Life on Crutches in NYC

For the last month, since I broke my ankle, New York has ceased to be the same place for me. At least in terms of getting around the city, the landscape has been dramatically transformed. Week 1 was spent in relative isolation at my parents house on Staten Island where they were nice enough to shuttle me around to the few places I need to go. I felt like I was 10 years old again — though, at 10, I rode my bike all over hilly Staten Island, so you could say I had more independence then. The week after, I came back to Manhattan. Various people had sort of warned me, "Oh, how are you going to get around in Manhattan." I must say, at first I had my doubts about getting around town, but I was able to be much more independent than out in Suburban Staten Island.

On crutches, my transportation options have severely dwindled to a few options. Cycling is completely out. The subways are pretty much completely out of the question because of the lack of elevators and escalators between on my usual routes to work and other normal destinations. In my initial research, I found that only 53 of the city’s 468 subway stations meet requirements laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was happy to find a good updated listing of the elevators at the Disabled Riders Coalition website (they point out that they are frequently out for repairs).

And walking is a real struggle over longer distances. Since I can only manage to walk about 5 city blocks before needing to sit down, I have learned the locations of all the benches in my area. But Manhattan has a major advantage over anywhere else to be on crutches. Within five blocks, I can find pretty much everything I could need – a nice park, several wonderful restaurants, bars, coffee shops, diners, a pharmacy, a movie theater, clothing and electronic stores. I can get groceries and take-out delivered to my apartment. And as my upper body strength has improved, I have been able to venture farther and farther.

Normally I walk to work, but 43 blocks on crutches would be a marathon.

So instead I’ve been taking the bus. The newer model of buses with flat entrances are a real boon for folks on crutches and in wheelchair, but many others still require walking up a couple of stairs. While the bus was much slower than the subway, because of traffic, it was a much more pleasant experience since I enjoyed the scenery and getting a seat. It’s rare that I get a seat on a bus, but on crutches I found 90% of people very willing to give up their seat. The bus is a very different experience with a seat. I was able to relax and read a book while traveling to work.

The other major means of getting around town was of course, taxis. I used these mostly when I was going to places that were far from mass transit or would require 2-3 buses to get there. The problem was finding them and getting into and out of them. Demand for taxis is very high at certain times, like rush hour and during rain storms. During these high demand times, competition was fierce. The good neighborliness of the bus was replaced by a "every man & woman for themselves" mentality. And it’s hard to compete on crutches against agile 20-somethings running and grabbing cabs as soon as they see someone get out of one.

Disembarking from taxis was also a challenge. Many side streets do not have a good pick-up and drop-off area so the taxi has to drop me off in the middle of the street, blocking traffic for the extra 1 minute it takes for me to get out and up back on the crutches. And the honking behind the taxi began after 10 seconds. In one case, the car directly behind the taxi saw me struggling with the crutches and stopped honking, but the two cars behind him continued their blaring horn honking. Without even knowing the problem ahead of them, they felt entitled to let the whole area feel their displeasure at being obstructed for just a minute.

I think anyone involved in urban planning, transportation or even designing street furniture, should have to walk around on crutches for a day/week. They would learn a lot about what people with limited mobility appreciate. Even better would be to confine them to a wheelchair, since I was able to still do small flights of stairs (with considerable effort, but very doable) that a person in a wheelchair would not be able to do. There are many buildings that are still not ADA accessible because of one step at the front entrance.

On my short list of improvements to the city landscape are:

  • At least one bench on every block to provide a resting area for people.
  • Taxi stands at least every 3-5 blocks on each Avenue, perhaps with a shelter and seating at major transportation hubs.
  • Switch bus fleet over to models without stairs at the entrance. This saves a great deal of time for loading/unloading folks in wheelchairs.
  • Greatly accelerate installation of elevators at all major subway station with a goal of completing the whole system by a target date. Until then, offer surface options that offer similar inter-borough routes.
  • Provide grants and other incentives to improve ADA access to more buildings.

In addition to helping disabled and elderly folks, these improvements would make the city considerably more baby/toddler friendly. Getting unnecessary automobiles off the streets which clog traffic would greatly improve the speed of the modes of transportation that the disabled and elderly use. Bus Rapid Transit will be a major improvement over current conditions, but it will only be available in certain limited areas.