Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PSA: Public transit accessibility study

Just a small announcement...

Our good friends over at Physical Issues have posted a link to a survey about public transit accessibility to benefit a research study at the University of Buffalo.

It is essentially a questionnaire asking about the various problems or obstacles you as a passenger with a disability routinely face. It covers a variety of conditions, including mobility impairments, vision loss, hearing loss and cognition impairments.

More information can be found at the Physical Issues site, and the questionnaire can be found here.

"A long time ago, we used to be friends"

(Yes, this blog post's title is taken from the theme song of "Veronica Mars.")


This morning, I came across the following on Twitter:

Jeez, no matter how late I'm running, I'd never yell at someone in a wheelchair for "slowing down the bus". #shakesheadless than a minute ago via Twitter for Android

It seems like a nonchalant tweet that doesn't mean much. But there is much more to this tweet than meets the eye.

If you do a simple search on Twitter for "wheelchair" and "bus," you will find that there are a lot of angry commuters out there who find wheelchair users on public transit to be a nuisance. The general gist of it is, "I'm in a rush and now a wheelchair user needs to get on. Stupid wheelchair users, making me late for work/school/etc." There are other various complaints as well.

What's interesting is that some wheelchair users today might have been one of those people once.

The other day, I attended a wheelchair basketball clinic at Douglas College in New Westminster. If you know the location and its topography, you will recall that the campus is very close to the SkyTrain station -- but has a 33-degree incline between the station and campus. Obviously going up (or down) that hill in a wheelchair is not really something you want to do, especially when it is raining like it was that day.

So instead of risking life and limb, I decided to simply take a bus from the station, even though it is only a one-stop ride. I didn't feel good about taking up all that time boarding/de-boarding for a one-stop journey, but what other choice is there?

At the basketball clinic a few hours later, I was chatting with someone else who I had previously met at GF Strong Rehab Centre during another event and the steep hill entered the conversation, and subsequently the necessary bus ride.

When I mentioned how it was uncomfortable taking that much time for only one stop away, the person said, "You know... It's interesting because before I was in a wheelchair, I was one of those people who would HATE it when someone in a chair had to get on. So when I got in a chair, I would avoid the bus as much as possible because of that." She said she got over that after a while, though obviously both of us agreed that it was best to get on and off as quickly as possible.

I think there is a certain transition period when you first start using a wheelchair. One of the steps in the transition is going from someone relatively anonymous to a sort of "performer" who is being watched by the audience. The bus is one such stage, and when all eyes are on you, it feels rather scary that you are now the centre of attention.

Of course, when you watch something, time tends to slow down. ("A watched pot never boils" comes to mind here.) I have a theory that is the reason why there are so many upset commuters out there who direct their frustration at wheelchair users, because we are so visible. It's much less common that you would hear the same frustration at people who are slow at taking out their fares or who have to ask the bus driver questions.

There is a certain level of discomfort for us wheelchair users too because we are being watched and have no idea whether you're watching for curiosity or watching while thinking, "Stupid wheelchair user. Let's roll him/her off a cliff or feed him/her to a pack of wolves or something." It may be paranoia talking but I have always found this rather unnerving and it takes a while to get used to.

In short, being a "performer" rattles me and these negative comments I keep seeing don't help. If you feel angry or upset at wheelchair users on the bus, consider the fact that perhaps we once shared the same thoughts as you and we don't want to be in our present condition any more than you want us to delay your commute. I really hope that one day most people wouldn't get so upset about wheelchair users sharing the same need to commute by public transit.

(If you really need to be in a rush on most days, perhaps consider adopting the "30 Minute Rule" at the bottom of this previous blog entry.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Small potatoes

On Twitter tonight, I did something that I normally don't do -- search something on Twitter just for the hell of it. And since this blog needs some new material, I decided to try to find some ideas using this method.

There are some very interesting tweets out there, but one common theme struck me: people complaining about how buses loading wheelchair users are making them late or delaying their trip.

I can understand their frustration because I need to get to places too. Wheelchair users don't want to take forever in getting from point A to B either. Personally, I try to take no more than 90 seconds loading on to a bus, and even faster getting OFF the bus.

But those people need to remember one thing -- their complaints about being late and whatnot are small potatoes compared to what we have to go through. I don't want to sound like a whiner and would like to avoid that as much as possible, but it's true.

There are some very obvious things that come to mind, such as walking on board not being a viable option. (Who know?) However, if people knew about the OTHER everyday factors that arise in using public transit, their complaints would seem a bit laughable.

