The first time Jean Ryan tried to board a city bus in her wheelchair more than a decade ago, a homeless bystander had to show the driver how to operate the vehicle’s wheelchair lift. It’s a lesson Ryan has had to repeat herself a number of times in the years since, she says: showing a bus driver how to use the equipment needed to get her on and off the bus. Sometimes, if her 10-year-old grandson is in tow, he’ll be the one to offer the tutorial.
“If the drivers don’t know all the steps, what to do, then we can’t get a ride—unless we can tell them what we have to do,” says Ryan, a Bay Ridge resident and vice president of public affairs for the advocacy group Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York. She relies heavily on the MTA’s express buses, since her local subway station does not have an elevator.
“I can tell you that no one who is ambulatory and who is getting on and off those buses have any of these kinds of experiences,” she says. “They never have to tell the bus driver what to do.”
For many disabled and mobility-impaired New Yorkers, buses are an important lifeline for getting around. Much of the MTA’s subway system is inaccessible to those who can’t use stairs, with just about 23 percent of its stations equipped with elevators. The city’s other major accessible public transit option, Access-a-Ride, is less flexible since rides have to be booked in advance, advocates say.
By contrast, NYC Transit touts itself as the “first public agency in the world to have a bus fleet 100 percent accessible to customers who use wheelchairs.” A 2015 MTA study found that 11.2 percent of passengers who ride the city’s buses on an average weekday are senior or disabled.
In spite of this, advocates for the disabled say wheelchair users and others with impairments still face challenges when it comes to taking the bus. These include operators untrained in using their wheelchair equipment, or a lack of enforcement against cars blocking bus stops, which prevent drivers from being able pull up to the curb so disabled riders can board and exit safely.
But New York City Transit President Andy Byford is taking strides to make accessibility a priority for the MTA, hiring the agency’s first accessibility advisor earlier this month who uses a wheelchair himself, and testing out new bus models to better accommodate wheelchairs. Such efforts, advocates say, are an important part of ensuring the success of Byford’s Bus Action Plan, which aims to reverse declining bus ridership numbers— down 14 percent since 2007—by making the system faster and more efficient.
“All of the other passengers [on the bus] besides me, but including me, as well as the passengers who are waiting on different stops…they’re all impacted when it takes the bus driver 15 minutes to get me on,” Ryan says. “Until they solve this problem, the buses are going to continue to be slow.”
She’s made a point of attending the MTA’s transit and bus committee meetings in recent months to speak out about her experiences taking the bus. If disabled riders don’t feel comfortable using the network, the MTA is losing potential customers, Ryan reasons.
“I can imagine somebody having a very bad experience with their first time not being able to take the bus, and saying ‘I’m never doing this again,'” she says.
Testing out new bus models
New York City first began using wheelchair accessible buses in the fall of 1981, with the service initially offered on one out of every three buses on just three routes, according to news reports at the time. The rollout was less than smooth: the first day saw a showdown between the transit authority and the drivers’ union over the change, and one disability rights activist sat on the steps of a bus for seven hours until she was allowed to board in her wheelchair.
Today, every city bus is wheelchair accessible, with either a lift or, on newer models, an easier-to-use ramp. But disabled riders say they sometimes run into issues using the equipment.
Hiccups are most common on the city’s express buses, which are designed differently than standard buses, advocates say. Most models still sport wheelchair lifts that are more complicated to operate than the newer, flip-out ramps, and require the bus driver to come outside to open it.
“I’ve had drivers tell me ‘Oh, the lift doesn’t operate,” says Robert Schoenfeld, a board member with Disabled in Action, who said he and other disabled riders used to carry their own keys to the lifts in case bus drivers failed to have their own keys on them.
As of this spring, 4,255 buses in the MTA’s fleet have ramps, and another 1,514 have wheelchair lifts, according to the agency.
One commuter even uploaded a video to YouTube to show other disabled passengers how to use the express bus’ wheelchair lifts, which emerge from the center of the vehicle.
