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Monday, January 20, 2014

AC Transit and a NYC History Lesson

Alice Wong, a Facebook friend, provided a link to a news story about a man who used a wheelchair and had difficulty getting on a city bus. To prevent the bus from leaving him behind he hopped down the curb and got in front of the bus to block it from leaving him at the stop. Here is a somewhat boring four minute video of what took place.



Based on 35 plus years of experience I am sure many buses have passed this man in recent days. Buses with working lifts and drivers who simply do not want to operate the lift are somewhat common nationwide. I have experienced this myself in many cities but this is an increasingly unusual experience. When I saw this raw video I was reminded of the bad old days. I lived in New York City when the idea of putting wheelchair lifts on buses was controversial. At the time para-transit was deemed more humane and more importantly a cheaper option. The fact para-transit system was used as a form of segregation did not resonate with the general public or the Mayors of most major cities. Today the fierce opposition to putting wheelchair lifts on buses is not well known. In NYC people simply assume all the buses have lifts. When I use the bus as I often do when I am in the city it is a non event.

In the early 1980s getting on a bus with a working lift and a bus driver who would actually stop was a rarity. I lived in NYC when the MTA begrudgingly started to install wheelchair lifts on the buses.  Former Mayor Koch was adamantly opposed. He famously said something to the effect "I will buy every wheelchair user a limo instead of putting lifts on the buses and the city will save a fortune". I will confess that initially I had no interest in participating in this battle. I was young and ambitious and had better things to do. All that changed on Park Avenue. Shortly after rush hour, I was waiting to cross the street near a bus stop and a bus whizzed past the stop. An older well dressed guy was at the bus stop that used a wheelchair and he was furious (by older I mean a man my age!). He came over to me and asked me what was wrong with me. Why was I not interested in getting the bus number down. I do not recall what I said but I was doing my best to ignore this guy and his fury. I will never forget what happened next. He called me every four letter word in the book. He characterized me as one of the "stupidest mother fuckers alive". He asked me after I get my fancy PhD from Columbia how was I going to get to work.  He gave me a piece of paper wrote the stop and bus number down along along with a phone number to call in a complaint. I tried to disengage from this conversation as quickly as possible but on my way home I realized this man was correct. The subways were a lost cause but there was no reason all new buses should not have a lift. Even as a newly minted crippled man I knew para-transit service was terrible. I also knew Denver ADAPT protests had made the national news and other cities were putting lifts on buses. New York was no different. Putting wheelchair lifts on the buses simply was the right thing to do.

I did as this man suggested. I called and complained. I started to pay attention to the buses with lifts and how many passed me (almost all). If I was at a bus stop and the bus zoomed by I wrote the number down, the time and bus stop location. MTA drivers caught on fast--this was a good way to get in trouble. Buses then started to stop. Drivers came up with a new trick: they would put the key in the wheelchair lift lock, turn the lift off and break the key in the lock. After dozens of experiences like this I was fed up and angry. Yet I was still not fully committed until I was on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem at a bus stop on a rainy day when I heard the passengers on the bus yelling at the driver "go, go, go".  Now I was furious. That day I called the EPVA became a bus buddy. Because I had successfully gotten on a bus more than once or twice I was deemed an expert. My job was to show another person that used a wheelchair how to get on the bus. For our efforts we were cursed at and more than once I was spit at by a fellow New Yorker. This sort of blatant discrimination only reinforced my efforts. I quickly learned to do exactly what the man in the video did.  I would wait for the bus to stop and pop down the curb so the bus could not move forward. When my buddy got on the bus I would pop back up on the sidewalk. This was very effective way back when and looks like it remains effective today,

Fast forward 30 years. I am on an MTA bus minding my own business when none other than former Mayor Koch gets on the bus. I lock eyes with him and loudly ask "Hey Mayor Koch where's my fucking limo". He fires back just as loud "Fuck you! I was wrong, okay".  Those on the bus that could not help but hear our exchange had a good laugh--a rarity on an MTA bus.  Why I wonder is this history not told? Why is this not taught along side of the story of Rosa Parks refusal to sit in the back of the bus? This morning I pulled out the edited volume To Ride the Public's Buses: The Fight that Built a Movement and felt some pride. I was a very small part of historic change for the better.

13 comments:

tigrlily said...

The same problems happen in Montreal to this day, only Montreal has no excuse for its metro being inaccessible, since it was built in the mid '60s.

william Peace said...

In NYC the MTA service is about the best one can hope for. Once in a while a bus will blow by me but that is not the norm. I am not impressed with Canadian mass transit. The London, Ontario bus system is hard rot figure out and largely inaccessible. Jeff Preston has documented this in a series of You Tube videos.

apulrang said...

Great story, thanks for telling it! I think it's really hard for people today, and not just young people, to remember how many otherwise "reasonable" people held prejudiced ideas and discriminatory practices without even thinking about them. And we're not so far removed from those attitudes and practices even now.

william Peace said...

