Cara Liebowitz pressed the button with the wheelchair logo, the doors to her Silver Spring apartment building swooshed open, and her morning commute to downtown Washington began.
Liebowitz and her six-wheel, battery-powered chair swooped down city streets, rattled over cobblestones, rolled down curb ramps, crossed busy streets without traffic signals, and dodged discarded scooters.
When she got to Metro, Liebowitz squeezed into elevators, including one with a “Wet Floor” pylon stored there. She bucked gaps between Metro trains and station platforms. She strained to make out what the train operator was saying on the intercom.
But all in all, her commute Friday morning was smooth, she said. The elevators were in service at all the stations, and there was little if any wait for them. All the wheelchair-accessible Metrorail gates were working, which is not always the case, she said. When the wheelchair exits are on the fritz, she has to wait for a station manager or hunt one down. Some days, she said, the door-to-door trip can seem like a dangerous adventure.
“These cars don’t care,” said Liebowitz, 26, who uses a wheelchair because she has cerebral palsy. “I swear I’ve almost got hit by a car a dozen times over. They’re always in the crosswalks. They never yield to pedestrians. I’m like, ‘I know you see me — come on.’"
Liebowitz, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., recently wrote a first-person account of why D.C. has the edge over New York City’s (older) subway system when it comes to accessibility. But she also said Metro could improve, and she invited me to accompany her on a typical commute to show how. The trip suggested that just about everyone involved in making cities run — urban planners, construction companies, motorists and other commuters — could do better.
Liebowitz left her building on Georgia Avenue about 8:40 a.m. Friday and zipped down the street on her chair, which can go about 6 mph.
About six blocks from home, she slowed to maneuver over a rough strip of asphalt on a sidewalk beside Colesville Road. But the strip, which had been temporarily laid down while construction was underway, was an improvement over the previous setup, she said. Not so long ago, orange construction fencing forced her to go around and ride on the street to reach the Silver Spring Metro station.
Once inside the station, she called an elevator, pirouetted her chair inside and rode to the platform for a Red Line train. A bearded man in a cap paused to let her enter the train first.
Then she parked near a pole for what would be an uneventful ride, with several fairly routine and not-so-routine sights: people scrolling smartphones, a young woman eating Doritos from her purse, a couple who exchanged dabs of — what? eucalyptus oil? — before rubbing them on their wrists and inhaling them. Nearby, a guy mansplained about battleship guns to someone (“Also, the recoil moves the battleship . . . each turret can turn 180 degrees . . .") while Liebowitz checked her phone.
“Here comes the tricky part — getting off the train,” Liebowitz said, as the train pulled into Metro Center. She and a few other passengers performed a sort of do-si-do to let her pass.
She rode the Metro Center elevator, “Wet Floor” pylon and all. Then it was onto the platform to catch a Silver Line train. She gunned the chair to get over the gap between the platform and the train — a maneuver that jolted her a little out of her seat. Sometimes it takes her more than one try.
“You have to build up momentum in order to get on the train,” she said. “It’s difficult when there are people and you crash into them. And they give me nasty looks. And I’m like, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t help it.’ ”
Rolling out of the elevator at the Foggy Bottom-GWU stop, Liebowitz scooted past several gates toward the wheelchair-accessible exit, thankful that she didn’t have to battle people pouring through the gates on foot. It would make more sense, she said, if the exit gate for people with disabilities had been placed closest to the elevator.
“You’re going straight into a crush of people going in the opposite direction,” she said.
Out on the street, she said, Metro could do better with signage showing where the elevators are located for people trying to reach the station. There’s one at Farragut North that’s tucked away near a CVS that she sometimes goes right past, and then there’s Dupont Circle.
“I can never find [it],” she said. “Every time I think I’ve gotten it, I’m, like, ‘Nope.’ There are some stations where I can never find the elevator.”
Reaching the last leg of her trip, Liebowitz and her chair went bumpety-bump over the quaint, cobblestone-like sidewalks found near George Washington University and other neighborhoods in the District.
“I can feel it — the vibrations — in my back, in my butt,” she said. “My chair can handle it but it’s not pleasant.”
As she neared the GWU campus, the streets and sidewalks became more crowded. Scooters whipped around her, so close sometimes it felt like a close call. Pedestrians, too.
“People don’t pay attention to where they’re walking because they’re looking at their phones,” Liebowitz said. “And they’ll walk right into me. And most of the time they won’t even apologize. They’ll just look back at me, like, ‘Oh, what did I crash into?’ ”
It was about 9:35 a.m. when Liebowitz reached her job at the National Council on Independent Living, an organization that says it’s run by and for people with disabilities, what seemed like good shape and in good spirits.
“This is a pretty typical commute for me,” she said. “It doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes it’s like Russian roulette.”
Read more Tripping: