It’s a blustery day in December, and it feels good to enter the shadowy calm of Union Station, heralded by urban planners in 1939 as America’s “last great train station,” and later revamped as the hub of mass transit in Los Angeles.
But it’s a matter of minutes before we encounter the cold shoulder we’ve come downtown to document. Brian Miles wheels his way inside the ornate lobby and seems to quickly irk the Metro employee with such evidently inane questions as “How do I get to Pershing Square from here?,” “Where do I buy my tickets?” and “What sort of wheelchair access is there?” Miles is a quadriplegic on a mission: He’s been enlisted to record just how a wheelchair user is treated when attempting to use public transportation.
Miles spends about 10 minutes — in plain view of the attendants he just spoke with — in line at one vending machine before discovering it’s the wrong one and that we need to go downstairs and buy tickets on the subway platform. I follow at a discreet distance, the better to gauge the experience of a solo wheelman.
While walking patrons slip briskly down escalators to the dull roar of approaching trains, Miles is to ride an impressive-looking stainless-steel box into the bowels of the station. The only problem is, the button is a nondescript steel lump nearly hidden on the panel, making Miles play a game of Let’s Find the Button. A few minutes later he locates it, only to discover it’s even more difficult for a quad like him to actually push it. (Bummer if he actually had a train to catch.)
Down on the platform, things are relatively quiet as we wait for our ride to Pershing Square. A driver on downtime shows Miles where to place his wheelchair while waiting for the train to arrive. He seems courteous and sincere.
“It’s important that they know where to board the train,” he says. “I’ve seen people in wheelchairs get stuck in the gap several times. You have to be real careful.”
The train rolls in and we board, our helpful driver showing Miles to one of the spots for wheelchair users, which is located next to emergency buttons.
Two stops later we are underneath Pershing Square and disembark, or at least Miles tries to get off the train. Trouble is, the crowds pushing into the car don’t seem to care whether or not he makes it off. Fortunately, the driver is watching and keeps the doors open until Miles is off and safely away from the railcar.
“Hey, you know people are supposed to let those guys off first,” the driver says, sticking his head out of the window in the cramped engineer’s compartment. “But as you can tell, nobody really cares anymore.”
The train pulls out in a blast of hydraulics, and in the silence that follows, our attention shifts to what appears to be a grizzled angel drifting down the platform toward us in a wheelchair, a bag of fruits and vegetables balanced precariously in his lap. At 57 hard years old, James Fadeley’s weathered face is framed under a baseball cap festooned with buttons like “Sex Maniac.” Contrasted with a sporty-looking suburbanite like Miles, who’s 24, Fadeley radiates an urbanite challenge of “Roll a mile in my chair.”
Since suffering a stroke 20 years ago, Fadeley says he’s been using public transit to get his wheelchair around the sprawl of Greater L.A., sometimes successfully, but increasingly not.
“It varies now day to day, often depending on the personnel,” Fadeley says, stroking his scraggly beard. “It seems the buses cut out disabled access first. Mechanics lose their overtime and the ramps stay broke. If they really wanted to transport us, instead of just trying to look good, they’d fix those lifts in a hurry.”
Fadeley seems amused when we tell him we’re conducting a daylong survey of wheelchair access aboard Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains and buses.
“Good luck,” he says. “Oftentimes these days, buses will drive right by a wheelchair user waiting at a stop, especially if he’s the only one there. I figure either the lifts are broke or they just don’t want to hassle with getting you on the bus.”
Before Fadeley slips away, he offers one final assessment of the MTA’s efforts to transport wheelchair users. “If I was giving them their report card, they’d get a D,” he says. “Not failing, but damn close.”
We are back on the street and happy to find sunlight, as we emerge from Pershing Square and move south along Hill Street toward the first bus stop we’re going to stake out.
Just south of the Sixth Street and Hill Street intersection, Miles pulls up close to the curb, practically under the bus-stop sign, and begins to wait for a bus from the several routes that are supposed to stop here.
It doesn’t take long to see the reason for Fadeley’s low grade. The first bus that should have stopped for Miles actually brakes momentarily, slowing to perhaps 10 mph, then roars off down the street. It was almost as if the driver needed to make sure an able-bodied person wasn’t waiting to be picked up before gunning it.