Here are some of the common obstacles in using public transit systems if you're in a wheelchair:

Accessibility of bus stops

In most public transit systems I've been to, not all bus stops are deemed "accessible." There are many reasons for this, but the most common one is because there is not enough space at the stop to deploy a ramp. The sidewalk may be too narrow. The house's fence may be too close to the road. Perhaps a bus stop shelter is in the way. Whatever the reason, it would be dangerous or impossible for the stop to be used by a wheelchair user, so we cannot use it.

When that happens, we have to find the next bus stop, which might be quite far away. It would take a much longer time for us to reach such a stop than an able-bodied person just using the inaccessible stop. For my area, had my nearest stop not been accessible, I would have had to use one that is over a half-kilometre away. That can make for tired and cramped arms.

Strangely enough, there are many stops deemed "accessible" even though they are on a significant slope. Oak Street southbound at Broadway in Vancouver is one such example. If I recall, the stop at Cambie Street northbound at Broadway is like that too. And Granville Street northbound at Broadway is also challenging.

Geographical factors

Some things are uncontrollable. Geographical factors such as terrain and slope grade can be an obstacle that cannot be fixed. Regarding the last point about accessible stops, sometimes the nearest accessible stop is uphill.

One example I found was near Arbutus Street in Vancouver, where the bus stop on even terrain was inaccessible and the closest one was uphill on a slope. (I can't explain the logic of that either.)

While I was going uphill towards that stop, I was passed by some people while going uphill since it was slow going. One of them ended up waiting at the same bus stop, but she got there three to five minutes before me.

Even in an area with accessible stops throughout, the simple problem of terrain can turn a seemingly short distance into a time-consuming challenge.

Mechanical factors

This is almost exclusive to SkyTrain. As the name suggests, elevators are a necessity on this elevated system. A lot of these elevators are slow as molasses. (It is probably for safety reasons -- we don't want any fragile senior citizens experiencing exhilarating G-forces, do we?)

As a result, the time it takes for an able-bodied person to go from the train platform to, let's say, the bus loop is much shorter than for a wheelchair user to go from the platform to the elevator, then from the elevator to the bus loop. Able-bodied people would likely have a five-minute time advantage.

Elevators also have a tendency to break down, which can sometimes mean that the wheelchair user must get back on the SkyTrain, continue to the next station, and go from there (whether it be by taking another bus or two... or three...).

Imagine if one of the able-bodied complainers had to do that. He/She would explode in rage, I bet.

Stupidity of humans

This is one that can be avoided. Some people just don't get it. They try to board as the driver is activating the wheelchair ramp (and get whacked in the face as a result) or they refuse to vacate the accessible space in a timely fashion. When human stupidity comes in, there is delay and sometimes chaos. You're unhappy about how long it takes for a wheelchair user to board? Perhaps it might be because some people don't bother to understand or follow procedures that can make the process smoother.

SkyTrain crowds

SkyTrain crowds getting off a train and towards the stairs or escalators can sometimes block the path between me and the elevator, and I have to patiently wait until someone frees up a gap to let me cross or, if nobody does so, wait until the crowd thins out. Especially an issue at Broadway-Commercial Station and Lougheed Station. Enough said.

Strangely enough, when everyone is going the same direction like on SeaBus, crowds are not a problem. Weird.


These are the obstacles that apply to me, and are not representative of everyone. But the point still stands -- when you add up the delay that these obstacles create, the people who complain about being late because of a wheelchair user needing to board look rather ridiculous. Your delay is ten minutes; ours might be twenty. Your delay is caused by one situation; ours might be caused by five. And so forth.

Of course, if you are absolutely impatient and want to prepare yourself so you won't find yourself stressing over being delayed, here's a simple plan that someone I know came up with, called the "30 Minute Rule."

It's a simple plan that works great for transit. Basically, you plan your commute as if your event will start 30 minutes early. So for example, if you go to school and your class starts at 9:00am, pretend it starts at 8:30am and aim to arrive at 8:30am.

Not only will you be early, but you will have enough time to get settled in and relax. No more frantic rushes to get there on time. Also, if anything unexpected happens (such as a bus breakdown, missed bus connection or sudden weather changes), you can be "late" according to that rule but still be early or on time in actuality.

It's a common sense rule that has worked out in my favour too many times to count. So if you don't have a similar rule in effect, think about changing that so next time, you won't find yourself tweeting about "small potatoes" delays and instead tweeting about how you made it on time.