Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1


4. Public Transportation

Riding Buses and Streetcars

Most trips involve walking at the beginning and end, or even in the middle, so that many skills are used. You need to have the route, destination, and length of the trip in mind before you start. While planning your trip, learn the name and/or number of the bus you want. Buses for different routes may use the same or nearby stops, and you will need to ask before boarding.

You need to know where the stop is: at the corner or around the corner, back from the corner or across the intersection. All of these locations and more are possibilities. In my boyhood and youth I rode streetcars that ran in the center lane of the street. We boarded from an island, sometimes raised and sometimes painted on the street. I had to locate the island by listening to where cars did not run.

With practice you will learn how fast people shuffle along as they step up, pay their fare, get a transfer, and find a seat. Do you need to ask the driver to call your stop for you? The time of boarding is a good time to ask for that help. Sometimes it is wise to confirm your destination with the driver as you near it, especially if it is a long trip. When you get off, remember all those possible locations of the bus stop we mentioned at the beginning of the trip. In unfamiliar areas, I ask where the stop will be for the return trip.

Over the years I have made many mistakes such as waiting at the wrong stop, getting on the wrong bus, getting off too soon or too late, and more. I have paid for these mistakes in time and confusion, but I have learned from them.

Next I will present a step-by-step account of a trip I take frequently. I do this to share what I find necessary and helpful when riding the bus. This trip takes me from work to home.

I go out the door of the building where I work and turn left. At the end of the block there is an oblique left where I again go to the end of the block.

There are three streets that almost come together here to form a series of individual intersections. There are curb cuts for wheelchairs, and if I use them and walk straight, I hit the ramp on the opposite side. At this time of day there is plenty of traffic waiting to go the same way I do. I go when they go, stay parallel to the line of cars on the left, keep between them and the cars waiting their turn on my right. If I step up on grass, I am too far to the right, so correct to the left. It is about seventy feet to the next corner, and about half of that distance is taken by the entrance to a gas station. I can tell when I am crossing their slanted driveway if one foot is high and one foot is low.

I wait through the cycle of lights and cross the next street. On the curb I walk in two or three steps and turn right. The bus stop is a bus length down, just beyond a plot of dirt with a tree and a trash can. There are often other people waiting for the bus.

There are three routes that use this stop, and two of them will take me where I need to go. Some of the drivers have learned to announce their route as they open the door, so I don't always have to ask. Often there are people getting off, so I wait my turn to board. I step up, put the fare in the box, ask for my kind of transfer to go across a zone line, and find a seat.

Here I digress for a point of philosophy. Drivers and other passengers may encourage you or force you to sit in the "priority seating" at the front of the bus. The choice is still yours to take it or not. I sometimes sit in front and sometimes farther back.

How do I know where to get off? This leg of the trip is short enough so I have learned the pattern of the eight stops. Even if we miss one, and at that time of day we usually hit them all, I can account for the distance. It goes like this: long, medium, medium, long, very short, long, medium but often missed, medium. After six I get up, approach the driver and ask. I actually count stops on my fingers, but please don't tell my third grade teacher!

The stop where I get off is near the corner, so I walk the few feet and check for the direction of traffic. Sometimes I cross with that noisy bus beside me, but I feel safe because no traffic is coming through that bus. The stop for the next bus is just to the right where I have to thread my way between a trash can, a telephone stand, and a newspaper vending machine, all good landmarks.

For this bus and the next my only fare is my transfer. We go through a distinctive set of turns and up a long hill, but I don't have to notice while going home because I ride to the end of the line.

At this terminal, I walk straight away from the bus, then turn to follow the sidewalk beside the turn-around used by several of the buses. I dodge people, benches, and supporting pillars, and turn out at the second exit, which puts me right at the fire plug beside my bus stop. This time I can only take one of the three buses that stop here, and sometimes they line up, so I may have to back up fifty feet for mine. I have made a few "bus stop" acquaintances who sometimes give me the word.

This leg of the trip takes about twenty minutes. We start off around the terminal and, after a quarter of a mile, in, around, and out of a traffic circle. Those turns are distinctive. We go about four miles with very few people getting on or off. Then we come to a major intersection for which we must wait through at least one cycle of the lights and with the stop after we cross. After the next stop, which we do not always make, the bus makes an oblique left turn, and I sigh with relief because it is my last landmark. I get up when the bus shifts into high gear. At my stop I go back across the street we just crossed and walk two short blocks to my home.

