On NYC’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect, and Human Dignity

An incident on lawyer Britney Wilson’s ride home from work exposes her vulnerabilities as a Black disabled woman.

Britney Wilson | Longreads | September 2017 | 18 minutes (4,410 words)

 

He pulled up on the wrong side of the street fifteen minutes late for my pick-up time. I was sitting outside, in front of the New York City office building where I work, in a chair that the security guards at my job have set aside for me. They bring it outside when I come downstairs in the evening and take it back inside whenever I get picked up, so I don’t have to stand while I wait anymore. I was on the left side of the street; he pulled up on the right. I stood when I saw him, and taking a few steps closer to the tide of people rippling endlessly down the sidewalk that early evening, I waved one of my crutches in the air trying to get his attention. He looked up and down the street. I wasn’t sure if he’d seen me.

“Excuse me,” I said, taking a few more quick half steps forward, trying to catch the attention of a passer-by, “do you see that Access-a-Ride across the street?”

“The what?” the passer-by asked.

“The Access-a-Ride,” I repeated. “That little blue and white bus across the street.” I pointed my crutch in its direction, and his gaze followed its path.

“Oh,” he said. But just as I was about to request the man’s assistance, I saw that the driver had finally spotted me. He put his hand up as if to tell me to stay put.

“Nevermind. I think he sees me,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”

My Access-a-Ride driver, a skinny older Black man with glasses and a graying beard, exited the vehicle and crossed the street toward me. I bravely parted the latest oncoming wave of pedestrians and made my way to the curb to meet him.

“Come on,” the driver said when he reached me, urging me to step right out into traffic on Broadway and cross with him, but I was reluctant.

“I’d rather wait for the light to change,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I’ll stop traffic for you,” he said, moving toward the middle of the street, his right hand extended making a “stop” motion toward the oncoming cars. I tried to pick up my pace while also being careful not to place my crutch tips on anything slippery, or get too close to other pedestrians rushing to the other side of the street.

“Take your time. I’ll make them wait,” he attempted to reassure me. I wasn’t reassured.

***

Access-a-Ride is New York City’s paratransit service. It provides transportation within the five boroughs of New York City to hundreds of thousands of elderly and disabled New Yorkers unable to use a transit system in which less than twenty percent of subway stations are accessible. It is a “shared ride, door-to-door” service in which New York City Transit contracts with private carrier companies, who use “Access-a-Ride-branded” vehicles, including cars, mini-vans, and small buses to transport passengers. The fare is the same as all other public transportation in New York City.

A native New Yorker born with Cerebral Palsy, I began using Access-a-Ride sixteen years ago at 11 years old.

Passengers usually have different drivers and carriers for each trip. So, even passengers like me — people who use the service twice a day to travel to and from work — will usually have a different driver in the morning and evening, and a completely different set of drivers the next day, and likely for the rest of the week. I had never seen this driver before.

A native New Yorker, born with Cerebral Palsy, I began using Access-a-Ride 16 years ago at 11 years old, around the age that I suspect many New York City kids begin riding public transportation by themselves. Over the first eight of those 16 years, I protested the service’s inefficiency and unreliability in true Millennial fashion: I complained to family, friends, and social media followers, wrote blog posts, and started Change.org petitions, generally only filing formal complaints when something especially ridiculous happened.

But that was only phase one. My ultimate plan was to go to law school and gain the knowledge and skills necessary to fight, on behalf of myself and others, all the rampant “isms” I’d faced as a disabled Black girl born and raised in Mike Tyson’s hometown.

Two years ago, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, I returned home and increased my advocacy for passengers using the service. Since then, I’ve been documenting and filing formal complaints about routes and other general incidents of bad service.

***

As I was getting on the bus that evening, a news segment I’d been featured in was scheduled to air on the local news. Although I work only eight miles away from my job — an approximately forty-five minute drive for most — the reporter followed Access-a-Ride as it took me from my home in Brooklyn, through Queens, to a stop on East 64th St. in Midtown Manhattan, before dropping me off at work in lower Manhattan nearly two hours later, not to mention fifteen minutes past my scheduled appointment time. Because the rides are shared, such roundabout two-hour excursions each way were a common practice. That evening, I had no idea what to expect when I got on board. I just hoped that I’d at least be traveling toward my house.

