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Transit For All: How NYC’s Public Transit Serves the Blind


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In many ways, how we view public transportation reflects how we see our societies.  Do we value shared resources, or prefer private ownership? Will vital services be available to all, or just a few? How accessible is it to those who are dependent on public transport to go about their daily lives?  We went to New York City, where Reporter Britta Conroy-Randall took a trip with blind advocate Romeo Edmead to find out how easy to is for him gets around town.

This week, on Making Contact,

BLBRD: “There have been jobs that I couldn’t take because the bus simply wouldn’t be able to get me there in time to start,”

Steltzer: For many, public transportation isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.

BLBRD: “It means liberation. It means unlimited access, it means equal opportunity. The most difficult aspect of being blind is lack of independence with traveling.”

Steltzer: When city budgets are cut, public transportation is often on the chopping block. And routes and lines serving those who need the service most, can be the first to go. But an emerging Transportation Justice movement is standing up for people’s right to ride.

CHANT TRT: “When I say Free, you say MUNI. Free! MUNI! FREE! MUNI!”

Steltzer: On this edition. From New York to Argentina, people organizing in the name of transportation for all.

Steltzer: I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

CHANT: “Did we win this fight? YEAH! Was it a long fight? YEAH!! Was it a hard fight? YEAH…

Steltzer: It’s a school day, but hundreds of kids are out on the streets in San Francisco’s Mission District celebrating. This week marks the beginning of a free MUNI pass program—in which low and moderate income students can ride public transit for free—24 hours a day. The campaign for free MUNI took 2 years, and it wasn’t easy but .

Nick Persky: “The civic engagement of youth in the Free MUNI for youth campaign is something that we’ve barely ever seen before. “

Steltzer: 17 year old Nick Persky is a member of the San Francisco Youth Commission.

Persky: “…the number of youth coming into city hall, flooding city hall for various MTA meetings, various board of supervisor meetings, has been insane. We’ve never seen this many youth come into city hall before, and its really something special to see.”

Steltzer: Hundreds of high school students spent two years lobbying the Municipal Transportation Agency and Metropolitan Transportation Commission to lay out more than 6 million dollars for the pilot program. Balboa high senior Paolo Acosta was one of them.

Acosta: “Just coming back over and over and over and over and over…the more and more networking and marketing we did about this campaign, we actually tired out the MTA and got them to approve it.”

Steltzer: But San Francisco’s youth didn’t do it alone.

Avalos: “Because you had the pressure from the grassroots, we were able to make this happen.”

Steltzer: John Avalos is a member of the San Francisco Boar of Supervisors.

Avalos: “it was an amazing inside outside strategy. We knew, that if it wasn’t the people who were most impacted by the policies of MUNI, who didn’t raise their voices, we wouldn’t be able to make it happen on the inside.”

Steltzer: Youth whose families make less than the Bay Area Median Income are eligible for the free pass—that’s over forty thousand students. Not being able to afford the bus keeps some of those students from attending school, or participating in afterschool activities. Allowing kids to travel free also helps them explore different parts of their city…and makes them more likely to become adults who use public transit. Getting more people onto buses, trains and trolleys means fewer cars on San Francisco’s busy roads and cleaner air for everyone..

Campos: “We always believed that this effort was not just about satisfying the economic needs of these students, but it was about how we as a city look at transportation.

Steltzer: City Supervisor David Campos helped lead the Free MUNI for youth campaign.

Campos:“Other cities in other parts of the bay area are looking at this pilot as an example of what they can do for their families.”
“…We are investing in the future generation of riders and San Francisco is leading the way.”

CHANT: “Spread the word, spread the truth. Free MUNI for all our youth!”

Steltzer: In many ways, how we view public transportation reflects how we see our societies. Do we value shared resources, or prefer private ownership? Will vital services be available to all, or just a few?
Low income youth, like those San Francisco school kids, are one example, but there are others who are even more dependent on public transport to go about their daily lives.
We went to New York City, where Reporter Britta Conroy-Randall took a trip with blind advocate Romeo Edmead (Ah-Meed) to find out how easy to is for him gets around town,

Subway sounds/announcements

Britta Conroy-Randall: The New York City Subway system has four hundred and sixty eight stations – it’s the largest of any city in the world. There’s twenty one lines, running twenty four hours a day on three hundred and thirty miles of track. So there are times when even sighted people get confused. But Romeo Edmead (Ah-Mead), who’s been blind since he was two years old, knows his way around pretty well.