I know that this description is long, but it is the "one bite at a time" approach to eating an elephant. No two trips are exactly the same, but you may find some of these techniques useful as you develop your own.

Subways, Escalators, and Elevators

The first thing people want to know about subways is the location of the platform edge. I slide my cane tip along to locate the edge, step back from it, and respect it. As I walk along subway platforms, I walk a little slower than usual, and I swing my cane a little wider than usual. I also slide the cane on the surface, the only time I use this otherwise poor technique. I want to know immediately if the cane drops over the edge. I expect people to criticize me about this point, so go ahead. The one thing I do not do is step sideways. The cane has been ahead of me, not to the side.

When the train comes, and after the door opens, put the cane tip on the floor of the car before you step in just to be sure you are not trying to enter the gap between cars. When you get off, let the cane tip go first to be sure that there is a platform waiting for you.

Are there stairs, escalators or elevators to take you up and down? Stairs have been discussed earlier. For escalators, I only know one warning and two tricks, and they are not exclusive to blind people. The warning is that an escalator is a powerful, moving machine. Cooperate with it as it helps you, and you will get there. Use the hand-rail, and don't play around. The first trick is, if I am not sure if an escalator is going up or down, I pause in front of it and feel the hand-rail. The other trick is one of balance as I step on or off a moving platform. When I step on, and I feel the stair treads dividing under my feet, I step up or down so that my whole foot is on one tread, not divided between treads, but that is no trick. It is just common sense.

Treat elevators with the same respect you treat the platform edge. Let the cane tell you that there is something solid ahead of you to step on. This is no time to enact bad elevator jokes.

Airports, Train and Bus stations

Transportation terminals tend to have several features in common. There are long distances to cover and large open areas with arrangements of furniture in the middle. The ticket counter is relatively close to the entrance, relative to the size of the terminal, that is.

The next part of the trip may cover several hundred yards of corridors including an array of modern miracle transportation: moving sidewalks, people movers, monorails and more. Little children think they are fun; I must be getting old. At the end of this part of the trip you must find just the right door and play the ticket game again.

You may be able to get most or all the way by yourself, but if you need help in finding your way, there is no use in being shy about asking for help. A personal guide may range from necessary to helpful to bothersome. As hard as it sometimes is to find help when you need it, sometimes it is harder to get rid of help when you don't want it any more. Some trips are once and never again, and I need more help then. Some trips are regulars, and I need little if any help then.

The job of the blind traveler is to learn and keep in mind the gate number and departure time. The guide, then, needs only to locate and steer, not to investigate and govern. The guide may try to investigate and govern, anyway, but it is your trip, not theirs. You make the decisions, so you stay in control.

In my experience, one of the distinct features of airports is the departure lounge. That is where you may have your ticket taken away from you, be pre-boarded, be helped at the right or wrong time with the right or wrong amount of help.

I have found it informative to hear what airline personnel say to each other about me. "Should we take his ticket?" That was when I clutched my ticket and gently found a seat to wait in. It was not the same seat I had before I went up to ask my question, but I still had my ticket and boarded when I chose.

There was the time when three flights were called before mine. Everyone walked around the edge of the lounge, avoiding the central area. I decided that benches or plants must be blocking that area. I could hear where tickets were being taken. When my flight was called, I took the "round" trip and found the departure gate myself. That was when I heard, "He didn't ask for any help." I don't always insist on being that independent, but that day I did.

Train stations may or may not be as big as airports, but they share the same obstacles. Trains are long, so platforms have to be long. Some train platforms are raised above the level of the tracks, so remember the rules from the subway lesson. Locate the platform edge, and respect it. Do not step sideways. Let your cane tell you that there is something solid to step on: up, down, and level.

Bus stations range in size from a driveway beside a small-town drug store to a city block or more. In bus stations, you need to get to the right boarding gate, and there is often a loud noise when you get there. Sometimes the distance from the boarding gate to the bus door is short and obvious, and you can find it easily. Sometimes the bus you want is behind or beyond three others, all of which are roaring along with their engines on "high idle". If you know where to go, then go ahead. Remember Rule One. If you don't know where to go, ask for help. All that noise to a blind person masks other useful sounds. The equivalent situation to a sighted person would be turning out the lights or flooding the area with fog.