Things seemed to be going pretty well at first. There was another woman on the bus when I boarded it. The buses are not the big ones you might associate with New York City. They usually have only about six seats and some open space in the back for wheelchairs. The woman was seated in the second row on the left side in a window seat. I sat in the front right corner closest to the door. The driver started heading to Manhattan Bridge — Brooklyn-bound and toward home — and I thought it might be a good day. I put my headphones on and responded to the flurry of text messages I had received from my uncle about my 6 p.m. news segment.

For years, I protested Access-a-Ride’s inefficiency and unreliability in true Millennial fashion: I complained to social media followers, wrote blog posts, and started Change.org petitions.

“I’m missing it,” I texted him. “I’m on Access-a-Ride, of course. Does it highlight the changes I recommended?”

I’d recently spoken at a Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board meeting to propose three major changes to Access-a-Ride: improved routing, not requiring riders to wait outside for rides that are not close by, and more direct communication between customers and drivers about rides.

Access-a-Ride customers must schedule rides by 5 p.m. the day before travel. Depending on our “appointment time,” we receive a computer-generated pick-up time. Travel times are supposed to be coordinated by the distance between a passenger’s pick-up and drop-off locations, but pick-up times are often as many as two hours ahead of appointment times. For example, Access-a-Ride anticipates a “maximum ride time” of one hour and 35 minutes for a travel distance between six and nine miles.

Rain, shine, and seasons aside, passengers scheduling rides are instructed by call center operators to be outside our pick-up location at our scheduled pick-up time, even though our ride may be nowhere near at that time. We are also instructed to be prepared to wait up to 30 minutes for our drivers in case of traffic or delays. Drivers who arrive within that “30-minute window” are still considered to be on time, even though the passenger may have been outside for up to half an hour at that point. Those 30-minute delays may actually turn into hours-long waits for many customers, as drivers must follow predetermined routes that lengthen trips and exacerbate travel conditions. Drivers, on the other hand, are instructed to give late passengers only a five-minute grace period. Drivers are also encouraged to call passengers if they do not see us when they arrive, but such calls are considered a courtesy, not a requirement.

One winter evening while I was on the bus, the driver stopped to pick up a passenger who wasn’t outside when we arrived. After a few minutes, a Black woman who was probably in her seventies exited a nearby McDonald’s hurriedly pushing a walker in front of her. There were three black garbage bags resting on her walker’s seat. As the driver got off the bus to let the lift down, he yelled:

“You’re lucky I didn’t leave you. It’s been more than five minutes.”

“Five minutes?” she asked. “I’ve been waiting for this ride for over three hours. The people in the McDonald’s let me sit down and wait inside, and I didn’t see you when you first pulled up.”

“You’re over the bag limit,” the driver added. “The limit is two. You have three. That’s what’s wrong with Access-a-Ride people. You take advantage. You’re spoiled and entitled.”

The concept of entitlement is familiar jargon in discussions of race and class, and it is just as widespread in the realm of disability. It’s the idea that we are acting as if someone owes us something rather than merely asking to be treated with the respect and human dignity we deserve. It is the belief that people of a certain status or apparent condition have no right to demand better because we should just be happy with whatever we get. We should be happy we have anything at all.

As a civil rights attorney, despite many of the eccentric, annoying, inappropriate, and sometimes disturbing things some Access-a-Ride drivers do, most of my complaints have to do with policies and not individual drivers.

Outraged at the driver’s callous attitude, the woman told him he didn’t even have to touch her bags, because they were sitting on her walker. She explained that she had the three garbage bags because she only got to go grocery shopping once in a while. To make the most of her limited trips, she put as many grocery bags as she could into the three garbage bags, to lessen the number of individual bags she traveled with to heed the Access-a-Ride limit.

“Do you have a mother?” she asked him. “Would you want someone treating her this way when she gets old?”