Edmead: You go up those stairs in the back, you go through a turnstile, when you go through a turnstile you make a right. You go up the first set of stairs you make a left, you go up another set, then you’re on the street.

Britta Conroy-Randall: Like most other New Yorkers, Romeo uses subways and buses to get to work, visit family and meet up with friends. He also walks – a lot. He says he relies heavily on his other senses to make his way around safely.

Edmead: Once the train pulls away I stop for a second and start listening for sounds. What I’m listening for is like turnstiles, metrocard machines, I’m listening for traffic. Also if it’s the winter time, I’m feeling too – not with my hands but I’m paying attention to what I feel. Why? Because wherever the cold air is coming from will also be an indication of where the exit of the subway is

Britta Conroy-Randall: In a city where around seven million people use mass transit every day, you can’t go far without hearing a complaint: regular service interruptions, inconsistent schedules, ongoing renovations… But these things don’t bother Romeo too much

Edmead: What I would say to that is welcome to New York you know? (Laughing)

Britta Conroy-Randall: To him, public transport means a lot more than just getting from point A to point B

Edmead: It means liberation. It means unlimited access, it means equal opportunity. The most difficult aspect of being blind is lack of independence with traveling. If you’re somebody that has to rely on rides, you’re not at liberty as much as somebody who can just jump on a train or a bus at any moment and go do what they want to do

Britta Conroy-Randall: Despite the obvious hurdles of life in America’s busiest city, the American Foundation for the Blind named New York as one of the country’s most livable – chosen partly for it’s public transit system that quote “allows blind residents to take full advantage of local cultural and social opportunities”. But despite the city’s high rating on issues of accessibility, there’re a number of advocacy groups working on improving the city for blind residents – especially when it comes to transportation. Lester Marks, the Director of Government Affairs at Lighthouse International, says one of the major issues is accessible announcements

Britta Conroy-Randall: This is a Manhattan five express train. The next stop is Beverly Road, stand clear of the closing doors please.

Britta Conroy-Randall: Lester says they’ve been introduced into many subway lines over the past few years, but are still missing from buses

Lester Marks: You want to know what stop you’re in, and you also maybe want to know the next stop you’re arriving into or how far along your stop is

Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo agrees – it’s a problem he encounters every time he takes a bus

Edmead: Things can be tricky sometimes because unlike a train the bus doesn’t stop at the same stops every time you’re on it. If somebody’s not getting on or getting off at a particular stop then it will just pass by. So you can’t count.

Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo says audible announcements can help with route changes or detours too

Edmead: About two weeks ago I was at a bus stop for an hour waiting for a bus and it turns out there was a sign there saying that the bus was detoured and you have to go a block down to catch the bus. It was like twenty degrees that night – I just froze, like unbelievable! And if I could see, that wouldn’t have happened.

Britta Conroy-Randall There’s a similar problem with hybrid and electric cars. Their almost silent engines pose a threat to blind people walking the city streets

Edmead: So obviously if you’re using your ears to cross streets and you’re listening to where cars are and things, if you can’t hear them, you know, they can run you over

Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo has worked alongside advocacy groups like Lighthouse and the National Federation of the Blind to lobby Washington, and they got a bill passed establishing minimum sound requirements for new hybrid and electric vehicles. Now, they’re hoping their lobbying efforts can affect a similar change on city buses. The MTA’s annual performance review flags accessibility for the disabled as one of its key goals – but they don’t mention accessible announcements. Lester Marks says people need to maintain the pressure if they want to see needed improvements.

Edmead: If we as the blind community don’t continually remind them or let them know about how somebody who’s blind or somebody with a visual impairment travels, then of course they’re not going to think about it as much.

Britta Conroy-Randall: Fade up under Lester and continue

Britta Conroy-Randall: Romeo says public transport has been a lifeline for him and many others in the blind community

Edmead: You see you have to understand when you’re talking to someone like me, that just presents unlimited freedom. Some people are mentally free but they’re not physically free. And when you get the chance to have both simultanously that’s where you want to be.

Britta Conroy-Randall: And he plans to keep working to make sure New York’s transit system meets the needs of everyone in the city, regardless of their ability to see. For Making Contact, I’m Britta Conroy-Randall.

Steltzer: So we know New York City has the biggest subway system. But when you think of modern, green, public transportation, a city that likely comes to mind is Portland, Oregon. Portland has built a reputation worldwide, and for many people, it’s deserved. But as reporters Jennifer Kemp and Eric Klein found out, that world class public transit, doesn’t serve all members of the public equally.


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