I moved to New York City three months ago. But three weeks ago, I got my official welcome.
Dashing up the subway stairs on a stormy night, I slipped, fell, and heard a crack as my ankle twisted sideways.
One knee-high air boot, three visits to doctors, two x-rays, and one pair of crutches later, I was diagnosed with a severe ankle sprain. I wouldn’t be walking for at least four weeks.
I quickly learned that my sprain made subway steps impossible, and that the stations near my Brooklyn apartment and Manhattan office do not have elevators — and that it it takes two hours to make the commute via bus.
The New York transit system — one of the best in the world — just isn’t very accessible for people with disabilities. I, however briefly, am experiencing just how bad it is.
A mere 18% of subway stations have wheelchair or crutches accessibility, and most of them are in Manhattan.
When people in wheelchairs can access the trains, they are not always safe.
“Taking trains is very intimidating,” said Lisa Rivera, a New Yorker with cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, in an interview with The Huffington Post. “Doors close quickly, and if there’s not a dispatcher paying attention, you can really get hurt.”
New York City offers a paratransit service, called the Access-a-Ride. If eligible, people can reserve an Access-a-Ride van to go to work or doctor appointments. It shows up at their door and drops them directly at their destination. It sounds great in theory, but applications take an average of 21 days to process. So folks end up relying on subways without elevators and multiple bus trips that take hours in the meantime. Several people also report that Access-a-Ride drivers frequently show up hours late, if at all.
Although the city’s MTA committed hundreds of millions of dollars toward making 121 stations wheelchair accessible by 2020, NPR found that it would only boost that percentage by 7%.
That’s not to say city transportation systems haven’t come a long way. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the first U.S. legislation to protect people with physical and mental disabilities. Cities across the US have lowered footpath curbs, installed ramps on buses, designated priority seating on subway trains, and built elevators in subway stations.
This is a global issue too, considering more than 15% of the world’s population live with at least one type of disability.
Older rail systems, like New York, face a particularly difficult challenge. Accessibility was an afterthought when it was built in the late 19th century, and the underground stations were not accessible until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.
Cities around the world are trying to improve these systems.
• Chicago plans to double the number of accessible city cabs by 2018.
• Dubai recently launched the “Dubai Inclusive Development Forum,” aiming to become a completely accessible city by 2020. The city’s metro already has working elevators at every stop.
• Stockholm has the “Vision Stockholm in 2030,” which calls for an accessible subway and bus system. Pamplona in Spain announced a four-year plan that will install ramps, footbridges, and elevators throughout the city.
• Paris’ transportation association created a map app for wheelchair users this year. It allows them to plan their journey and provides information about accessible stations.
Accessible transportation systems don’t just help people in wheelchairs — they help parents with strollers, mothers-to-be, and elders. Others have disabilities that are less visually obvious, like cases of lung disease or of bad knees. Stairs are sometimes impossible, or at least strenuous, for these people too.
For days I decide to take buses, I allow for at least an hour more of travel time. To alleviate some of the cost of cabs, I’ve split rides with friends. And I’ve taken advantage of many Uber and Lyft $US20 discount codes by referring friends. I learned how to travel up and down curbs, and I developed some serious upper body strength to say the least. But whenever I can’t open a door or climb my third-story walkup, New Yorkers are always willing to help.
Three weeks after my accident, I stood on Fifth Avenue with my trusty crutches, struggling to hail an empty cab at the height of Friday rush hour. A stranger came up to me, and asked if I needed help. After we bonded about sprained ankles and inaccessible transit, she called an Uber. She said she remembered standing on this same avenue with an injury like mine, just a few weeks before.
Here’s to hoping city transit will pay it forward, too.
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