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  • Writer's pictureAllison Day

Riding Buses with a Service Animal

One day last year, school bus picking up kids on a busy road stopped me on the way to work. Of course, I stopped and waited as this bus loaded a dozen or so elementary-age children. However, I was surprised when a second bus made the same bus stop. I noticed that the second bus had the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) and loaded a student using a wheelchair. As I watched this child ride the lift onto the bus, I remember thinking how strange it was that these kids rode separately. Then, I realized that I had not ridden the same school bus as my sister when we were children. Why? Because she had a service dog. My sister, Anna, and her service dog, Blue, rode a separate bus because school buses were (and still are) not universally accessible – accessible to anyone regardless of dis/ability.

Fast forward ten years: I am now a public transit bus driver. While federal law does not require school buses to be universally accessible, it does mandate this of public buses. As a bus driver, I drive buses that are required by law to have certain accessibility features. Many of these features work to the advantage of people traveling with service dogs.

One such feature is floor space. Many seats on transit buses have room underneath for a service animal to sit/lay to avoid blocking the aisle. Transit services are also obligated to provide certain priority seating sections for those with disabilities that can be used as a service animal boarding area. Do be aware that when a transit system is full, the operator may ask people to move out of the priority seats. They cannot, however, require people to move. These seats may be especially useful to anyone traveling with a larger service animal.

The entranceway to transit buses can also be a consideration when traveling with a service animal. Some buses have flat entranceways, such as in modern bus designs or subway cars, while others may have stairs. If you use a large service animal or require the service animal as a mobility aid, be aware that a stair entranceway may be more difficult—particularly if the door is also narrow. Transit buses are required to have functional accessibility lifts, so feel free to request it if needed. Drivers may not deny anyone use of the lift if they ask.

Some animals are more sensitive to distractions than others. On a transit bus, both other passengers and the design of the vehicle pose potential distractions. Passengers should not address any service animal, but not everyone is knowledgeable about service animal etiquette. To avoid interaction (talking and petting), it may be beneficial to sit in a seat where the animal will not be exposed to heavy foot traffic. Rather than sitting in an aisle seat or by a door, choose a seat in the back of the bus or one by a window. If the animal does not like loud noises, that may also dictate better seats than others. For example, sitting next to the wheels, engine compartment, doors, or the PA system may be an issue for an animal. Unfortunately, all buses are different so choosing a good seat may require repeated use of a transit system.

Another issue of note is the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) definition of a service animal, which differs from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) definition. The DOJ considers service animals to be only dogs or miniature horses trained to provide certain tasks for a person with a disability. The DOT, however, considers any animal trained to perform certain tasks a service animal. Although these differences can be confusing at times, they can be manageable when traveling. For example, while an animal such as a seizure alert cat will not be considered a service animal in a public establishment like a hotel, they will be considered a service animal on a public bus. If you want to travel to a city, then you can easily transport the animal on the city’s transit system and stay in a “pet friendly” hotel.

Transit operators may not be aware of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations for service animals. If you utilize the services of a non-traditional service animal or your animal does not display the stereotypical vest or harness, transit operators may inquire about your animal. They can only ask you two questions:

  1. Is this animal a service animal?

  2. What task(s) does this service animal perform?

When using public transportation, it is important to make the experience comfortable for you and your service animal. Traveling in general can be a stressful process, so knowing these tips and the benefits of transit services will hopefully aid in any future experience.

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