***

In one of the world’s most crowded cities, where traffic is jammed almost more often than not, maybe it’s not surprising that Access-a-Ride vehicles can take a long time to get where they’re going. But the inefficient protocol for communicating with drivers unnecessarily adds to users’ stress and anxiety. For example, a passenger who wants to locate the ride he or she is waiting for must call a Transit switchboard operator, who then reads a GPS to tell the passenger where the driver is. If the Transit operator cannot track the passenger’s ride by GPS, or the passenger needs to communicate some other information to the driver, the Transit operator must call the carrier who dispatched the ride, who then calls the driver, before Transit relays all that information to the passenger. Violations of any Access-a-Ride rules, including cancelling a trip with less than two hours’ notice, can lead to point assessments that affect passengers’ service eligibility. A recent Access-a-Ride audit by the New York City Comptroller found that more than 31,000 passengers had been stranded in 2015.

Presumably to alleviate some of these issues, Access-a-Ride’s reimbursement policy allows passengers whose rides have not arrived within the 30-minute wait window to take a taxi and request reimbursement from Transit. However, this is not a viable alternative for many Access-a-Ride users, given the limited number of accessible taxis in New York City and that many people cannot afford to pay up front for expensive taxi rides that require two or three months for reimbursement.


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Despite the advance scheduling and little room for change or spontaneity that Access-a-Ride demands of its customers, lack of predictability is the service’s hallmark trait. Most public transportation users choose to get on a bus or a train that’s traveling toward their destination and get off at their intended stop in the order in which those stops come along the route. In contrast, Access-a-Ride users have no idea which direction our rides will travel in or how many stops will be made before our destinations. In picking up and dropping off passengers on those rides, a meandering city tour is not uncommon — including riding past your destination only to ride back down to it.

While talking with an Access-a-Ride customer service representative to follow up on my complaint about my not so merry-go-round two-hour journeys to work, the representative advised me never to tell Access-a-Ride the real time that I have to be anywhere. (I don’t.) I explained that even if I did arrive at work by my scheduled appointment time, I still had the same complaint about being driven around the city for two hours, often past my destination.

“Even when you still get there on time?” he clarified.

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand the problem then.”

So, boarding an Access-a-Ride that appeared to be moving toward my destination was already a small victory for me that day.

***

“Get your ass out of the street!” the driver yelled out his window at a woman scurrying across the street as the bus approached. The bus came to a sudden and jolting halt that propelled me forward in my seat. Just barely making it out of the bus’ path, the woman glared at him.

“That’s why your ass shouldn’t have been in the street,” he yelled back.

“Sorry,” he said to the other passenger and me.

As a civil rights attorney, I tend to think in terms of systems. So, despite many of the eccentric, annoying, inappropriate, and sometimes disturbing things some Access-a-Ride drivers do, most of my Access-a-Ride complaints are with policies, not individual drivers — unless an individual driver’s behavior represents a larger systemic problem I think Transit can address with a rule or policy change. Many drivers are great and have openly agreed with me about changes that need to be made to the system.

One evening while driving me home, a driver yawned, said how tired he was, and explained that he had been driving all day.

“What’s the legal limit for how many hours you all are allowed to drive in a day?” I asked.

“Ten,” he said.

“And how many hours have you been driving today?”

“Fifteen.”

Some drivers take directions better than others. Some are especially unreceptive when those directions are coming from a little Black girl.

Although I usually try to ignore individual drivers’ personalities or habits — why argue with a stranger who has your life in his or her hands? — occasionally I have issues with individual drivers. Whether they realize it or not, I am keenly aware that how they treat me may be influenced by how I look, and by extension, what they think they can get away with in my presence. I’m a 5’1” Black woman on crutches. On an average day, most people are shocked when I open my mouth and they realize I’m not 16.

Driving through the Financial District in Manhattan one morning, while transporting me to my job, a driver clearly new to the road expressed her anxiety.

“I hate driving in Manhattan,” she said. “Look at all the suits crossing in the middle of the street. They’re probably lawyers — crooks not looking where they’re going. Don’t you hate lawyers?” she asked.

“Yeah, sometimes,” I said.

Anyone who has ever been a passenger knows that some drivers take directions better than others. Some are especially unreceptive when those directions are coming from a little Black girl.

“Miss, I know how to do my job. You’ll get there,” one driver retorted defensively when I suggested a route for him to take. I’ve endured countless drivers who connect their cell phones to the car’s Bluetooth and conduct intimate and sometimes lengthy conversations through the car speakers. Think Maury or General Hospital.

