Going Our Own Way: Public Transit Accessibility for Neurodivergent People

Outdoors, day. A red and white bus in motion in traffic. The buildings and other vehicles around it are a blur.

One day, while I was crossing the road, a driver blocked the crosswalk with his car. He laughed at me and mocked my body movements as I was forced into traffic. He was breaking state law on camera, but I expect that nothing happened to him. After all, this wasn’t the first time a driver had put my life in danger while I was exercising my right-of-way. Most of them react with anger: to them, I am not a human being so much as I’m an object “in the way.”

I am autistic and otherwise neurodivergent. Sometimes it’s too loud for me to see or too bright for me to hear. Sometimes I’ll become weak, off-balance, and uncoordinated out of nowhere. As a result, my primary method of travel since childhood has been my own two feet. When I moved out of a walkable neighborhood, however, I had to get familiar with public transit.

I love public transit. It’s green, it fights traffic, and you can read a book on a commute. The autonomy it’s provided has done wonders for my mental and physical well-being. The ability to choose where I go, even if I’m not the one driving, is the difference between having a life and being trapped in my own home. What I don’t love is my city’s implementation of public transit. In my experience, it is unreliable and often confusing. Austin is a car city. Transit has always been a lesser priority.

To be fair, the city is working to change this; progress is slowly being made. But the city’s transit plan doesn’t mention neurological disorders or neurodevelopmental disabilities in its “accessibility” section at all, let alone how best to support us. This is particularly troubling to me as an autistic person—I know the risk that traffic injury causes to our most vulnerable.

Many of the overdue and necessary access improvements aimed at other people with disabilities would benefit neurodivergent people as well. But expecting that neurodivergent people will also benefit is distinctly different from talking to us about our specific needs in public space. Many of us are invisibly disabled, in the sense that our appearances are not immediately pathologized.

Earlier I shared a little about how my disabilities affect me. Nobody is owed my disability history. However, I feel obligated to disclose this piece of it because I frequently encounter people who don’t understand how my disabilities could cause the experiences I describe. They may assume that, because I have no visible aid (glasses notwithstanding), it’s “not that bad” or “really just a label.”

They’re often operating from a fundamental misconception of what my disability entails. They imagine that my experience is similar to their own non-pathologized quirks. Their attempt at empathy only makes me feel unheard.

So here is how I experience the four (or five or six) lane intersection I have to cross twice to get to most buses.

I know what all the parts of an intersection are, but my ability to hold it all together in my head and simultaneously check for any changes is limited, which makes the process fatiguing. There are cars moving at near-highway speed not 10 feet away, cars that may choose to move at any point in front of me, and all the lights and sounds associated with them. Not to mention the traffic light I’m supposed to focus on, plus the other approximately seven lights I’m meant to ignore. Except I can’t make any of them out clearly because everything is drenched in sun. Night poses the opposite problem: I can see the lights, but I can’t make out the cars or drivers.

The more factors I have to process, the less I can process at all. In complex environments, even small obstacles—like a jangly piece of debris on the crosswalk—become majorly disruptive to my ability to think.

At major intersections, I have to put my trust in the drivers around me because I can’t process everything going on. This presents the issue of having to rely on them to obey the rules of the road. I do try to communicate with them, but this can be easily misinterpreted. Does eye contact and a wave mean “go ahead,” “please wait,” or “pay attention to me?” As an autistic person, nonverbal communication is something I struggle with, even face-to-face.

I live near a street considered part of Austin’s “Pedestrian High-Injury Network.” These streets have a disproportionate likelihood of a serious crash. For my own safety, I rearrange my bus stops and the places I visit—up to and including my choice of workplace—to avoid crossings. I do this even if it means walking twice as far. Unfortunately, crossing a known dangerous road at least once is often unavoidable. There are places in my own city, even close to my home, where I effectively can’t go because there’s no safe way to get from Point A to Point B.

Transportation, from pedestrian travel to public transit to the family car, is essential to our society. Everything from getting a job to accessing healthcare requires movement from place to place. Even in our digital world, major facets of the world such as nature and in-person cultural experiences can’t be replicated on a screen.

Those of us who don’t drive are reliant on external systems, flaws and all. Many neurodivergent people, like me, are effectively prohibited from driving a car due to the way our brains function. But every neurodivergent person I know, driver or not, has had to miss out on an opportunity because of the barriers between them and getting to their destination—often a direct result of being permanently or temporarily unable to drive.

I can honestly say that the experience of being an invisibly disabled pedestrian in Austin has been traumatic. We are overlooked on the road and as a group. A driver has power over others in their path that a pedestrian can’t match; an abled person has physical space designed for their needs. The burden is put on me to protect myself at a moment’s notice when I am less able to control my situation in both respects. So I go out less. I rely on others to give me rides. And my world is smaller, scarier, less free for it.

We need walkable cities and neighborhoods—”walkable” referring to an area that’s safe and effective for pedestrians to navigate, rather than the physical act of walking. Well-maintained, accessible pedestrian spaces and crosswalks are paramount. These pedestrian spaces include sidewalks that correspond with roads, but also urban trails that route pedestrians through green space, away from cars. I have access to an urban trail on my bus commute to work, and it reduces the car interaction from nigh-omnipresent to all of a 20-foot span.

Making areas walkable also includes expanding access to trains and buses. For example, much of West Austin is a 30-minute walk from the nearest bus stop, which is outright dangerous in the Austin summer heat. But if the nearest bus stop were just down the street, using the bus would become viable for that community.

Finally, the streets of Austin, and many other places in the U.S. and Canada, need to be split definitively into those that handle high-speed traffic and those that handle low-speed street access so that drivers interacting with pedestrians are prepared to stop. A common tactic to encourage slower driving is to narrow the lanes by planting roadside trees, which provide shade, a physical barrier between cars and pedestrians, and improve the scenery.

Throughout the implementation of this community investment, we need to consider neurodivergent perspectives as part of the disabled experience every step of the way. Changemakers need to consult directly with neurodivergent communities to understand our unique needs. Some people may push through unnecessary pain to access current services when what they need is paratransit. Others may rely on outside assistance that they wouldn’t need or want in an accessible environment.

Public transit and pedestrian networks are an essential public good, but especially for populations disproportionately unable to drive, including neurodivergent people. We deserve access to transportation options that accommodate us and allow us to be independent on our own terms.

My experience of disability may not be visible to others, but it impacts my access needs all the same. How much of an impact would it have, cumulatively, if all of us could navigate the places we live with confidence and safety?

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