I thought I was pretty good at riding the Metro — until I met Carlos Pena. I was on a Yellow Line train with the 22-year-old last week when he indicated that we should turn away from the closest exit and instead walk to the next one down. Why? So we wouldn’t get in the way of a rider who was in a wheelchair.
That’s the sort of thing people learn through On the Move travel training, which provides free, one-on-one assistance to people unsure about their ability to take Metro or other public transit.
“It ranges from 17-year-olds with cognitive disabilities to 70-year-olds with physical disabilities,” says trainer Nathan Graeff. The hope is that, with the right instruction, clients can get comfortable maneuvering through a station, using a SmarTrip card and doing whatever else it takes to arrive at their destination solo.
“We see it as a benefit for everyone. It gives people independence, lowers cost for Metro and lessens the load for caregivers,” says program director Robyn Bernardy, whose team has worked with more than 100 people since WMATA contracted her company to run the program in February 2012.
One of those is Pena, who has autism. He’s in a job-training program off of U Street, and he lives near Fort Totten, a short Metro ride away. Until last week, he was getting driven to and from the program, which ends at 3 p.m.
“I got home at 4:35 on Monday. That’s too late,” he told me. “Yesterday, I got home at 3:42.”
That’s because he made the latter trip with Bernardy, heading first to the Metro, then hopping on a bus before walking the last few blocks. For day two of the training, Bernardy let Pena take the lead, with the help of a cheat sheet with directions. (For clients who can’t read, she makes photo flipbooks.)
We met up with Pena outside the job-training program and started toward the Metro when he abruptly stopped. He looked down the alley, glanced at the street and nodded. “We’re safe,” he said, and then kept going along the sidewalk.
Teaching clients to look both ways before crossing is just one way On the Move works to protect them from danger. Graeff notes that trainers establish backup plans so clients have options if something goes wrong with their regular route. And in stations, clients are directed to look for flashing lights and avoid “the bumpy zone.”
At the U Street Metro, Pena moved to one side of the platform, so Bernardy asked him to explain how he knew to stand there. He pointed to the pylon beside him, which showed the upcoming stops on the train line. To find out how long we had to wait, he inched closer to the overhead sign and then reported back that we had four minutes.
As we continued, Pena knew exactly what to do — where to pick up the bus, when to pull the cord for his stop, how to walk home. Bernardy says training can be as quick as a single round trip or it can last for months. For Pena, she expected the process would finish up in less than a week, as she gradually transitioned from accompanying him to observing him from a distance.
When I asked him what he’d learned over the past two days, Pena ticked off some important lessons: “On the escalator, I stand on the right. Never listen to headphones. I should watch where I’m going.”
If only every rider knew all that.
People interested in learning more about On the Move can visit Mtm-inc.net or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Participants don’t pay anything for training (including transportation costs). The program doesn’t affect MetroAccess eligibility.