06 Feb Paratransit Services in New York City Are Severely Limited …
This story was co-published with WNYC.
I moved to New York in 2013, and several months later, I found myself watching the clock in my apartment as I waited for a city social worker to arrive. She was late, and I was anxious to get back to my job at a private investigation firm. Twenty minutes later, the social worker arrived.
“You work?” she asked when I told her I’d scheduled our appointment for my lunch break.
She’d presumed that I wasn’t employed, and that my schedule was flexible.
I use a wheelchair, and the meeting was to determine if I qualified for any government benefits related to my disability. One of the items we discussed was Access-A-Ride, the transit service that provides disabled people with an alternative to the subways, which are largely inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.
For the price of a subway ride, a wheelchair accessible van would pick me up at my apartment and drop me at my destination anywhere within the city’s five boroughs. So far so good. But then she explained the fine print. I would have to schedule my ride one to two days in advance. My pick-up time could be an hour earlier or an hour later than requested. The driver would have a 30-minute window in which to pick me up before he would be considered late. I, on the other hand, had to be outside to meet my van within five minutes of its arrival or I would be counted as a no-show.
And since the rides were shared, it could take a long time to get where I was going. She told me some users call it “Stress-A-Ride.”
I looked at the social worker, bewildered. The program she was touting seemed to make a similar assumption to the one she had made about me — that I didn’t have a job.
Like many people who use wheelchairs, I have a full-time job, back then as a private investigator and now as a research reporter for ProPublica. I like to arrive on time. As a journalist, I might have to head to an interview or event on short notice. And after work, I might want to have a drink with a friend.
How would Access-A-Ride ever work for me?
I didn’t sign up. Instead, I chose to live within walking distance of my workplace, an economic privilege that many disabled people in this city don’t have. This wasn’t necessarily the easy option. My office at the time was located in Union Square, in a Manhattan neighborhood that ranks among the highest in the city in median rents. On top of that, I had to find an apartment that wasn’t a walk-up, that didn’t have steps at the entrance and that didn’t have a closet-sized bathroom. In bad weather, I had to take a taxi or Uber to work. My decision to avoid Access-A-Ride has eaten into my budget. But the anxiety saved seemed worth it.
Still, I never stopped thinking about Access-A-Ride and the people who have to use it.
After joining ProPublica, I decided to see if there was a story worth telling about paratransit services in New York City. I started working with Jess Ramirez, then a reporting fellow on our engagement team, to reach the people who interact with Access-A-Ride: riders, drivers, dispatchers, city officials, advocates, caregivers.
We spoke to dozens of people who use Access-A-Ride. We heard from one woman who took Access-A-Ride to work and eventually retired early, in large part because the process was exhausting. A young man told us of trying to take Access-A-Ride to his first day at a new job, only to have the van’s lift break while he was on it. We read dozens of personal injury lawsuits filed related to Access-A-Ride. Audits from the city’s comptroller’s office detailed unaddressed complaints, a faulty discipline system for contractors and a failure to use technology like GPS.
We found that the system had suffered from lack of attention and investment by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and that, in recent years, it had grown faster in costs and ridership than the agency was prepared for. The economic impact of this on disabled people extends far beyond missing doctor’s appointments; it means it’s harder to find jobs and housing and save money. And beyond income, it means missing out on seeing friends, going to shows and museums and eating at interesting but out-of-the-way restaurants — many of the things that make living in New York City worth it.
The story of a slow, unreliable public transportation system is not an unfamiliar one to most New Yorkers. The city’s subway system is dysfunctional for everyone, its shortcomings regularly covered in the local news media. But for people who use wheelchairs or walkers, the subway is almost unusable. Most of the 472 stations lack elevators, leaving disabled people with limited options to get around. The problems other riders experience every day — delays, overcrowded trains, service changes with no warning — are compounded for people like me who are already limited in which routes we can take.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, was an attempt to address this problem. Under the law, cities are required to provide alternate transportation to their residents with disabilities who aren’t able to take standard public transportation. The paratransit service must be comparable to what’s available to able-bodied people, operating the same hours and taking riders everywhere that subway and bus routes go.
In New York, where the subway is the bedrock of mass transit, providing an above-ground equivalent has always been a challenge. Access-A-Ride is a victim of many of the same obstacles that plague the city’s buses which, subject to the city’s ever-growing traffic, are among the slowest in the country.
There are technological improvements that experts say could make Access-A-Ride more efficient, both for riders and for the MTA, but the agency has been slow to update the system. Policymakers often assume that people who use paratransit services aren’t technologically savvy, said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation and lead author of a 2016 report on New York City’s paratransit system.
“We simply cannot assume that people who are disabled don’t use technology,” Kaufman said. “But it’s being assumed in [Access-A-Ride’s] technology development.”
She said making better use of the app-based and GPS technology that Uber and Lyft have developed would go a long way toward…