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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.