“Girl, you just need to leave him because this story is absolutely ridiculous and it is way too early in the morning for all of this,” I was tempted to interject to the stranger who was confessing her woes to her driver friend (and me) through the car speakers. Instead, I just burst into laughter at the sheer ludicrousness of having to listen to the story.

“I’m going to call you back. I’ve got a passenger,” the driver finally said.

Then, there are the drivers who, without bothering to ask whether I mind, will turn up the Power 105.1 or Hot 97 stations (what advertisers would stereotype as “urban radio,” for non-native New Yorkers) when I get on board, only to turn it down, off, or change the station if we happen to pick up a white passenger, or sometimes even an older Black passenger. There was one driver who detoured through the McDonald’s drive-through to get breakfast before proceeding with the rest of her route. (No, she did not get or offer to get me anything). While these “microaggressions” are important to pay attention to, and are usually symptomatic of larger issues, they are not the incidents about which I tend to file complaints.

***

We made it to Brooklyn. While driving to the other passenger’s house, the driver unleashed a string of random curse words at an unspecified target: the road, the air, other drivers, whoever was listening.

“I apologize for all the profanities,” he said, turning slightly toward me and the other passenger.

A few minutes later, he dropped the other passenger off. She only lived about ten minutes away from me, so I expected to be home soon. I silently celebrated that evening’s efficient routing and wondered if it was the result of advocacy or luck. As he turned onto my residential block, everything was quiet and no one else was outside. I took my headphones off and began to put my cell phone inside my purse and gather my things. Knowing that no one else was home, I searched for my house keys. The driver pulled up to my house, opened the bus door, rose, and made an announcement.

“I’ve got to pee,” he said. “Had to go since I picked you up in Manhattan.”

I found my keys, draped them around my neck, and wondered why he felt the need to share this information.

Grabbing a Styrofoam coffee cup, he began walking toward me. Thinking he was going to assist me off of the bus, I prepared to hand him my crutches, but he didn’t take them.

“I’m just going to go in this cup,” he said casually, walking past the open door to an aisle seat. I still wasn’t quite processing what was happening. We were at my house. He said he had to pee. Why was he telling me this, and more importantly, why wasn’t he taking my crutches so that he could get me off this bus and do whatever he needed to do? Was he about to run off the bus and pee? If so, why was he walking past the open door? Why wasn’t he running off the bus or something?

’I’ve got to pee,’ he said. ‘Had to go since I picked you up in Manhattan.’ Grabbing a Styrofoam coffee cup, he began walking toward me.

He began to unzip his fly and then it hit me. He was going to pee, right then and there, in my face. One of my friends from law school had recently told me about the shock she’d felt when one of her white co-workers asked her how to spell the n-word. She was so taken aback by the question, and by her co-worker’s willingness to ask her the question, that she didn’t know how to respond.

“What!” I had said over the phone, “Why did she need to spell that?”

“I have no idea,” she responded.

“Has she not heard of Google, or a dictionary?” I asked outraged. “She couldn’t sound it out?”

“That’s what I wanted to know,” she said.

“And why in the world would she ask you of all people, a Black woman?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. I was so shocked.”

“So, what did you do?” I had to know.

“I spelled it,” she said.

She immediately regretted her response. She told me that in that moment she wished she had been me because she knew that I would have had some sort of comeback. I told her not to beat herself up because none of us knows what we’d do in a certain situation until it arises. Some people’s audacity is just shocking. In that moment, with a stranger unzipping his fly to urinate in my presence, I had no comeback. A million thoughts floated through my head in a one-minute span, but none made it to my mouth.

I felt ridiculous and defensive. On one hand, the man was urinating, and as inappropriate and disgusting as that was, it was not physically harmful. Should I scream right now? I wondered. Would that be appropriate, or would I be unnecessarily causing a scene? I imagined one of my neighbors coming outside and asking what the commotion was, and having to say that a man had peed. On the other hand, knowing that people with disabilities face a higher risk of sexual assault than many other groups, I said a silent prayer to myself and thought, If this man is willing to take out his private parts and urinate in front of a stranger, what else is he willing to do? I’m already at a physical disadvantage. I can’t afford to not be prepared if he tries anything else. I knew I had to be prepared to fight or somehow get off of that bus.

