Mobility impaired travel in NYC
January 27, 2009 2:40 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on visiting Manhattan with a mobility-limited traveling companion.

I'm going to be visiting New York City in late February. My traveling companion is recovering from a leg injury. She walks with a cane, has difficulty with stairs, and isn't in shape for the kinds of long walks I usually take when I'm in the city.

We're going to be flying into JFK on a Thursday morning and leaving on Saturday evening. We'll most likely be stayin in the Hotel Pennsylvania. We're going to see a couple of shows, dine out with friends, and visit the Met, the Museum of Natural History and St. John the Divine's. I plan on traveling mostly by cab, and our planned destinations all have ample locations to sit and rest. I could use Hivemind help on two points:

a) Is it possible to travel from JFK to Penn Station via the Long Island Railroad or the Subway and get to street level using only elevators and escalators?

b) Are there any non-obvious comfort-related considerations, potential snags or preparations that I should keep in mind?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1) From memory, there are definitely elevators between JFK and the Airtrain, which connects to the A or E train, both of which go to Penn Station, which appears to be accessible.

Can't really help you with #2, not being handicapped or ever traveling with a handicapped person through NYC. Best of luck.
posted by jckll at 2:52 PM on January 27, 2009

I used crutches and then a cane for several months following a leg injury- and although I'm young and healthy and in great shape I could not believe how low my endurance dropped, for about a year afterwards. It's exhausting. It's cumulative. Cold weather exacerbates it. You can help by carrying her purse and any bags for her. Insist, actually, if possible, because she probably won't ask you to- she'll feel like an invalid making a simple request like that. But ANY extra weight adds to the tiredness. Carrying a water bottle felt too heavy, for pete's sake. Sitting and resting might not cut it, as with an injured leg, you often yearn to lie back & rase your foot to ease the pressure and swelling, and you can't really do that on a museum bench.

So you may wanna scale back your expectations of how much walking you can do- even indoor walking of short distances. Even standing to wait for the elevator will wear her out after a certain threshold of tiredness is reached- it really adds up over the course of the day and week. Plan a couple "couch nights" of renting a DVD or meeting friends in your space, so she can lie back and really relax, if possible. Get her stuff without making her ask (she may want to be more independent than she really has the energy for, I know I did) and when she settles in somewhere, try to keep her arm's radius well-stocked: tissue, water, book, phone, etc.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:04 PM on January 27, 2009

For your reference, here is the accessibility information for the Museum of Natural History, and here is the Met version. Both have wheelchairs available to visitors on a first-come, first-served basis (although you can probably call ahead to find out if any are available).
posted by Mender at 3:12 PM on January 27, 2009

You can transfer from the Airtrain from JFK to the E train at Jamaica Station. There are elevators.

If you're going to shows, most theaters have sections available for those who are disabled or who can't walk up stairs. Some theaters still don't have elevators. If you don't already have better tickets, it might be worth a shot to call the box office and inquire about the special seating.

The Met has lots of seating, but it's also quite huge, and there are stretches of rooms and halls without seating at all. Last time I visited, there was rehab to a section going on and a huge detour. I get plenty tired walking around in there myself. You could perhaps map out a specific route ahead of time or see if you can get one of their wheelchairs. Similar advice for the Museum of Natural History.

pseudostrabismus has good advice about carrying things and maybe taking more breaks than you anticipate.
posted by cmgonzalez at 3:24 PM on January 27, 2009

posted by cmgonzalez at 3:26 PM on January 27, 2009

I am mobility impaired and lived in Manhattan for three months.

Would she be comfortable renting and using a scooter or wheelchair for longer distances? I wouldn't advise using these on the subway (unless it's something you could help her get over the gap between the platform and train), but for long walks around the city, it would be helpful. I couldn't really use the subway (because of my scooter and the aforementioned gaps in the subway stations), but I walked (well, scootered) everywhere in Manhattan and really enjoyed it.

If you google "scooter rentals" and Manhattan, you will find companies that will deliver scooters to wherever you are staying. The rentals can be a little pricey, but worth it for an enjoyable, less stressful and fatiguing trip.
posted by mingodingo at 4:03 PM on January 27, 2009

I second the idea of a wheelchair or scooter, aware of exactly how frustrating it's going to be to get around the city in a wheelchair or scooter. My chairbound mother visited two years ago for my wedding and I was continually amazed every day how difficult and frustrating it was to navigate her through the crowds and on the sidewalks. If it's snowed recently (it was Sept for us, so this wasn't an issue), you can bet that it'll be orders of magnitude more difficult. NYC, despite being an amazingly diverse city, still has done a pretty poor job of accommodating mobility disabled persons.

This isn't to say that it can't be done. Of course it can, and I see people all the time who get around just fine in their chairs, walkers, canes, scooters, Segways, etc. But knowledge ahead of time of where the elevators are and where the public bathrooms are that are large enough to accommodate a wheelchair will make your visit much less frustrating.

Penn Station does have elevators, but you're going to see much more of Penn Station than you ever wanted to as you navigate your way around the labyrinth of levels and hallways looking for them. I'd say that you should probably add extra time to any ETA to help counter the inevitable delays you'll run into as you make your way around Manhattan.