Apurlrang, You make a number of good points. I am often struck how people are always willing to accommodate people with a disability until a price tag is put on access in the form of a bus lift or elevator. These are high ticket items people often use to justify exclusionary practices. The reality is most costs of access are minimal. The DOJ reports that work place accommodations on average amount to less than $500. I for one never ask for accommodations in the work place because I know such a request will be met with hostility. I recall I once taught and the table was too low to fit under. I asked my students to find your erasers and raised the table. When class was over I returned the erasers. One week I showed up and found the table had been raised with scrap wood under the table legs by the cleaning crew. I saw the guy and he said "I know you did not want to ask the administration for a higher table because they are a pain in the ass'. The point here is there is institutional bias but it is not held by all.

Anonymous said...

Bill, Great blog post, and I was glad to see that Koch could admit he was wrong. Do you think he really remembered you?
larry

william Peace said...

Larry, Koch had no idea who I was. I had never met him. He surely recalled the protests in NYC. The EPVA spearheaded the push to get lifts on the buses and the bus buddy effort was effective. Koch was media savvy enough not to make the same errors the Mayor of Denver did in his opposition. Bus service in major cities nationwide is pretty reliable. I wish this extended to small cities which are hit and mostly miss in smaller cities.

Matthew Smith said...

If he had the money to buy every wheelchair user in NYC a limo, what's he doing on a bus anyway? Has he fallen flat on hard times?

william Peace said...

Matthew, Koch was opposed to wheelchair lifts circa 1980. Sadly he died a year after our encounter.

Middle Child said...

Sadly because its not fashionable - as you know - thought provoking thank you

Brian S. said...

tigrlily, I would say age isn't so much an issue as is design. I'm from Chicago, and it's actually the stations that were built by the start of the 20th century (all the ones of that age are elevated) that are most likely to be accessible. The condition of many of these stations had become so deteriorated by the time the ADA was passed that 80-85% of these oldest stations have been retrofitted or totally rebuilt as such since then. By comparison, 67% (97 of 145) of all the Chicago stations are accessible. An additional 7 stations (all built in the 1950’s on the same line) have step-free access between street and platform level, but ultimately do not meet most ADA requirements.

I've never been to Montreal, but it's my understanding that every station is underground (meaning that space for all elevator shafts would have to be excavated before actually being built), on average deeper than the underground stations of NYC, with quirky designs that are quite difficult to retrofit. There's no doubt it should be done, but figuring out the design may be rather time-consuming, especially as pathetically no such legal imperative exists to do so at the federal level in Canada. But in the meantime, STM needs to get its act together and get a fully accessible bus fleet. That right there is a pathetic, inexcusable joke.

On the other hand, not all of NYC's "subway" stations are in fact underground (many are on steel elevated structures, others below grade in an open cut like an limited access Interstate highway), and thus would not require the excavation of an elevator shaft; the space to build them already exists. The bulk of those that are underground as I understand are quite close to the surface, meaning that space for the elevator shafts would not have to be excavated to a significant depth, and would be less costly on a per-station basis than in Montreal. Yet NYC, with a system three times the size as that of Chicago, has roughly the same number of accessible stations. It’s pathetic.

Brian S. said...

Bill, I’d say this video, if I’m piecing together what transpired in it correctly, then what this shows one of the biggest weaknesses of the ADA…….that bus drivers have to request that passengers seated in the securement area move for a wheelchair user, but don’t have to require that they move (although some transit agencies in fact do require this). It’s my understanding that some lazy, rude, self-absorbed meatheads occupying each wheelchair space refused to vacate in this situation following the driver’s initial request.

Given that this was a low-floor bus, which I’ve developed the ability the board with my chair sans ramp (provided the bus is pulled close enough to the curb), I would have boarded and gotten in the face of these lazy folks. The woman who did eventually move was as I understand was elderly and carrying groceries, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t move when the bus was not in motion.

The transit agency in the town where I presently live is one that requires passengers to vacate the securement area for a wheelchair user, but signs on the bus enforcing this cite that section of the ADA mandating that bus drivers request the space be vacated as requiring that such passengers vacate. Not sure if this indicates the agency’s ignorance of the ADA or a desire to avoid a situation similar to that in the video, but my gut says it’s the former based on personal experience.

A said...

What I liked best in the YouTube comments was an exclamation.
"Respect." If only respect were cultivated as a societal value.

william Peace said...

Brian, I would suggest the refusal of people to move from the lone space for a person using a wheelchair is deeply rooted in an utter lack of respect. There is the idea our lives, those that use a wheelchair, are less valuable, or time unimportant. After all the crippled do not work. And yes access to mass transit in NYC sucks.
A. Respect when disability enters one's life is illusive.