Driving school

Drive-Free Week challenges officials to uncover transportation gaps

Doug Wennerberg enjoys bowling at Evergreen Lanes.

It’s a chance to socialize and be active. But getting there can be a challenge because it doesn’t drive.

Even with buses running on nearby Evergreen Way, it’s difficult to get there and back if the 30-something with autism is out late.

He often relies on his family and friends to get around and uses paratransit. But relying on paratransit takes time for things like groceries because it has to plan trips a day in advance. Even if he only does a few minutes of shopping, he may have to wait an hour or more to get to his home in Everett.

“Just to do two races takes all day,” Wennerberg said.

Wennerberg and other people with disabilities are asking city and county officials to participate in the Disability Mobility Initiative’s Drive-Free Week this year from September 19-25. Governor Jay Inslee issued a proclamation encouraging people to join.

The event drew attention last year as the group, which is part of Disability Rights Washington, asked state officials to attend. That was before the Legislature’s work on the Move Ahead Washington transportation package passed this year. The $17 billion revenue and spending plan included millions for projects to help people get around by bus, wheel and foot.

About 100 people took part officially, although its reach exceeded those who signed up on the website, said Disability Mobility Initiative director Anna Zivarts.

“I was kind of overwhelmed with the response we had to the challenge last year,” Zivarts said. “I think it really touched a lot of people.”

With the legislative victory, the group wanted to focus this year’s drive-free week on local government and transit agencies. They want city, county and transit leaders to see what the system looks like for those who don’t drive — about 250,000 age residents, according to Federal Highway Administration data — in Washington.

Ultimately, the initiative and its fellow disability mobility advocates want full sidewalks, frequent and reliable public transit, and safe railroad crossings. These things are the difference between leaving home or not for people with disabilities, Zivarts said.

“Having people experience it firsthand, I think there’s nothing like it,” Zivarts said. “There is definitely an increased awareness that there are non-drivers out there, not an insignificant population. This is shocking to people, even in the field of transport.

The rules of the challenge are the same as last year. Participants can have someone drive, ride, ride, and take a bus – anything but drive themselves.

Mountlake Terrace City Council member Erin Murray is taking up the challenge again this year. Her job with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce means she can stay home for a few days.

When she leaves home, her main means of transport is the car. This is partly due to her children’s schedules at different schools and in sports. But it’s also the system, she says.

“Like so many others, it’s often the default,” Murray said. “This is how our society is constituted and structured.”

Mountlake Terrace is gearing up for change and in many ways already seeing it, as light rail is due to arrive in 2024. This might help more people get out of their cars, but getting to the central light rail station in Mountlake Terrace transit without packing the parking lot is a key goal for city and transit leaders.

But that’s still years away, and people like Leigh Spruce now have transportation needs. Spruce, 53, lives in Mill Creek. She often uses paratransit to get around, but it has limitations for some of her needs, including overnight service when she wants to see shows in Seattle.

“It’s not as easily impulsive as we would like it to be,” Spruce said.

Kylie Walsh is a counselor with People First of Snohomish County, a group that advocates for people with disabilities. The most common concern she hears from band members and advocates is the need for transportation improvements that reduce the time it takes to get somewhere.

“All I hear, over and over again, is the duration, especially between counties. … It adds hours to their journey,” Walsh said.

Whitney Stohr, director of management and independent living for Arc of Snohomish County, is not dependent on public transportation. But Stohr strives to ensure fairness, dignity and independence for her child who has an intellectual disability. Making transportation less tedious and simpler can help achieve these goals.

“It’s a major issue that impacts every other aspect of life,” Stohr said. “The ability to move around within your community shouldn’t be a huge challenge.”

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