The most memorable example from my mother's visit, believe it or not, was how incredibly frustrating it was to try to simply wheel her through the Times Square crowds. You'd think that it'd be easy and that people (tourists, ugh, if it's tourist season does that mean we can shoot them?) would pay some attention. There were some awfully bruised shins that afternoon.
posted by at 4:25 PM on January 27, 2009

I second the scooter recommendation, but note that in order to get to destinations more than a couple blocks away (like The Met), you're likely to have to use the bus. She'll have to drive up into the accessible entrance in the back door and the driver will strap the scooter in with a special harness.

Manhattan has a lot of buses, and Midtown especially, is covered in service to anyplace you'd want to go. More info here. Obviously this may be slower than a cab since although you're hitting similar traffic, the bus has to stop every other block.

I've traveled with my mother (who has MS and uses a walker) and scooter rentals made everything tons easier. Originally, I planned to rent a wheelchair and push her around, but this option enabled us to both have some more freedom to each do our own thing a little bit too. Just make sure to recharge nightly and you're good.
posted by cmgonzalez at 4:27 PM on January 27, 2009

Is it possible to travel from JFK to Penn Station via the Long Island Railroad or the Subway and get to street level using only elevators and escalators?

If you take the LIRR, you are going to have to walk all the way down the platform. The elevators at Jamaica are at the back of the train; the elevators at Penn Station are at the front.

I don't believe there are elevators or escalators at the 81 St–AMNH station. The 110 St–Cathedral Parkway station on the 1 has no elevators or escalators.

A lot of this arises from the fact that a lot of the subway (especially near where the action is) is kind of old, and the ADA wasn't a consideration.
posted by oaf at 4:48 PM on January 27, 2009

I haven't been to all the terminals, but from the JetBlue terminal to the AirTrain to the LIRR platform at Jamaica Station all have escalators, however, the walking distance at each transfer point is pretty long.

There are elevators to at least some of the Penn Station platforms. Here's the current elevator status page.
posted by Jahaza at 4:56 PM on January 27, 2009

I will admit that Times Square on a scooter is particularly frustrating, since the tourists tend to walk around looking up, and not, you know, paying attention to where they're going.

However, aside from that and occasionally backtracking to find a curb cut, I don't remember having a particularly frustrating experience. I have used a scooter for over 10 years in many different places, so I'm sort of used to navigating through less than ideally accessible areas. However, one thing I found about New York is that cab drivers tend to be relatively helpful in stopping for disabled passengers and loading your mobility equipment into their trunk (of course, you'll find the few that are jerks about it, but that's the case anywhere). Be sure, if you do decide to rent a scooter or wheelchair, that you get a relatively lightweight one that will fit in the trunk of a car. Also, while the tourists are irritating, New Yorkers are some of the nicest people when it comes to lending a hand (for instance, I, partially through my own fault since I was in a hurry, tipped over my scooter in a pothole once, and a complete stranger righted me and made sure I was okay. Things like this happened more than once.)

Also, I managed to navigate the city in a scooter by myself; she'll at least have you accompanying her at all times, so if she runs into an inaccessible situation, that will also be helpful.
posted by mingodingo at 5:08 PM on January 27, 2009

From the airport into Manhattan you can...

Take a cab, there is a set rate of about $40-$45 (not including tips & tolls) from JFK to any location in Manhattan.


Take New York Airport Service. They run greyhound like buses from the terminals to Grand Central and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The cost is about $15 for a one way and from either location you can take a cab to your hotel. It takes about an hour into Manhattan depending one which terminal you leave from and the time of day.

The subway takes FOREVER.... I've done it. And you'll have to manage stairs. Don't do it...

Once you're in the city. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, be shy about asking people to give up seats on the bus or subway for your friend. I find that many people will willingly give up a seat without asking for the elderly, pregnant or physically incapcitate, but you're in NYC and you should speak up (politely) to ask for what is due you - common courtesy.
posted by brookeb at 11:36 PM on January 27, 2009

Seconding brookeb -- yes, please, take the $15 NYAS bus to Penn Station -- it's way too much of a hassle to take the Airtrain to the LIRR/Subway, and you'd pay $7 for Airtrain + Metrocard anyways.

Also -- If you happen to rent a wheelchair/scooter, the buses in NYC are well-designed and the drivers always seem to be well-trained to deal with the rear ramp/elevator device. Don't hesitate to use the buses, even if they may take longer.
posted by suedehead at 12:38 AM on January 28, 2009

Just to follow on from suedehead, the buses are excellent. Even if your friend isn't using a wheelchair (& NYC bus drivers from my observation are really helpful to wheelchair users), buses are much easier than taxis if you have problems bending at the knee or need to stretch your leg out a lot because there's so much more room. The buses "kneel" at the curb so it's easy to get in and out - much more so than taxis where there's less room to manoeuvre. Private hire firms with minivans are another possible alternative.
[Disclaimer: although I've been to NYC several times I haven't travelled with companions who are physically impaired, but I have done so in Europe.]
posted by boudicca at 2:37 AM on January 28, 2009

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