Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Adventures in Public Transportation #2

imagesBefore I stopped working, I was a proficient airline traveler, even in my wheelchair. My adventures are usually more modest today. Now I’m dabbling in, gulp, city buses.

For some first-hand accounts of my business-related wheelchair travels, click here and here.

There is a bus system transportation hub only two blocks from our house. Although we moved to this neighborhood over a year ago, we never bothered to sample the public bus system until recently. The city website indicated that all buses are wheelchair accessible. I didn’t believe it, so Kim accompanied me on my first trip from our neighborhood to the Maine Mall.

We waited at our neighborhood’s outdoor transportation hub on a hot, humid August day. The bus was scheduled to arrive at 10:40 am. It arrived at 10:50 – not bad. I dreaded what sort of convoluted, humiliating boarding procedure I might be subjected to. The most horrifying public transportation experience I ever had was on the “green line” subway in Boston a few years ago. Kim and I had decided to attend a Red Sox game with our daughter Amy, who was enrolled at Bentley College just outside of Boston. The city’s public transportation website indicated that the green line was a wheelchair accessible train system. When we got to the boarding area we noticed that there were about four steps to get up onto the trains. As we pondered this obstacle, an attendant came along with an archaic device in tow.

on-the-rackI was instructed to drive up onto this portable lift. When I did, the attendant began turning a huge manual crank, leaning hard into the task, not unlike how a medieval tyrant would have turned the wheel of “the rack” in a dungeon, in order to torture a witch or a heathen. But my limbs were not stretched. Instead, every time he turned the ratcheted wheel I rose a little higher, until eventually I was at the level of the train, no worse for the wear (physically).

By now all the busy people on the train had been delayed, and it was obvious that I was the problem. As I attempted to proceed from the lift onto the train, everyone had to squeeze out of my way. I learned that the green line trains are always filled beyond capacity before and after Red Sox games. Wonderful. If there was a designated wheelchair spot on the train, with safety equipment such as tiedowns, I was never going to find it in this sea of humanity. I didn’t even try.

We had to reverse the process as we got off the train near Fenway Park. I vowed that I was never going to subject myself to using the green line again, and I haven’t. On the way back from Fenway Park we walked over to Northeastern University and boarded the orange line instead, which is a legitimately accessible train (as is the red line).

But my experience with the South Portland public bus system was nothing like that. A ramp automatically extended from the bus, and I drove straight on. There were two spaces reserved for wheelchairs, with a seatbelt system and four wheelchair tiedowns. Kim had me secured in no time. I didn’t feel conspicuous, and I didn’t throw the bus off schedule.

And we were thrilled to find out that the bus was comfortably air-conditioned.

This is probably a good time to make a confession. “Hello, my name is Mitch, and I’m a bit of a snob.”

Looking around the city bus, I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by the best and the brightest that South Portland had to offer. There were some, frankly, scary-looking characters on the bus. But if I’m going to live in the city, where lots of scary-looking characters live, and if I’m going to ride the bus, which is how lots of the scary-looking characters move about, then I better get used to it.

The bus took a circuitous route to the mall and made lots of stops, which accounted for dragging out what would normally be a 10 minute trip to 30 minutes. We arrived at the mall, debarked from the bus without incident, and enjoyed an hour or so of shopping. The next bus arrived on schedule at the mall. The ride back to our neighborhood was about 30 minutes once again. Success!

But would I dare try the bus system without Kim?

KT-slate-02-lg._V389394532_Ever since the new lineup of Amazon Kindle tablets and e-readers came out a few weeks ago, I’d been toying with the idea of purchasing one. The aforementioned Maine Mall has a Best Buy that was well-stocked with these devices. Kim had agreed to take me to the mall after work last Tuesday to pick up my newest toy. But on Tuesday morning I began to ask myself why this wouldn’t be a perfect opportunity to try going solo on the bus system.

I went to the transportation hub and waited for the 10:40 bus. I positioned myself near the doors as they opened. The bus driver indicated to me, however, that both of the wheelchair tiedowns locations were already occupied by other wheelchair users. This was not a problem that I had anticipated. I turned around and went home.

