New Yorkers who rely on wheelchairs to get around say they often steer clear of MTA express buses for fear of being unable to board or exit due to faulty hydraulic lifts or drivers unclear on how to operate them.
Since March, 78-year-old Jean Ryan has twice needed firefighters to carry her 400-pound motorized wheelchair off of express buses at stops near her Brooklyn home because of mechanical or operator issues with the hydraulic device that raises and lowers riders who are unable to step onto buses.
“I never know if I’m going to get on or how long it will take,” Ryan told THE CITY. “And I never know if I’m going to get off, or how.”
Ryan, the head of Disabled in Action, an advocacy group, said she doesn’t know “any other” wheelchair users who ride express buses, which serve neighborhoods in the boroughs that are not near subway stations.
“They have bad experiences and they realize it’s not for them,” she said.
According to Fire Department records, an FDNY ladder truck and an engine truck were dispatched March 9 to an X28 bus at 86th Street and Dahlgren Place in Dyker Heights, as firefighters worked for nearly one hour to unload Ryan and her motorized wheelchair from a coach that she said had a jammed lift.
It happened again last month, she said, when firefighters helped her off an X27 bus at 69th Street and Third Avenue in Bay Ridge.
“The lift had gotten me in, but could not get me out because the driver said he had not gotten training,” she said. “I asked him.”
Wheelchair users said such episodes highlight the distrust many of them have of express buses and driver know-how in operating the lifts.
“I’m just like everyone else, I fear being rejected because the lift is not working or the fear that you’ll get stuck on the bus,” said Jose Hernandez, president of the United Spinal Association’s New York City chapter and a wheelchair user who instead relies on paratransit service or drives himself in an accessible vehicle.
Breaking It Down
MTA wheelchair ramp and lift usage data shows there were 113,177 deployments of the devices in August, though the numbers do not not distinguish between the surface-level ramps on local buses — and the more intricate lifts on the transit agency’s high-floor express buses.
Transit officials said fewer than 5% of calls about mechanical issues on buses are about express bus lifts.
“New Yorkers with disabilities are getting around,” Quemuel Arroyo, the MTA’s chief accessibility officer, told THE CITY. “Our assets are being utilized.”
Alex Elegudin, himself a former accessibility chief at the agency, said he has been stuck on express bus lifts “a couple of times.”
“It’s a little awkward to say the least,” he said, describing the hydraulic devices as “kind of like a spaceship, it takes you up in the middle and takes you all the way up.”
He added, “It’s a big to-do, those express buses have a million moving pieces.”
Elegudin was named to the position in June 2018 — on the day that the MTA announced a pilot program to test an express bus that could load wheelchair passengers via a ramp and into a space beneath the rest of the passengers and driver.
The 90-day test did not end well.
Arroyo said he was among the wheelchair users at the time who were “not thrilled” with the lower-level seating that isolated them from everyone else on the bus.
“It really brought up some safety concerns,” he said.
The MTA did not proceed with the pilot program.
A ‘Quick Reminder’
Elegudin noted that there is also the potential for human lapses in making the lifts work.
“I cannot tell you how many times I have experienced bus operators who don’t know how to operate it,” he said. “I often would be talking them through how to do it.”
Arroyo said all MTA bus operators have yearly or every-other-year opportunities for retraining on how to operate the lifts.
“The facts remain, when we get road calls about bus mechanics, less than 5% of those calls are about lifts,” said Arroyo, who also uses a wheelchair. “And that happens because we do train every driver.”
A senior bus official told THE CITY that despite the MTA’s efforts to train operators as much as possible on the lifts, riders still get stuck.
“It’s a problem and even one is too many,” said the official, who asked to not be identified by name.
To assist express bus drivers who may not often move riders in wheelchairs, Arroyo said decals with instructions on how to operate the lift are being placed on buses.
“We’re giving them that quick reminder,” he said.
Arroyo said the MTA is trying to tighten the monthly maintenance cycle on express buses to every-other-week.
Ryan said she has taken just one express bus trip since firefighters had to unload her and the wheelchair from a bus in October.
“You try the express bus and you have one experience and you’ll never try it again,” she said. “I’m the exception — I’ve had many bad experiences and I try it again because I like my freedom and I like to be spontaneous.”