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 Transportation: A Godsend, Except When It's Not

Misc. ArticlesBy ARIEL KAMINEN

Jean Ryan is the kind of New Yorker who makes everyone else feel lazy. She has two master’s degrees and a black belt in tae kwon do. She serves on her local community board. You know the type? Try this one: When she had eye surgery two weeks ago, she refused sedation.

She and her husband moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn , in 1972, counting on the R train to get to Manhattan galleries and museums and plays and restaurants.

Then Ms. Ryan developed neuropathy in her legs and feet. Now she uses a motorized wheelchair, which pretty much rules out the subway. There’s an express bus near her home, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed cutbacks include curtailing it on weekends. Car services are out, since her chair cannot be folded up and thrown into a trunk. So Ms. Ryan, 65, increasingly relies on Access-a-Ride, the vans that provide door-to-door transportation for disabled people, for $2.25 — the same as for a subway or a bus.

One day last week we set out together to see a show of tapestries in Chelsea and run some errands on the Upper East Side . A white Ford Super Duty arrived outside Ms. Ryan’s home right on schedule for a 9:47 a.m. pickup. A friendly, courteous driver opened the door, and Ms. Ryan, wearing black Uggs, a long parka, battery-heated gloves and a hat with little bear ears, rolled onto the vehicle’s sturdy lift. The driver attached some metal cleats to a seam in the van’s floor, then arranged long belts to secure passenger and chair.

Two other women were already on board, so I invited them to join us for tapestries.

“Ancient or modern?” one asked. Modern, I said.

“Machine-loomed or hand-woven?” She seemed surprised that I didn’t know. “It’s a basic question.”

Twenty-five minutes later we were outside the James Cohan Gallery, ready for our cultural moment. They’re hand-woven, by the way.

Service like that is enough to make you wonder if all the 137,000 people who are certified to use Access-a-Ride really need it. Come on, if you could get away with it, wouldn’t you want a personal chauffeur at subway prices?

No, you probably wouldn’t. While the service can be a lifeline, it is far more cumbersome than hailing a cab or hopping on a train.

You have to make a reservation one to two days in advance. That means knowing not only when you’ll be ready to set out, but also where your first stop will be, how long it will last, where your second stop will be, how long that will last, and so on. What if the doctor is running late? Or the movie is a dud? Too bad.

Unless your doorway has a direct view of the curb, you have to wait outside. Tom Charles, the M.T.A.’s vice president for paratransit, said that 95 percent of departures are on time — but “on time” means within a half-hour. Half an hour is a long time to wait on the sidewalk. If you have a serious disability and it’s 34 degrees and raining, it can be downright painful.

The M.T.A. oversees Access-a-Ride, but contracts with 17 private companies to provide the 21,000 rides on an average weekday. So when a passenger calls the dispatcher to see how late a driver is going to be, the private carrier might be overly optimistic, lest the ride — and its fee — be reassigned to a competitor. Ms. Ryan, a leader of Disabled in Action, Taxis for All and other groups that lobby for better transit accessibility, said passengers are often told it will be 10 minutes, then 10 minutes more. After an hour, maybe you duck back inside to use the bathroom. That’s when the van rolls up and you miss your ride for the day.

Perhaps such complaints seem a bit precious in a city the size of New York , where the M.T.A. is facing a shortfall of $400 million. The whole idea of door-to-door service for disabled riders might strike some as a politically correct luxury. But it isn’t political correctness; it’s federal law. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act,public transportation systems have to provide disabled people with “origin-to-destinati on” service. Even when their destination is a casino, as The New York Daily News recently discovered was the 17th most popular.

Still, the current system costs a staggering $474 million a year, which works out to $66 per ride. That’s a crazy amount to spend on trips to the casino. It’s a crazy amount to spend on trips anywhere. Isn’t there a better way?

The M.T.A. could run its own vans, just as it runs buses and trains. Mr. Charles said that would be more expensive.

Or the M.T.A. could give disabled riders a debit card and let them arrange their own taxi or car service. That would not help Ms. Ryan, since 98 percent of cabs are not wheelchair accessible. But it would work for lots of other people, and it would have to be cheaper — when’s the last time you took a $66 taxi ride?

They have to make some change. M.T.A. budgets are getting slashed, which portends more nightmares like the one Ruth Weber, a 75-year-old paraplegic, wrote to City Hall about last year.

Ms. Weber had requested a 3:30 p.m. pickup at a Manhattan hospital. The van arrived late, then zigzagged through Brooklyn and Queens before delivering her to her home in the Bronx at 8 p.m., by which time she was in terrible shape. Imagine if one day your hourlong commute took four and a half hours. Now imagine if you were locked into your seat that whole time and could not move.

That feeling of being captive — to a system she’s been trying to fix for years — is what Ms. Ryan finds infuriating. She and I rode the white vans all over town last week, and we had attentive drivers, timely arrivals and pleasant passengers. When all goes smoothly, it’s a godsend.

“It’s as good as the day you take it,” she said. “When we’ve missed the doctor’s appointment or the flight, it’s as bad as it was 10 years ago.” E-mail: city



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