By about 12:30 I had shaken off the earlier disappointment, and returned to the hub to await the 12:40 bus. This time there were two open wheelchair spots, and I boarded without incident. The bus driver secured me, and we were on our way.

I went to Best Buy, picked up my new Kindle Fire HD, and got back to the pickup area just in time to catch the next bus home. When Kim walked through the door after work she saw the Kindle packaging strewn about the kitchen table and asked who had driven me to the mall.

She made a couple of guesses, and I just kept shaking my head, with a smile. Finally I let her off the hook. “Nobody drove me. I took the bus.”

“Of course! I completely forgot about that,” she confessed.

Before we discovered the bus system I was already somewhat mobile, given that I have a power wheelchair and lots of places to visit nearby. It was not uncommon for Kim to return from work and find nobody at home. She could always rest assured, however, that I must be somewhere nearby. But now when she comes home and doesn’t find me, I could be anywhere in the Greater Portland area, and I like that!


  1. Glad to hear of your new independence (and new toy)! Have fun! Similar to you I've had experiences with a wheelchair in public transport, some better than others. I've yet to brave our local bus service. I think I'll follow your method and do a trial run on the bus with my wife.

  2. Back when I was using a manual 'chair I became a regular rider on the bus. As I was somewhat newly diagnosed I still had the upper body strength to get myself around, so I frequently went shopping downtown alone. I loved knowing that no one knew where I was. Independence is exhilarating after you've been deprived of it for some time.

    These days I don't have the upper body strength to wheel myself very far, so I am looking forward to the day when I graduate to an electric chair. Bus travel around town will be mine once again.

    It must have been really nice to go buy your Fire by yourself. Congratulations!

  3. Good for you for taking the bus. I travel to NYC yearly with my husband and he has to break down my scooter and lift it into a trunk everytime we take a cab. There are a FEW wheelchair accessible cabs, but you have a better chance of winning the lottery than finding one. I have been pondering checking out the bus system which is accessible. Speaking of scary people, I bet there will be a few on the Manhattan buses. I find scary people entertaining, though as long as they are not trying to harm me or others. Does anyone have any experience on the NYC buses?

  4. I work in NYC and live in the burbs. I take the busses in Manhattan regularly and they are great!

    You can easily do it with a scooter too, and the driver will do everything needed to get you situated. Just be sure to buy your Metro Card in advance since they don't take cash.

    I also have Access-A-Ride in NYC so if I need to go between boroughs, I schedule the door to door trip. My local town has it too, so I can go to the mall on my own, or anyplace else withing a 15 mile radius. If you have it for your city, you can get reciprocal rights as a visitor in any US city that offers the service.

    If you'd like to chat, Mitch has my email address.


  5. I remember the same feelings the first time I rode the bus in my iBOT. I would have been comfortable traveling around the world in an airplane but getting around Albuquerque in the bus was daunting. I discovered that it works just fine and in many cases is actually more convenient than driving, especially if I'm going someplace where parking is an issue.

  6. I read this post with as much glee as if it had been my own experience. I have had both bad and good times with various transportation systems. Bad on the Christchurch, New Zealand city buses, pretty darned good with the "kneel-down," ramped buses in Saint Paul and car rental buses almost anywhere.

  7. Darren, good luck with your trial run.

    Webster, it sounds like you are at one of those in-between places in your disease progression. I've been there a bunch of times myself. On the one hand, you probably know that if you get a power wheelchair you'll basically stop using your manual one, and consequently stop using your arms much of the day. On the other hand, once you adopt that next level of mobility aid you will see some increased independence. Tough choices.

    Anonymous, my friend Michelle is very experienced in wheelchair travel in Manhattan. Check out her advice, and let me know if you'd like her email address. You can email me by clicking on the icon at the top right-hand corner of my webpage.

    Michelle, thanks for chiming in with your advice.

    Carol, great to hear from a fellow iBot user. I've never been to Albuquerque but it's on my list.

    Daphne, New Zealand and Australia are on my list too, but they are becoming long shots! I've had good experiences with accessibility in Minneapolis.