Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(New York -- Ailsa Chang, WNYC) Anthony Trocchia used to go to Manhattan every weekend – to shop, go to the movies, people-watch in the park and visit his best friend in the East Village. But since the B39 bus was cut June 27, Trocchia has been to Manhattan only once. Listen here:
"I think about what’s involved,” says Trocchia, “and I say to myself, ‘Well, you know, the movie – I can wait for the DVD, and I’ll get it from Netflix. If I have to do some shopping, --ahh -- there’s, you know, the Internet.”
Trocchia was born with muscular dystrophy and has been in a wheelchair for 30 years.
If he wanted to take the bus into Manhattan now, it would mean taking three separate bus routes that zigzag him from Williamsburg into Queens, over to the Upper East Side and down to the East Village.
It’s been more than a month since the New York City MTA cut 38 bus lines and reduced service on another 76. Now, disability rights activists say they're preparing several lawsuits, because they say, disabled New Yorkers have been hit particularly hard by the cuts.
Susan Scheer has been fighting for more accessible transit for decades. "People with disabilities understand that everybody is being inconvenienced by these cuts," says Scheer, who is in a wheelchair herself, and whose bus line was slashed. "But this goes beyond inconvenience. This goes to, you know, my basic right to function."
Scheer has been gathering stories for one of the lawsuits. South Brooklyn Legal Services plans to file as early as this week. Its lawyers say the transit cuts hit the disabled unfairly and plan to pursue a “disparate impact” discrimination claim.
The MTA declined to comment on any litigation, but it doesn’t deny its bus cuts have made it harder for people with disabilities to get around. It says it had to close an $800 budget deficit, and it pulled back service only after “carefully considering the input of our customers.”
But Scheer says alternatives to the buses aren’t feasible. Dollar vans, private commuter vans that are picking up some of the routes of the cut buses, aren’t wheelchair accessible. Less than two percent of New York City taxi cabs are.
Trocchia says there's another problem with Access-A-Ride -- it segregates disabled riders. “I don’t want that,” says Trocchia. “I felt I was part of the public. I like taking the buses. I like being seen.”
And, he says, Access-a-Ride requires a reservation a day or two in advance.
“Woe is me if I decide today, this morning,” Trocchia says, “that I want to go to a movie tonight in Manhattan. Can’t do that.”
There are wheelchair users who are using the subway more. Millie Franco is one of them. She’s a housing counselor at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled and was born with cerebral palsy. She used to wheel her motorized chair on to the B51 bus to get from Manhattan apartment to her job in downtown Brooklyn each day. Then, her bus line got cut.
But Franco, as it turns out, was lucky. Out of 468 subway stations, only 73 are officially wheelchair accessible, and Franco happens to live and work near two of them. But still, she says, “Everyday it’s like Russian roulette because you never know if it’s working or not."
Franco says a lot of things have to happen to get her from the 14th Street Q train stop in Manhattan to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. Elevators on both ends have to work. Train cars have to be level with the platform so she can roll in. And automatic gates actually have to open.
“Let me show you something,” Franco says once we arrive at the 14th Street station. She wheels her chair up to the turnstiles. “This is the automatic entry card. It doesn’t work.”
Franco says this occurs all the time. She inserts her half-fare card for disabled riders, but the automatic gate doesn’t budge. So she reaches into her wallet and hands a stranger a regular Metrocard.
“Uh, would you swipe it for me please?” Franco asks a woman brushing by.
The woman swipes Franco’s card and pushes the turnstile one rotation. Then Franco waves down a station attendant to manually open the automatic gate. She says using the subway is all about relying on strangers. But strangers can also become part of the obstacle course.
“Because I’m lower down,” Franco says, “people walk and they don’t watch where they’re walking. So I get hit with book bags, umbrellas. I have little kids with strollers. Sometimes they reach over and grab my joy stick, and that can be dangerous.”
There are other dangers. Franco wheels with me to the Borough Hall station in Brooklyn, where she says she often has problems. When the train pulls into that station, the subway car is four inches above the station platform.
“You see, I can’t get on,” Franco says.
Her eyes dart into the car and motions to a man sitting by the door.
“Sir, can you help me?” Franco asks him.
He jumps up and wrestles Franco’s 300-pound chair over the ledge and into the train, before the doors slam shut on her. Franco says the problems don’t stop there. The elevators break more times than she can count. The call buttons often don’t work. There’s no cell phone service. Franco says she’s spent up to four hours waiting for police officers to carry her up the stairs.
“I missed my friend’s graduation because I was stuck in the subway,” says Franco. “I’ve missed a lot of things stuck in the subway -- doctors appointments, meetings with friends, dates—”
I interrupt her. “Dates?”
“Yeah,” Franco replies. “You get stuck in the subway, no way to communicate, so they think you stood them up, until you get home and explain it. Maybe they’ll be nice.”
Susan Scheer, who helped sue the MTA decades ago over Access-A-Ride, can’t believe she’s thinking about suing again. She notes the MTA’s bus cuts came not even a month before the 20th Anniversary of the American Disabilities Act.
“Here is this critical element of this civil rights legislation,” says Scheer, “which is transportation, which is the key to accessing all the other rights in the legislation, and the MTA is going in the wrong direction."