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History and Impact of MBTA/BCIL Settlement Agreement

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Use the following resources to plan a fully accessible trip on the MBTA.

Early Activism

As recently as the 1970s, access to public transit for people with disabilities wasn’t guaranteed, and in many places did not exist at all.

customers protesting mbta accessibility
Two wheelchair users blocking a Green Line Trolley to protest lack of access to Boston's public transit system.

Decades of groundbreaking advocacy from disability groups like ADAPT, whose members blocked Chicago and Denver bus routes with their bodies, paved the way for cities like Boston to make significant progress in accessible transit.

In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act required that any programs or services funded by the federal government be made accessible. In 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) reiterated these responsibilities, and changed the way cities treated public transit accessibility.

customers protesting mbta accessibility
MBTA customers protesting lack of access in East Boston in the 1980s.

Boston was no exception: The MBTA purchased a fleet of wheelchair-accessible buses and created an ADA-compliant Key Station Plan to outline how the agency would make popular subway and Commuter Rail routes accessible.

The MBTA/BCIL Settlement Agreement

Despite early progress, by the 2000s, customers with disabilities still could not safely or reliably access key MBTA services, even though it was required under both federal and state laws.

mbta/bcil plaintiffs announcing settlement
Plaintiffs in the 2006 MBTA/BCIL Settlement Agreement, along with the MBTA, announcing the signing of the settlement.

At the time, studies found that many MBTA elevators at busy stations were often out of service. Furthermore, bus operators weren't always boarding customers with disabilities, either by choice or because accessibility equipment wasn't working.

In 2002, represented by Greater Boston Legal Services, a group of 11 customers along with the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL), filed a class-action lawsuit against the MBTA, Joanne Daniels-Finegold, et al. v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. In 2006, the parties entered into  the MBTA/BCIL settlement agreement, forever changing the future of accessibility at the T.

“This agreement is based on a shared vision between plaintiffs and the MBTA to make the MBTA a model transit system accessible to all. There is a mutual commitment and desire to comply not only with the letter but also the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with the complete understanding that all people with disabilities must have every opportunity to be fully participating members of our community and that fundamental to this opportunity is the right and ability to use public transportation in an equal, effective, and dignified manner.”

Download the original MBTA/BCIL Settlement Agreement

Impact of the Settlement Agreement

Since the MBTA/BCIL Settlement Agreement was signed, a number of significant, sweeping improvements have been made to the system.

customer boarding silver line with ramp
Woman using motorized wheelchair boarding the MBTA Silver Line.

Some changes are required by the settlement, but many are not. The MBTA strives to go above and beyond the terms of the agreement to create a model of accessible transit for the entire country. Each change has been the result of a strong partnership between the plaintiffs, the MBTA, and Judge Patrick King, who serves as Independent Monitor of the settlement.

Creation of the Department of System-Wide Accessibility

One of the settlement’s major provisions was the creation of the Department of System-Wide Accessibility (SWA) in 2007.

2016 ada day at city hall plaza boston
MBTA staff and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh celebrating SWA Day at City Hall Plaza.

SWA is led by an Assistant General Manager who reports directly to the General Manager and oversees the accessibility of bus, subway, ferry, and Commuter Rail operations.

SWA reviews most construction plans and projects to ensure accessibility is properly considered and implemented. The department is a leader in the creation of customer-facing policies and procedures, as well as in the development of internal programs and employee training.

On July 13, 2016, the City of Boston declared a“System-Wide Accessibility Day” to celebrate the T’s commitment to improving access to public transit.

New and More Reliable Elevators

Previous to a new maintenance contract for MBTA elevators in 2006, station elevators were only worked on when they were broken or in disrepair. Since the signing of the new contract, MBTA elevators are maintained year-round, resulting in system-wide uptime averaging 99.5%. 

mbta elevator uptime 2005 to 2017
Elevator uptime was once just 94% in 2005, but has remained near 99.5% over the last few years.

The MBTA also changed design standards for all elevators, which now feature transparent wall panels and more space to improve customer safety and comfort. Since 2006, more than 50 new elevators have been added to the system, with 10 additional elevators under construction, and 60 in design. 

Improved Access to Bus Service

Along with elevator upgrades, improving access to bus service was a primary goal of the MBTA/BCIL settlement. Today, all bus operators are thoroughly trained to provide excellent service to customers with disabilities. 

Over the last decade, the purchase of hundreds of new low-floor buses have enabled the MBTA to retire every lift-equipped high-floor bus. Today, the entire MBTA bus fleet is accessible, improving service for 450,000 daily bus riders.

SWA also began overseeing an Internal Access Monitoring Program that provides real-time feedback about how the system isor isn'tworking.

Bus operator training and system-wide monitoring have reduced the number of times that customers with disabilities are unable to access bus service due to the following barriers:

Barriers to Bus Service Access20052016
Barriers to Bus Service AccessOperator denies boarding to a customer200511%20161%
Barriers to Bus Service AccessBus can't be boarded due to broken lift/ramp200519%20160%
Barriers to Bus Service AccessOperator refuses to kneel or lower the bus200511%20160%
Barriers to Bus Service AccessSigns are missing at destination stops200515%20161%
Barriers to Bus Service AccessWheeled mobility devices not properly secured200591%20168%

Amended Agreement of 2018

Group photo of MBTA leadership, Hon. Patrick King, BCIL leadership, GBLS, and plaintiffs after signing the Amended Settlement Agreement
MBTA leadership, BCIL leadership, Hon. King, Boston Legal Services, and plaintiffs after signing of Amended Settlement Agreement

On December 4, 2018, the MBTA reaffirmed its commitment to fulfilling the MBTA/BCIL settlement by entering into an amended agreement that clarifies remaining work, outlines a plan for evaluating compliance and defines obligations that will continue even after the end of the agreement.

Download the Amended MBTA/BCIL Settlement Agreement

Read the press release

Looking Beyond the Settlement

As the MBTA continues working toward full compliance with the settlement, there are a number of projects currently underway that will help build a system that’s fully accessible to all customers.

For example, the T is:

  • Advancing our plan to make the system 100% accessible using priorities identified in the Plan for Accessible Transit Infrastructure (PATI)
  • Exploring indoor wayfinding technologies to help customers who are blind or have low vision navigate the system
  • Updating our current accessibility trainings for all front-line employees, with improvements based on past experience and direct customer feedback

Three MBTA spider maps showing increase in accessible subway stations over time. 26 stations in 1990, 88 stations in 2005, 122 stations in 2020.​

The MBTA system has changed substantially between 1990 and 2020. As of today, the majority of the system is accessible, including the entirety of the Red, Orange, and Silver lines and the ferry network, almost all of the Blue Line, and major sections of the Green Line and Commuter Rail.

Learn more about current accessibility initiatives

More Information About the MBTA/BCIL Settlement

MBTA-BCIL Joint Assessment, 2010

MBTA-BCIL Joint Assessment, 2013