October 12, 2014
One thing you quickly learn when you navigate marginalized geographies is that there are not many maps and indications you can really trust. A wheelchair logo doesn’t necessarily mean that access is provided. There can be a step. You know, the “just-one- little-step-we-can-help-you” kind of thing. The opposite is also true: the lack of information on accessibility doesn’t mean that there is no access.
I have been studying the NYC subway quite intensively lately and I am getting better at knowing which stations I can use. According to the MTA, 82 out of 468 subway stations are accessible.
This morning I needed to go to a store not very far from 34th Street Herald Square station.
On the subway car, there is a screen displaying the next stops. I’ve seen this kind of screen before. The wheelchair-accessible stations are identified with a little red wheelchair logo. That is great. Technology is great. Or that’s what I thought until I realized that there was no magical red logo next to 34th Street Herald Square station. Why?
According to the subway map, 34th Street Herald Square station is accessible. I had checked the map compulsively. How could I have missed that? So I check again. The map does indicate that the station was accessible. Maybe there is a mistake on the map? Or maybe the electronic screen is hyper intelligent and keeps track of the broken elevators throughout the network? Maybe the elevator in that one station is out of order? Other stations on the digital screen have the wheelchair logo, which makes me wonder about the accessibility of 34th Street Herald Square station.
If I can’t get out at 34th Street Herald Square station, then what’s my other option? The next accessible station is 49th Street station. The store I want to go is on 34th Street. This would be quite a walk for any walkie. One good thing about my wheels is that they keep me safe. Anywhere I go, I know that at least I can rely on the electric power that keeps me moving. Even when the transit system fails me – which happens quite often in Montréal – my wheels will take me pretty much anywhere I need to go.
As I get off the subway car, I look to my right for indication of an accessible exit. There is nothing. I decide to go left. Nothing. So I go back where I came from to go to the other end of the platform. Nothing. How could the official subway map indicate that this station is accessible when it clearly is not? I continue my way, still hoping to come across an elevator.
And then I see a sign that says that there is an elevator! A few meters ahead, I notice that the sign to my right, when I got off the train, does not indicate where the elevator is. The information is indicated on previous signage but only on one side – the side I couldn’t see.
The elevator is at the end of the platform. And it works. Phew.
The second elevator, which takes you up to street level, is indicated very clearly.
This elevator is out of the service. The floor is wet. Is this the only elevator going to street level? The only way to find out seems to be to interact with another human being.
I see a police officer walking a few meters ahead of me. I speed up to ask him if there is another elevator. He says there is and tells me how to get there.
This second elevator is working, and I am finally able to get out of the station.
Every station has its own geographies that are not officially mapped. And people navigate these geographies every day.
They create their own personal maps. They make sense of spaces that make no sense.