Adventures in Paratransit

First, I just have to say, I did not expect my first post to get the response that it did.  I was so touched by the number of people who read my post, who left comments, and who liked it on Facebook (seriously, I have never seen that many likes on a post I have made).  Thank you thank you thank you for reading.

So, I hope you find this next post somewhat informative!  Some of you might be wondering, what is paratransit?

Paratransit is basically a subsidized medical taxi service for people with disabilities that prevent them from taking public transportation.  In NYC, we have Access-a-Ride, where you pay the same amount as a Metrocard swipe to take a large wheelchair-accessible vehicle around the five boroughs.  To qualify for it, you must go to one of many specified centers so that you can provide medical evidence that says you have difficulty getting places, and so a doctor at one of these centers can see you and agree that yes, you do indeed have difficulty getting places.  How do you get to one of these centers to prove you have difficulty getting places?  Unless you can get someone to drive you there, I haven’t the foggiest idea.  But assuming you have gone through the hoop of proving you need paratransit and have qualified for it, congrats, you can now venture around NYC!

I should mention that I rarely ever needed paratransit in Boston.  Why?  Boston’s MBTA was, for the most part, wheelchair-accessible.  There were elevators in almost every station, relatively small gaps between the platform and the train, and mini-ramps for trains that had large gaps between the platform and the train.  I could go to a station, swipe my Charlie card, and be on my merry way (unless an elevator broke/was covered in something that came out of a human orifice).  But not NYC.  NYC has elevators in relatively few subway stations (heck, the nearest station with an elevator is five miles from my house), and so my options are:

  1. Drive a car: This would require learning how to drive, buying a wheelchair-accessible car (not cheap, by the way), and finding a place to park the car (also not cheap).
  2. Bother my parents to drive me places: Kind of rude, so no.
  3. Take express buses when I want to go into Manhattan: Express buses cost $6 a trip. Also, even though bus operators (that is the official term for bus drivers) are supposed to check their wheelchair lifts before leaving the depot, they do not always check.  I know this from experience, and from two drivers who told me I couldn’t get onto their buses because “the lift broke,” and from a third driver who tried to get his lift to work, couldn’t, and then ended up leaving his bus stranded on Broadway because the busted lift broke his bus (I am not sorry at all for that – and, this story has kind of a happy ending because that bus operator saw me at a bus stop in the future and was all like, “I can totally work the lift now” and lo and behold he could!).  But yeah, one successful wheelchair lift in four tries?  I’m not letting a 25% success rate determine my inter-borough travel.
  4. Guilt trip one of my engineering friends to build me a jetpack: Hasn’t worked yet.
  5. Move to Manhattan and pay an obscene amount to rent and remodel a wheelchair-accessible apartment: Ha.
  6. Wheel myself across the Brooklyn Bridge: My arms are amazing, but not that amazing.
  7. Take paratransit.

So here’s how paratransit works.  I call a day or two before my trip (because you can only give 1-2 days notice, no sooner or later), tell someone on the phone where I want to be picked up, and then say whether I want a “pick-up” or “appointment” time.  This question is a trap.  “Pick-up” time means “we’ll try to pick you up at whatever time you say, but you might get to your destination really late” and “appointment” time means, “we’ll get you there at the time you want, but we might pick you up really early.”  ALWAYS. SAY. APPOINTMENT.  If you say “pick-up” time, that implies you do not care what time your trip ends.  I once had an extended two-hour scenic tour of Brooklyn before getting home because hey, I technically didn’t have anywhere else to be.

And yes, that’s right, 1-2 days notice.  Goodbye, spontaneity and all of your whimsy.  The call to paratransit can also feel slightly judge-y.  My sister and I once planned to go to Clinton Street Baking Co. (they make amazing blueberry pancakes), trek around the Lower East Side, and then get picked up at The Doughnut Plant (my sister and I have a thing for sweet and delicious carbs).  The call went like this:

Paratransit phone operator: “And what type of location is that [Clinton Street Baking Co.]?  Doctor’s office?  Residential?”
Me: “Um, it’s a restaurant.”
Paratransit phone operator: “And your return trip [from the Doughnut Plant] is what type of location?”
Me: “Um…it’s…a shop?”  (Please don’t judge me for getting dropped off at and picked up from two different food places)

I understand that the phone operator just wanted to let the driver know where exactly I’d have to get picked up from, but if NYC transit just had elevators in more of their stations, I wouldn’t have to describe my foodie behavior to justify taking modified public transit.  And why bother asking me if something is a doctor’s office?  Seriously, not everything about my disability has to be medical.  Plenty of people take paratransit to go to doctor’s appointments and all that, but it’s not there for solely medical reasons.  It’s there because NYC transit fails at making stations accessible, which prevents people with disabilities from using the public transportation that their tax dollars pay for.

So this is the alternative to more accessible stations.  And in theory, it’s not a terrible alternative for people with limited mobility.  You get picked up at your house and dropped off wherever it is you need to go.  But lots of things that work in theory do not work in practice.  Access-a-Ride (AAR), the name for NYC paratransit, is fine to take if you need it in the non-rush-hour morning (so, 10am-ish).  After 12pm, expect AAR to be late.  Very late.  Even if I give an appointment time of 2pm, I know that it is unlikely that I will get to where I need to be by 2pm.  I used to take AAR to high school during my senior year, and the only way to ensure I would be on time for class would be to leave my house obscenely early.  In fact, I left so early that my mom eventually got fed up with it and decided she would just drive me to school so that I could have some time in the morning to get ready.  What would’ve happened if my parents weren’t in a position to drive me?  More sleep deprivation, of course, and more scenic tours of Brooklyn (turns out “appointment” time doesn’t always keep you safe from those, although I still say they’re better than “pick up” time).

And the lateness isn’t usually the fault of the driver.  AAR drivers (operators?  I don’t know their official titles) are given schedules that are nearly impossible to manage in a timely manner, and often run late as a result.  The lateness gets worse as the day progresses, and I’ve been picked up at 10:40pm before when I was told I’d be picked up at 9pm.  One time, six  years ago, I was picked up two hours late and, while waiting for my ride, I was too worried about missing my ride to go to the bathroom (oh right, did I mention that if I’m five minutes late/not immediately outside for pickup, the driver is allowed to abandon me?), even though I really had to pee, and my bladder gave out on me (because when you have an SCI, you lose a significant portion of bladder control – more on that in a later post).  Eventually, the AAR vehicle showed up, and I spent the entire ride trying not to cry over the fact that I was nineteen years old and sitting in my own urine.

And you never know who you’re going to get as a driver.  Most of them are nice, normal people.  They try really hard to stay on their near-impossible schedules.  They get your wheelchair onto their vehicle, strap your chair down, and aren’t particularly chatty.  When the schedule says “appointment” time, they usually get you there on time (and occasionally early).  There are other types of drivers who will either speed down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway like a maniac (which I’m usually torn about because I’m terrified of highways, but on the other hand I like being punctual), or will have big and interesting personalities.

Driver: “So what’s this address you’re going to?”
Me: “Columbus Circle.”
Me: “…you can drop me off on a side street?”

And so the driver did.  She said I was doing her a favor.  Which, I mean, she dropped me off in front of a Pinkberry, so…I don’t know, I think we both did each other a favor that day.

I’m not sure why I wanted to start my blog posts off with paratransit.  Probably because I see my wheelchair as a mobility device.  It gets me to where I need to go.  When I want to take the subway in NYC, my wheelchair isn’t the problem – the lack of an elevator is the problem.  I know this because whenever I’m in Boston, or D.C., or Baltimore, my wheelchair isn’t an issue, because there are elevators.  Of course, paratransit will need to exist even if elevators are installed.  There are individuals with more severe mobility impairments than mine, and, like everyone else, they have a right to use some form of public transportation (although it does have a very “separate, but equal” feel about it).  Paratransit users, however, can be reduced to a far more manageable number if subway stations are made more accessible, and if bus operators actually check their wheelchair lifts to make sure that they work before they leave the bus depot (you know, like they’re supposed to).

There’s some stereotype out there that people with disabilities are sad and don’t leave their houses, and after enough experiences with paratransit, I can see why that stereotype came to exist.  If leaving my house requires being deemed “disabled enough” to use a particular service, calling a day or two ahead, and knowing I’m going to be more punctual than the driver picking me up is, then I might just deem the process too much of a hassle.  But I have friends who live in Manhattan, and a sister I like to eat doughnuts and pancakes with, so I’m going to use any means necessary to get myself over to Manhattan (well, anything short of a jetpack, because my engineering friends are telling me that those are kind of dangerous).

Thanks for reading!


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