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Navigating public transit in a wheelchair | The Transit Diaries

The Transit Diaries: Navigating public transit in a wheelchair

For many, walking up dozens of steps to reach a platform or standing on a crowded train or bus can feel like a nuisance, but part of the commuting experience. For those like 21-year-old Northwestern University student Jackie Quinn, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, navigating the CTA and Metra can be a tiresome and often frustrating process.

Not every CTA or Metra station is handicapped accessible, and that often limits where Quinn can go—at least using public transportion—across the city. She said she hasn't taken Metra because of its lack of accessibility, even if it's distance-wise the most convenient option. The Metra station closest to her job isn't accessible. 

“I guess I don’t even think of going places because I know it’s going to be a big project—having to look up whether a stop is accessible or not and plan around that,” Quinn said. “It’s limiting when I know there are certain places that will take me an extra long time to get to, so on a lot of occasions, it doesn’t even feel worth it to go.”

Quinn was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when she was a baby, limiting the use of her muscles; she uses a motorized wheelchair. 

A senior majoring in radio/television/film, she has to travel from her off-campus apartment in Evanston to Lincoln Park once or twice a week to get to her internship at Cards Against Humanity.

“If I have to take the CTA for my job, I would get on at the Davis Purple Line stop and take it to Fullerton and then take a bus for the other remaining mile,” Quinn said. “But it’s really difficult for me to navigate the CTA by myself because I can’t press the buttons to go up elevators or even press a button to tell the train operator to stop and get the ramp out for me to get off.”

So to avoid the hassle, Quinn takes a Pace accessible taxi to her job, often spending $30-$40 each way. She spends close to $100, if not more, each week to get to work, a staggering difference compared with the standard one-way $2.25 CTA or $5 Metra fare.

"Chicago's [public] transit has allowed me to be able to get to work and be a somewhat-independent adult, which I'm very grateful for, but the obstacles that I still face are costly," Quinn said. "I put more time, money and effort into getting around than an abled-body Chicagoan. I'm not allowed any spontaneity when planning my transportation, and that can be very discouraging."

Out of the CTA’s 145 rail stations, 100 (almost 69 percent) have elevators and ramps that are compliant with federal Americans With Disability Act access guidelines.  

“Some of the challenges we face are due to the CTA’s aging infrastructure, but in comparison to other systems, we are ahead of the pack as far as making the system fully accessible,” CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman said.

CTA announced last month a program that will establish a blueprint to make the entire rail system fully accessible over the next 20 years as a way to show their commitment to accessibility.

All of CTA's buses and rail cars are accessible to people with disabilities and are designed to accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility devices, according to the agency's website.

Metra’s station accessibility numbers are roughly the same as CTA’s with 173 fully accessible stops (almost 72 percent) out of its 241 total. Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said the agency will make a stop accessible, if it isn't already, any time major work or renovations are being done at that station.

In the meantime, Quinn said CTA operators and fellow passengers often pitch in to help her out, from pressing elevator buttons and making sure she gets on OK to locking in her wheelchair in the priority seating area. 

“I really think they should focus on making sure every stop is accessible,” Quinn said of CTA and Metra. “They’ve started changing some of the stops to have an automatic ramp pull out, which is really nice, so I hope that happens for the rest of the trains.”

@riannecoale  |  rcoale@redeyechicago.com

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