App Gives Wheelchair-Riding Straphangers Real-Time Guide to City's Subways
NEW YORK CITY — The clock was ticking and Anthony Driscoll was starting to get nervous.
It was the morning of his graduation from Parsons The New School for Design, and he and his family were taking public transportation to get from New Jersey to Union Square.
They had successfully taken the PATH to the World Trade Center and had just entered the Chambers Street subway station when they realized the elevator was out of service.
Suddenly, what was supposed to be a short trip turned into an endless obstacle course since Driscoll's father, Bill Driscoll, is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.
Driscoll and his father, along with his father-in-law, traveled above ground to the neighboring Canal Street 6 train, but realized it wasn't stopping at Union Square. So they got off at Bleecker Street and tried to hail a cab, but the cabbies refused to take them.
“One said the ramp didn’t work and the other said the tie-downs were broken,” Driscoll said. “I was so afraid that I was going to miss the whole ceremony I hopped in the cab and left my dad and father-in-law, who walked to Union Square from Bleecker.”
Driscoll missed the first half-hour of the ceremony. His father showed up just in time to see him walk.
Unfortunately, he said, their graduation day transportation debacle was not unique.
There are more than half a million people with ambulatory disabilities in New York City and they don’t have access to 80 percent of the city’s subway stations. Driscoll is trying to change that with an app.
He developed Wheely, an app that helps wheelchair users, parents with strollers, and commuters carrying heavy baggage navigate through the city’s subway system.
“It has to do with my father,” Driscoll said. “He’s been in a chair the last two years and I’ve been doing a lot of traveling with him.”
During their travels, Driscoll noticed that it was more difficult for people with wheelchairs to use public transportation to get around New York City than in other parts of the country. Only 82 — about 18 percent — of the city’s 468 subway stations have elevator access, according to the MTA.
Wheely uses the MTA’s subway map as a framework, but only highlights stations with elevators and keeps up-to-the-minute elevator statuses. Driscoll also found the exact GPS location of each elevator entrance, which aren't always the same as station entrances.
The app also connects users to the MTA so they can report broken elevators or other transportation problems.
While there are other MTA apps out there, none of them were developed to meet the needs of commuters with ambulatory disabilities, he said.
Over the last year, Driscoll pitched the idea to different advocacy groups and has gained strong support.
“This is the next big thing,” said Dustin Jones, a board member for Disabled in Action. “This is something you’ll want on your phone. There are few apps like this that get to the level of detail that Wheely does.”
Jones said the app is intended to be used in addition to different MTA services like Access-a-Ride and wheelchair-accessible buses.
“I do use Access-a-Ride and it’s a great service but there’s too much you have to do,” Jones said. “You have to know where you’re going 24 to 48 hours in advance. You don’t have freedom to get on or off.”
The MTA is currently on pace to have 100 fully accessible stations by 2020, which is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. All of their buses are fully accessible, a spokesman said.
Driscoll hopes to develop a citywide accessibility guide that includes office buildings, restaurants and everything else in between. He also believes that commuters pushing strollers or carrying large bags will embrace the app.
A beta version of the app will be available on the iPhone, iPad and latest version I-Touch in a couple of weeks. To expand it, Driscoll started a Kickstarter campaign.
“I believe in this thing so much that I dug into my own pocket,” he said. “I want to provide this to the people of New York.”