Long before “respectability politics” became a popular colloquial term, I thought education would help people recognize that my humanity and my disability aren’t mutually exclusive. Many people of color grew up hearing the “you must be twice as good” speech as an antidote to racism; I got it as the antidote to both racism and ableism. I wanted to be taken seriously and I thought higher education would help.

Nothing has taught me what a trap that was more than these past two years, after having earned my law degree, yet still having to endure the obstacles that come with being Black, a woman, and disabled in this society, in this city, and in this world. At the moment the driver decided to urinate in front of me, caught between panic and ridicule, shock and disgust, I was reminded of a realization I have faced with many of my own clients: just knowing your rights (or your worth or value) will never be enough if you are powerless to force someone else to respect them.

In that moment, I thought, If this man does try anything, your shiny, Ivy League law degree will not save you. He does not care how hard you have worked to defy stereotypes or to prove anyone wrong.

I reminded myself, Right now, he’s only urinating, then I resented having to calm myself with that rationalization.

I thought about just leaving my bags and trying to make a break for it. I knew that with my crutches, I couldn’t dismount the stairs to get off of the bus on my own. Ideally, I needed someone to hold them while I held the railing, as drivers normally do for me. I thought about throwing my crutches outside, using the railing to come down the stairs, and picking them up once I got outside. I wondered if I was overreacting and if trying to get away from this strange man urinating was worth risking injury. I was frustrated at being mere feet away from my house but having to engage in this weird mental calculus because I needed assistance to go anywhere.

Is Transit trolling me? I wondered. Is someone sitting in the office laughing at this wanna-be advocate and reformer who has a strange man’s junk in her face right now?

It occurred to me, though, that anyone who could calmly urinate in a customer’s presence was probably not someone I wanted to challenge or upset. At that moment, I decided I just didn’t want to have to see it. So, I said nothing and turned my head away in disgust and disbelief.

When he was finished, a minute later that felt like a day, he took my crutches to assist me in getting off the bus. I hated the thought of him having to touch them, but I had no other choice. I handed him the bottom half, hoping that his hands would not get anywhere near the handle part that I actually had to hold. As if nothing had happened, he asked if I wanted him to hold my purse or my lunch bag.

“No, it’s okay,” I said, draping them both around my head and across one shoulder. “I’ve got it.”

His calmness unsettled me. I still had questions. What kind of disregard for a person do you have to have to openly urinate in her presence? If he had to go so badly, why didn’t he run into the Starbucks near where he’d picked me up in Manhattan, like so many other drivers had done before him? Why did he wait until it was just the two of us on the bus? Why was I the passenger he chose to pee in front of? Would he have done this if I were white?

Why didn’t he at least go to some back corner of the bus where I wouldn’t have been able to see him? Why did he feel so comfortable announcing it first? I would have been less offended if he had peed on my front lawn, a destination closer to him than where he chose to go. That way we wouldn’t have had to be in the same space at the same time while he went. I would have felt better if he had wet himself. At least then his urinating wouldn’t have felt like an intentional, rational choice, but an unavoidable emergency. I would have felt as if he did it because he had to, and not simply because he could.

Should I scream right now? I wondered. Would I be unnecessarily causing a scene? I imagined one of my neighbors coming outside and asking what the commotion was, and having to say that a man had peed.

As I got off the bus, he offered to open my front gate for me.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I’ve got it.”

I went inside as quickly as I could. I washed my hands, wiped down my crutches, and called Transit to file a complaint.

A few minutes after that, I recapped the story for my grandmother and uncle.

“Man, that’s crazy,” my uncle said. “You really have to get your license.”

“It was just the two of you on the bus and you didn’t record it?” my grandmother asked.

“No, grandma.” I wasn’t expecting the man to pee in my face. “I was trying not to see it, rather than capture it.”

“Well, then there’s nothing you can do,” she said. “It would be your word against his. Who’s going to believe you?”

“I don’t know,” I thought. “I can barely believe it myself.”

* * *

Britney Wilson is an attorney and Bertha Justice Institute Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Her work has been featured in The Nation, The Regulatory Review of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, NPR.org, For Harriet, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton