July 5th, 2016

Getting Around in the District

Safetrack hit my neighborhood just when I had public transit figured out, and it’s starting to feel like a personal nemesis. Some autistic people drive, and that’s mostly how I get around back home. However, public transit is essential for the disability community because a lot of us don’t. Either our impairments rule out driving or we are too poor to keep reliable cars. For many disabled adults, a good bus system or local light rail can be the difference between unemployability and a living wage. I know that options besides cars also represent the freedom to play, study, worship, and just go exploring at will, i.e. access to most of what makes life worthwhile. However, as someone with a driver’s license, I don’t usually have to deal with these kinds of problems myself. Then I moved to D.C. for the summer, and everyone I know who had any experience with the city told me to leave my car at home. Even in Atlanta, a much more auto-oriented city, parallel parking this thing is exhausting:

This is my 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan, the larger version with the V6. It's the size of a medium-sized garden shed.

Doing without for the first time in my adult life was as intimidating as moving to an unfamiliar part of west Texas was last summer, but I took my friends’ and relatives’ advice.

I adjusted pretty quickly. Even the product of a long line of sellers and repairers of things that burn fossil fuels can appreciate having an extra hour every weekday while someone else deals with trying not to kill pedestrians. Then, metro tracks closed and pushed scores of people from their train to my bus. Suddenly, one morning, the usual crowd at the bus stop watched one, two, three buses roll past us too full to pick anyone up. I tried getting on earlier and later buses, but certain days of the week are hopeless. Whenever the buses left me stranded, I resorted to more-expensive ridesharing. On the worst days, traffic is so bad that even that doesn’t consistently get me downtown on time.

I have the physical wherewithal to bike the couple of miles to work and access to a shower when I get there, so I did the obvious thing: I traded in the bike I brought to D.C. for a more reliable commuter.

I’ll bike to work on days of the week when it’s hard to catch a bus, but I wonder how people who can’t are faring. Is paratransit van demand up? Can the system meet it? Do people on public transportation resent the space that walkers and service dogs take up as buses and trains get more crowded? I don’t see local news covering it. What I do see is disconcerting. There is still a much more humane standard of behavior on WMATA than I’ve seen on public transit in cities further north, but people are getting tense, pushy, and quicker to snap at each other during morning rush. A man who used crutches and a brace for what looked like a temporary leg injury rode my bus up until recently. We exchanged pleasantries sometimes. I haven’t seen him lately. If he has trouble standing up at the bus stop for half an hour while too-full buses pass or can’t maneuver in the crush of people on board, he may have had to find another way to get to work. I hope it’s working for him. I hope he can comfortably afford it. I really hope WMATA and D.C. have learned what drivers have always known about the value of routine maintenance so that this never happens again. Not everyone who needs to get to jobs and medical appointments in this magical, historic, challenging, expensive city can just get on a bike.

Postscript: I rode seven miles of commuting and errands today on a vintage, English three-speed loaded down like a pack mule. Endorphins are THE BEST. My day was wonderful.

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