Wheeling Through NYC – Accessible Travel in the Big Apple

By Andrea Jehn Kennedy ~ 

New York City gets a bad rap. Coming from Colorado, and using a wheelchair, my husband Craig and I had all sorts of warnings that we’d collected from others before our trip: only 10% of the subway is accessible, the locals aren’t friendly, it’s a dirty city, the crime is bad… You name it. We heard it.

But on behalf of all New Yorkers in all five boroughs, I want to set this record straight! Neither of us had spent any quality time in the Big Apple in the last decade, and after two days of touring the city on various modes of transportation, I have nothing but good things to say about the city’s transportation as well as its locals. All subway stops we needed in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx were accessible; every tour bus and airport shuttle we needed had a lift; there were a plethora of minivan taxis, and every person we asked for directions had a smile and a helpful point in the right direction.

Our touring included Yankee Stadium, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the World Trade Center memorial site, Empire State Building, Chinatown, and Central Park, to name a few. We didn’t come to a single obstacle we couldn’t manage. Ramps, automatic doors, lifts, elevators, escalators, accessible bathrooms, and friendly people abound; we actually found it harder to leave the city than to get around! Being told, “Come to the front of the line, don’t wait in the maze,” at Liberty and Ellis Island ferry stations was a perfect example of this NY hospitality.

All Gray Line Tours’ “hop-on, hop-off” buses have lifts and friendly tour guides, each a living encyclopedia of New York lore. This is hands-down the best way to see New York City and learn about the sights; all at your leisure, over a course of two days, with as many knowledgeable tour guides as you can cram in. Tours take off from their office on 42nd St., where you can also buy discounted passes to various sights like Liberty Island, the Met, Broadway shows and much more (www.newyorksightseeing.com or 212-397-2600).

We also used Vega Transportation, the premier accessible van service in the area, to get from Newark, where we were on business, to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Although more pricey than the subway, Vega is more reliable than any other transportation we found. If you use a power chair or scooter, need to get to a specific destination, or have a big entourage with you, then Vega is the way to go (www.vegatransportation.com or 888-507-0500  Note: If you arrange your trip through ABLE to Travel, you are eligible for a 5% discount from Vega Travel).

While it’s true that only a small portion of the NYC subway stations have accessible stops, we found it very easy to manage our day around these by planning our trip in advance. Visit the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)’s website (http://web.mta.info/accessibility/transit.htm#boardingarea) to find a list of the accessible stops, and plan your trip accordingly. The site is very helpful, right down to telling you which elevators are temporarily out of service.

We also found that the signage in the subways is superb. The elevators and some exits would be hard to find in the maze of this underground system without proper signage. There are also text-capable payphones at the accessible stations for persons with hearing impairments. In addition, if you are there for an extended period of time, you can get a discount pass to the subway system that you can also find on MTA’s link. We were short on time to get back to Newark Airport to fly out, and took the subway from Brooklyn to Times Square Station, where $15 Coach USA shuttles to the airport leave every 15 minutes and are half price to riders with disabilities. To get one with a lift, you have to call 48 hours in advance and know your time of departure; easy enough. (www.coachusa.com or 877-8-NEWARK)

We didn’t use Access-A-Ride, MTA’s additional “paratransit” service for people with disabilities. Because you do have to apply to use this system in advance, and our important subway stops were all accessible, we didn’t need it. But if you know you’re going to need reliable transportation, it’s easy and cheap to use Access-A-Ride. ( http://web.mta.info/nyct/paratran/guide.htm)

Our only regret was that we hadn’t done enough research on the Statue of Liberty tours to know that you have to book your tickets for the crown months in advance and get there early in the morning to even get into the monument. The Statue is entirely accessible, but they only let a few thousand visitors up the statue each day, and tickets must be booked several months ahead of your trip. Other than that, we only wished we’d stayed longer!

If you’re planning a trip to New York, make it easy on yourself and contact United Spinal’s ABLE to Travel and let their experienced agents help you plan an accessible trip. Call toll free 888-211-3635.

Andrea and her husband Craig are co-owners of Access Anything, travel consultants and writers specializing in marketing and education for all aspects of disability travel including AA LOGO 2 borderrecreation, adventure, eco travel, ADA rights and interpretation. Access Anything’s guidebook series, travel products, published articles and more can be found at www.accessanything.net.