a minimum clear width for accessible circulation paths or maneuvering clearances at wheelchair spaces. Instead, the final rule retains the existing requirement that the clear width of accessible circulation paths must be sufficient to permit passengers using wheelchairs to move between accessible doorways and wheelchair spaces, and to enter and exit wheelchair spaces.