For a while, New York City was ahead of the game when it came to accessible transit. And it was all thanks to a lawsuit.
Years before 1990’s Americans With Disabilities Act, the lawsuit pushed city officials to pass the New York Handicapped Transportation Act. Part of the act called for a new paratransit service, designed for people with disabilities who couldn’t use subways or buses.
That paratransit service evolved into Access-A-Ride, a fleet of white and blue vans picking up and dropping off riders with disabilities who are unable to use public transportation.
Up until 2017, approved riders could schedule pick-ups at least 24 hours in advance, and pay just $2.75 — the same as a ride on a city bus or subway.
That year, however, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched a pilot program allowing just over 1,000 users to use an e-hail option — calling for a ride when they needed it, via a smartphone app, rather than having to call in advance. The program was expanded to 2,400 users by the end of 2019, but with caveats: users can’t take more than 16 trips per month, and they’ll have to pay more out of pocket.
How much more? That depends on the trip. In the past, riders were just responsible for $2.75. Under the new standards, however, the MTA will only pay up to $15 on a metered trip, forcing the rider to pay the difference.
That can become pretty expensive pretty quickly, and something that concerns people like Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who worries some riders from his district couldn’t feasibly get to where they need to go.
“Like in our area, someone was going to use the on-demand program to go to the doctor at one of the hospitals, it may not affect a trip to Columbia-Presbyterian,” Dinowitz said, “but it may affect trips to NYU, Einstein and Cornell.”
Dinowitz has joined Queens state Sen. Leroy Comrie to oppose the changes. They are preparing a bill in Albany they hope will stop the changes in their tracks.
“In Riverdale, not everyone can take the bus to the train to go to Manhattan,” Dinowitz said. “The elevator doesn’t always work on the train, they can’t deal with the stairs. Access-A-Ride has been a good option for those people who qualify for it.”
“Sixteen rides, that’s eight round-trips a month,” said Tashia Lerebours, a community organizer for Access-A-Ride at the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York. “I’m finally working full-time, I’m finally able to work full-time now, and for me only to get eight round-trips, a person can’t get by with just eight round-trips.”
Lerebours herself struggles to use public transportation, but has been repeatedly denied eligibility for Access-A-Ride because of the nature of her disability.
“I tried again recently because my condition was getting more serious, I have epilepsy,” Lerebours said. “And I’ve had more than one incident where I’ve had seizures at a train station. I’ve been fortunate not to fall, but because my disability is invisible, it’s not really considered serious.”
The process of applying for Access-A-Ride was detailed recently by online news outlet The City, like having to undergo an in-person assessment for an initial approval, and needing to then be re-assessed every five years.
That assessment, according to the report, includes trying to board an MTA bus simulator.
“I regret not taking pictures of it when I was there,” Lerebours said of the simulator. “The second I saw it, I immediately felt uncomfortable. In my application it states what my disability is. It states my condition. But I had to go through the process anyway.”
When she was denied, it was because the agency determined she was able to walk up and down stairs, and that she also could walk three to four blocks. But Lerebours says that doesn’t take into account her whole transit experience.
She’s also frustrated with the perception that disabled people using the service are always on their way to the doctor’s office.
“They go to work,” she said. “It’s not just the doctor’s office. Everyone always seems to think that it’s just the doctor’s office that disabled people go to. I found that extremely frustrating. Yes, we go to the doctor’s office, but we also go to work. Yes, we also socialize. Yes, we pay taxes.”
E-hail trips were generally less expensive than trips made in the service’s usual blue-and-white vans, MTA spokeswoman Meredith Daniels said, but are similar in cost to Access-A-Ride trips booked in advance but made in for-hire vehicles or taxis. Expanding service and making it more flexible would be costly.
Dinowitz would like to see the program eventually expanded to include all Access-A-Ride users.
“That might cost a few bucks, ultimately, but my belief is that everybody in the city has an equal right to be able to move around,” the Assemblyman said. “Some people have certain limitations that make it more difficult, but the fact is that everyone should be able to get around, and we should be doing as much as we can to make that happen.”
And he’s not alone in that sentiment.
“Two common things I hear (about the program) are ‘life changing’ and ‘independence,’” Lerebours said. “Don’t take that away from people.”