Helpful Tips to Navigate the New York Transit System for People with Disabilities
TravelinWheels has done several accessibility assessments of the New York Transit system. We traveled with slow walkers and wheelchair users, but also looked at the needs of those with hearing and sight impairments. I wish I could say that the New York Transit system was easy to use for everyone. Unfortunately, it is difficult for everyone, including those who don't have disabilities.
New York City has one of the largest transportation systems in the world. It is also one of the most complex. Serving passengers from five boroughs and surrounding states requires a system of massive proportions. This may be overwhelming to the traveler who happens to be in town for a short period of time and doesn't have the luxury of understanding the entire transit system, let alone figuring out accessibility.
We will attempt to break things down and give you some advice on how to best get around.
The Good News...
The good news is that the buses are pretty good. We used several buses, and each driver made sure that people moved out of the way to provide us access to the priority area. Ramps worked well, and we had absolutely no issues using them.
Granted, the ride can be a bit crowded, but New York bus drivers are not shy about assisting travelers with disabilities. Here is a map of the bus system.
The Bad News...
I am disappointed by the lack of signage and assistance in the subway stations, the inconsistencies of working elevators in the train stations and the, frankly, disgusting conditions of the elevators once we found them. If they were working, they smelled of urine, and I felt I needed a shower after riding in one.
If you are adventurous and really want to take the subways, arm yourself with some knowledge in advance, plan your excursions, and be prepared for crowded conditions. You will also find yourself having to ask others on the platforms for assistance. New Yorkers are usually pretty helpful and will let you know if you are in the right place.
Here are some tips to navigate:
- You can get your tickets at many of the automated kiosks in the stations using cash or credit cards. The kiosks have braille. I recommend that you buy a multi-day or multi-trip ticket that works for all the busses and trains if you plan to use transit for a few days. This can save you money and the aggravation of having to get a new ticket every time you use the system.
- Know your boroughs. New York is made up of five boroughs; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. The transit system can get you to all of the boroughs.
- Know your Uptown from your Downtown. When navigating Manhattan, New Yorkers will refer to the parts of the island as Downtown (south of 14th Avenue), Midtown (between 14th Avenue and 59th Avenue) and Uptown (north of 59th Ave.) Train station directional signs usually refer to Downtown and Uptown, so you need to know where you are going. Most trains going Uptown also go to the Bronx or Queens. Some trains going Downtown go to Brooklyn, too.
- Pick a part of the city to spend your time in and plot your route in and out. You can use the Mass Transit Authority website trip planner that allows you to put your start and end points and request an accessible route. There are also iPhone apps to assist in trip planning.
- Carry a printed transit map that denotes the elevator entrances. You can print them out here. It will give you an idea of what train stations do have elevators, and the general lay of the land. Pay attention to which lines at the stations have elevator access, as you can find that you get to a station and not all of the train lines have access. There are many train lines that overlap and different ways to get to the same place, just in case the route you plotted has an elevator that is out of service, or a track that is inaccessible.
- Be prepared to ask for assistance. There are very few maps in the subway stations. Once you are on a train, you can usually find one on the overhead display, but it may be too late at that point, and you realize you are going Uptown when you wanted to go Downtown. I found myself confirming that I was in the right place with people who were waiting for the same train, and many people asked me, too.
- Some trains have visual and audio displays showing the next stop, which I found to be very helpful.
- Unless you want to watch trains go by with people packed tighter than sardines with no chance of getting on board, try not to travel on the subway before 10 a.m. or after 3:00 p.m. Weekends aren't much better. Trains are crowded all day with shoppers and sightseers.
- There are gaps and grade changes between some of the trains and the platforms. I saw this mostly on the PATH line between New York and New Jersey, so be prepared to need assistance getting onto the train.
- Give yourself plenty of time for mishaps, missed trains, and reroutes.
- Arm yourself with a sense of humor and adventure. It will definitely be a memorable experience.