No car? Accessing the vaccine will be difficult

By Michael Brenneis

Concerns about the equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines have mounted steadily since the vaccines’ development. For example, locating mass vaccination sites at empty big-box stores or sports stadiums may limit the accessibility of vaccinations for populations who do not drive. Stewart Mader, writing in Mass Transit, outlines the case for better use of public transit in distributing the COVID-19 vaccines, especially to communities on the front lines of the pandemic.

According to the National Equity Atlas, in 2017, 19 percent of Black households did not have access to a car. In addition, according to analysis by Smart Growth America, roughly 9 percent of households in urban counties, and 6 percent of households in rural counties, do not have access to a car. This amounts to about one-million rural carless households.

As vaccine roll-outs prioritize car-friendly vaccination sites, the inequities felt by communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 are mirrored by the inequities of the transportation system itself.

To help address these inequities, an increasing number of agencies are setting up vaccine distribution to leverage their transit infrastructure. Mader cites the opening of vaccine centers at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia and Kitsap Transit’s Gateway Center west of Puget Sound in Washington, as being especially convenient for transit users. Mader suggests that transit workers should be prioritized to receive the vaccine since they are crucial in transporting other essential workers safely to work. He also notes that transit systems in twenty-three states are providing fare-free transportation to and from vaccine sites for those with appointments.

In areas where transit is not robust or widely available, transit fleets can be retrofitted to bring the vaccine to under-served communities or rural locations. Mader cites the example of the Yankee Line in Boston, which has fitted six buses as mobile vaccine clinics.

Some agencies are moving their vaccine centers to transit hubs in order to improve the equity with which the vaccine is being distributed. The DeKalb County, GA, Board of Health is moving one vaccination site from a car-oriented commercial area to the Doraville Metra station located in a more walkable area, saving transit riders a nearly two-mile walk round-trip.

Using transit, walking, rolling, and bicycling accessibility as a siting criteria could facilitate the distribution of vaccines to those most affected by the pandemic. Looking for sites that are accessible to the carless improves equity. Agencies looking to build accessibility, also known as destination access, into their planning and analysis strategies may benefit from the recently released SSTI accessibility guide, Measuring Accessibility, aimed directly at getting practitioners the information they need to quickly start using accessibility tools.

Photo credit: Gustavo Fring