“I am afraid of falling down the stairs and I haven’t used the subway for 20 years,” said 75-year-old Washington Heights resident Leonor Ramos. Another 73-year-old uptown resident, Flerida Custro, said, “MTA makes absolutely no effort to understand the needs of senior citizens.”
Understanding the concern of residents like these, the ARC XVI Fort Washington Senior Center has launched a new service called COASTS, for Coordinated Older Adult Senior Transportation Service. As the name suggests, it is what its organizers call a “door-through-door” transportation service for senior citizens, exclusive to northern Manhattan.
Diana Hernandez, the assistant executive director of the senior center, said that as people age, especially if they have disabilities, transportation becomes one of the biggest challenges. “It affects them psychologically and socially,” she said. “They become alienated, marginalized and invisible citizens and no one sees them except for doctors.”
COASTS runs between 110th Street and 220th Street in Manhattan. Rides are free for people above the age of 60 and for disabled people over 50, but the riders must be aware of their destination and of their residential address. An aide can assist a member with a mental illness, and, Hernandez said, “If you have a mobility impairment, we have added a mobility facilitator who ensures a member’s safe transfer, door to door.”
On a recent morning, Chris Hernandez, 32, a mobility facilitator, escorted 10 elderly people from their apartment gates to a bus seat and fastened their seat belts. All through the journey, the bus driver and Hernandez chatted with the passengers and made them feel comfortable. Hernandez said she had three weeks of training to become a facilitator, where “I was trained in handling wheelchairs, dealing with senior citizens and how to help them get around.”
Mary Johnson, of Washington Heights, was one of the passengers. She said, “If I didn’t have this transportation today, I wouldn’t be able to use any other transportation and go anywhere.” Another passenger, Cenida Velasquez, said, “I use it for everything: To go to the doctor, to go shopping, to visit the center, and it is very good because the driver and the attendant make you feel like a king and take very good care of you.” Velasquez uses this service up to five times a week.
Currently, COASTS has nine buses, each of which can carry up to16 passengers. It is funded by a combination of public and private funds, including more than half a million dollars from the federal transit administration and local funds of more than $137,000 raised by the ARC XVI senior center with the help of New York City Council and the Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation Inc. The senior citizen center is now preparing to apply for another grant to expand the reach of the transportation service and to buy more and larger buses.
COASTS fills a need, especially acute in northern Manhattan. There are no elevators or escalators for the A, C and 1 train subways in Inwood, and in much of northern Manhattan, hills make walking especially difficult for disabled and older people.
The MTA already supplies some services similar to COASTS, like Access-a-Ride, for people who cannot use the subways or other public transport, but people have complained that those services are not enough. Edith Prentiss, 69, a member Community Board 12’s traffic and transportation committee, says, “New York city transit does not run on schedule. Whether it is Access-a-Ride, or it is the M5, when it keeps the disabled person waiting, it’s a problem.”