Public transportation is a wonderful thing. The Tri-State area surrounding New York City, where I live, is more than adequately served by public transit. All 20,000,000-plus of us who reside here live at maximum a short drive away from a train station or a bus stop that offers regular service to and from the Big City and parts in between; thousands (perhaps millions) of us live within walking distance of a bus or a train station.
The last vehicles that leave NYC leave well after midnight, and the earliest vehicles heading to NYC from the farthest reaches outside the city leave only a couple hours after that time, so public transportation runs almost 20 of the 24 hours a day.
If you live or travel in New York City, you know the official Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway map. NYC has 490 stops or stations spread among its five boroughs, and the picturesque map shows the lines snaking through the city:
A lawyer and blogger named Matthew Ahn decided in 2015 to visit each one of these 490 stops or stations, and he put together a map that shows the stops, stations, and lines that are wheelchair-accessible. Here is the map:
His finding? That “barely more than 100 stations are accessible.”
For ambulatory people, NYC is a city of staircases and escalators and escalators that have been mysteriously powered off if they ever were powered on. For those in wheelchairs, much of NYC is largely hidden for this same reason. For the non-disabled, there are those 490 subway stops and couple dozen lines, and rarely is a person more than a few blocks away from any everyday need.
A disabled person can get around NYC in a wheelchair, to be sure, but the line that might cover most of that person’s needs between home and work or shopping may not be the nearest line with accessible stations, or the station nearest them may not be accessible, or the wheelchair-accessible stop that is closest to their office might in fact be many blocks away from their office.
One commenter on Ahn’s post wrote, “Adding to this is the fact that sometimes one shows up to a station and the elevator’s broken, or simply inoperable? That’s happened multiple times with me and my partner. What is one to do, if one has planned one’s trip around accessible stops? So frustrating.” At any given moment, a station that official NYC claims is accessible, unofficially may not be.
Another commenter pointed out that some of the stations that are labeled as accessible are accessible only inside the station itself but that getting inside some of these stations involves negotiating a flight of stairs anyway. If you are at all familiar with cities in general, you have encountered the many two-or-three-step stoops up to a front door or the short flights of stairs on the other side of that door into a store or office that no map may identify.
Look at Brooklyn and Queens! Those are two very large boroughs. If you are in a wheelchair and need to be in any place away from the main lines and the main stations, enjoy your long roll through the streets.
My own experience of New York City as someone with ambulatory difficulties is that at its worst, the city can make me feel in need of adult supervision or an armed guard. Possibly everyone feels that way to some degree. Perhaps the only thing that unites people in crowds more than the fact of being in a crowd is each members’ hatred of being in crowds. Crowds do not notice individuals. Crowds do not notice individuals who move deliberately and slowly. Crowds run over those people. On my last visit to the city, I almost wished I had a wheelchair, just to serve as a visual cue for everyone else to move around me. A cane does not serve this need. At least, not unless I use it to trip everyone around me.
At its best, walking the streets of New York with my particular mobility challenges can be surprisingly easy: Get into the flow of traffic, roll with it, manage expectations. (Somehow I just described my muscular dystrophy by way of an analogy to Steve Winwood’s career. And I like Steve Winwood.)
Of course my response to this discovery was to overdo it the last time we traveled to NYC, and I strained my (surprised to be asked to do so much with no warning or stretching) knee within minutes.
According to Ahn, the train systems in Boston and Chicago are far more accessible than New York’s 20% accessibility on a perfect day.
I have seen the limitations to NYC’s train and subway accessibility first-hand. Even the flat platforms inside the train stations are a challenge, what with the crowd stopping and re-starting, moving to a rhythm no one is aware of. I try to move at my own pace, which is usually good advice anyway. My girlfriend walks with my slower rhythm all day, which is one of the thousand reasons she is The One. People dash around me at a direction rather than in a direction.
Someone dashing at a direction rather than in a direction came from slightly behind me that last trip to the city, and all Jen knew was that I was no longer anywhere near her. When I fall, everything flies away from me, and this has been true since long before my spinal muscular atrophy symptoms. Like a NASCAR car during a wreck, parts went flying from me: my backpack, my cane, even my glasses left my face. Jen turned to see a woman standing over me, yelling at me the one question that would identify her as not an EMT: “ARE YOU OKAY?” I wanted to reply, “I did not trip on my better-than-average hearing.”
No one ever intends to make the phrase “trip to New York City” a literal one.
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This combines a few columns and drafts of columns.
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