“Unfortunately its [sic] rare to find a driver who actually knows how to operate the lift on express buses,” the YouTube user, Disabled Not Done, posted. “As a wheelchair user I got tired of waiting 20+ minutes for express bus drivers to figure out the lift, so I made this tutorial.”
In a similar vein, Independence Care System, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities, periodically hosts bus training sessions to help wheelchair and walker users feel more comfortable using the system.
“It’s another way for people to kind of get independence, and not only rely on Access-a-Ride,” says Latricia James, manager of member programs for the organization, who says the sessions often attract attendees who want to test out a new wheelchair or other mobility device before taking it on public transit.
The events include representatives from the MTA’s Paratransit division, and usually a bus driver, who lead the demos, James says.
John Paul Patafio, an officer with the Transit Workers Union which represents the city’s bus drivers, says every operator is trained on how to use their wheelchair equipment, and that he doesn’t generally hear complaints about drivers not knowing what to do.
“I think for the most part, operators understand what they have to do and they take care of business,” he says.
But he noted that the lifts on express buses are trickier, and the buses themselves more crowded.
“On the newer [bus] models it’s generally much simpler,” he says. “The express bus is definitely more challenging.”
In response to this, the MTA has been testing out new models of buses, including one that debuted in June as part of a 90-day pilot that features a “a first-of-its-kind, low-entry vestibule and an automated ramp allowing for ease of boarding for customers with mobility devices.”
According to the agency, bus operators complete hands-on training in the operation of lifts, ramps and wheelchair straps once a year. This year, the MTA also added a training refresher that drivers take every six months.
This increased focus is part of Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan to modernize the city’s public transit, which he announced in May. Accessibility is one of the plan’s four pillars.
“A key element of that plan is to improve and increase training to ensure that all employees help customers with disabilities efficiently, effectively and courteously,” an MTA spokeswoman said in a statement.
Better and more frequent training for bus operators is just one way the MTA can make its bus system more accessible for disabled users, advocates and activists say.
Christina Curry, director of the Harlem Independent Living Center, says bus drivers should be more consistent in using recordings or announcements to let riders know what direction the bus is heading and to notify them of current and upcoming bus stops—an aid to passengers with impaired vision or cognitive delays.
Some newer bus models also have captioning capability to let deaf and hearing-impaired riders know when the driver is making an announcement, a feature she says she’s seen just once and would like to see more.
“Bottomline, continue to work with the disability community before major changes/‘improvements’ are considered for continued access,” Curry told City Limits in an email.
Joseph Rappaport, executive director at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, says the MTA should ensure every bus stop has benches for passengers who are unable to stand for longer periods, and to crack down on double-parked cars and other obstacles in bus lanes, which prevent bus drivers from being able to pull up next to the curb.
“Curbing is a huge problem,” he says. “[If] they don’t pull up close enough and they’re using the ramp, it just doesn’t work. The person has to go onto the street to get to the ramp. Some people can go over a curb, and some people can’t.”
Improving and expanding bus service in general would be a major benefit for disabled New Yorkers, who will continue to rely on buses until the subway system is made more accessible, Rappaport says.
His organization, for example, has been pushing for the MTA to restore the B51 bus route, which linked riders between Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan until the service was axed in 2010 due to budget cuts.
“There’s less service than there used to be,” Rappaport says. “That really means that people have no alternatives except Access-a-Ride.”
Jean Ryan, who’s made it a priority to call for better hands-on training for bus operators using wheelchair lifts, says she’s encouraged by Byford’s efforts so far to make transit more accessible.
“It’s a start, and I’ll believe it when I see it. But he is the first person in years to be working with the disability rights activists and meeting with us and thinking strongly about accessibility and not just giving it lip service,” Ryan says.
Still, there’s much more to be done.
“Well, really, instead of a bus, I’d rather take a subway,” she says.