Three more buses pass that should have stopped for Miles, who by now has his hand raised as if trying to hail a cab. Miles rolls over to me and wonders, “Do you think they can see me?”
I figure the only way they can’t is if the MTA has really reached out to the disabled community and started hiring blind drivers.
Miles takes his position again, and this time an old lady joins him at the stop. Surprise! A bus pulls over. But the fun’s just starting.
The woman boards and I follow her on, while Miles waits at the curb to see what happens next. The driver, a burly middle-aged man, doesn’t seem to notice Miles and seems anxious to get moving.
“Hey, I think that guy in the chair wants to get on,” I tell him.
He looks over his shoulder at Miles, who’s looking back at him.
“Oh yeah, how do you know? Where’s he going?”
“I don’t. I just think he might want to get on.”
The driver gets out of his seat and asks Miles where he’s headed. Miles tells him he just wants to ride down Hill Street a few blocks.
“Yeah, but where are you going?” the driver demands.
Funny, but it seems when a wheelchair user knows where he wants to go, MTA staff are often confused about how to get him there. But when he’s a little vague as to where he’s headed, then they have to know the exact destination.
Apparently convinced that Miles needs to board the bus, the driver maneuvers it close enough to the sidewalk, a process complicated by the fact that cars keep sharking the curb space behind him.
Finally close enough, the driver trots to the back of the bus and lowers the ramp for Miles. He moves three people out of their seats and then flips the seats up to make room for Miles’ electric chair.
As he heads to the front of the bus, ready to resume his route, the sense of irritation on the driver’s face is plain to see. It broadcasts, “These wheelchair users are a bitch to pick up . . . Why me?”
Yet more palpable is the tension from the passengers, who seem confused that five minutes had to be spared to pick Miles up. Nothing is said, but nothing has to be. While he was boarding, Miles was in an uncomfortable spotlight. With the bus moving again, no one looks at him. He’s once again the invisible man.
A few blocks later, we leave our fellow travelers and head over to Broadway. On the way we meet Audrey Harthorn and Lillibeth Navarro, both cruising through the hustle and bustle of the boulevard in their chairs.
Harthorn cuts to the chase in describing MTA bus access. “It sucks,” she says.
“Most of the time the lift equipment is not working, and even when it is, I suspect the drivers tell you it isn’t just so they don’t have to take the time to pick you up,” Harthorn says. “These drivers are on tight schedules, and picking up a wheelchair user takes time.”
Harthorn and Navarro recount the numerous times they’ve encountered the “Who let you onboard?” vibe from passengers on MTA buses. The twisted irony is that MTA downtown buses serve primarily the working class, most of whom are ethnic minorities who have personal experience with discrimination.
“One lady cussed me out because she was in a hurry to get somewhere and she thought it was taking too long to get me on the bus,” says Harthorn, who has a congenital disorder. “A black driver once told me point-blank, ‘I don’t like picking you people up.’”
At Broadway and Eighth Street, it’s time to catch another bus. This time we don’t have to wait as long, but then there are plenty of able-bodied people waiting here to catch the bus.
The driver seems less put out this time by having to help Miles board, even cracking a smile as he asks, “You all set?”
The ride back to Union Station is a rough one. The bus shakes so violently that either it is ready to fall apart or the roads have suffered heavy artillery fire. The woman in front of me seems embarrassed that she can’t stop the bottles she’s stashed in her jacket from clinking like a dinner party in progress.
The bus slides into its parking zone at Union Station, and the driver helps Miles onto the ramp, which gets him back on the ground. Good thing, because it breaks down on the way back up.
I ask the driver if this happens often.
“Oh yeah, a lot of buses got broken ramps,” he says. “But, hey, what can a driver do about it except write it up and hope it’s fixed the next day?”
What about the guy on the curb? I ask.
“Him? He’s outta luck until the next bus,” he says. “But like I said. I’m not a mechanic, I’m a driver.”
Indeed. And maybe that’s why Miles and thousands of other wheelchair users — along with everyone else — think mass transit in Los Angeles is a great idea for someone else to use.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is busted, then the MTA should at least try.
In the meantime, we’re all drivers.