Sunday, May 17, 2009

The disabled, cars and transit

I was wrong to state in my last post that the recent article on Roosevelt Island bike parking was the first time that Streetsblog had turned its attention to the island. In 2007, Glenn McAnanama wrote a post about restoring elevator access to the Queensboro bridge.

In response to my post, Roosevelt Islander raised an issue that's worth tackling:
You should also be aware that some of the residents opposed the concept of a car free Roosevelt Island saying that cars are needed for many of the elderly,disabled and parents with children to conveniently get on and off the Island for shopping and other necessities.

I can't find where they articulate that, but I do remember seeing it, and I've heard it in other places, including the congestion pricing debates. I may take on the parent issue later, but I want to address the issue of the elderly and disabled now. As I wrote in the comments, I think that's a crock. Let me explain.

First, in this case, the issues relating to the elderly and disabled are essentially the same; the relevant elderly are simply people who are disabled by age-related causes. The disabilities that affect transportation are mobility, sensory and cognitive.

The argument essentially is that many elderly and disabled people rely on private cars to get around, so any restriction on car use amounts to discrimination. The weakness in this argument is that it assumes that they have no choice but to rely on cars, while in fact the great majority of New York's disabled use transit just like the rest of the population. My father never drove in his life; when he was unable to walk more than half a block at a time, he took buses and taxis.

When the disabled rely on cars instead of walking short distances, what they are doing is spending thousands of dollars on really big heavy wheelchairs. Sure, there are people who are not strong enough to walk from the Motorgate to their apartment, but there are a range of solutions, and if they choose the most wasteful, polluting and dangerous one we are not required to support that choice. There are plenty of smaller, less dangerous mobility devices, powered by humans or electricity, and in fact you see them all over Roosevelt Island.

Disabilities don't just affect walking. My grandfather lived to be 88 years old; when he was 75 and living in Florida he joked that no one over seventy should be allowed behind the wheel. This is actually serious business, though: many people have been killed and injured because of elderly drivers' inability to operate cars safely.

Of course, many elderly people recognize their disabilities and choose to stop driving. Beyond that, there are many people whose disabilities have prevented them from driving, such as the blind and the mentally ill.

There is certainly discrimination in transportation; in fact, privileging car owners is a particularly repulsive form of discrimination, because it attacks the economically disadvantaged, those who make choices to benefit the environment, and those who make choices to not put their fellow citizens at undue risk. Worst of all, it affects those elderly and disabled who do not drive because they are unable to drive safely. It is the height of hypocrisy for the beneficiaries of this discrimination to turn around and play victim.

All this is not to say that disabilities are irrelevant. Quite the contrary, while the American Association of Retired Persons has recognized the value of walkable communities for the elderly, we can't have transportation systems that require everyone to walk, bicycle or climb stairs. The Americans with Disabilities Act is gradually reforming transit and sidewalks so that they serve the disabled better. Government should commit to providing transportation for all, regardless of disability, and that means bringing transit to the disabled when they need it.


BruceMcF said...

Excellent point ... if someone needs a vehicle to get around, why is a vehicle capable of driving on an Expressway required to get around Roosevelt Island?

Electric golf carts that are speed limited to, say, 20mph would do the same job just as well.

bike said...

It seems that there needs to be a SAFE cycling infrustructure in order for cycling to be an option for the handicapped.

I saw this fellow cycling on a separated bike path: