Urban Rolling: The Ground Never Looked So Interestingly Dangerous

Boston, where I grew up, is one of the oldest cities in the country. The city's historical cobble stoned sidewalks combined with its College Town reputation makes for an interesting dynamic. Beantown's subway system (metro) is the oldest in the country, but even without it you could easily stroll from one end of the city to the other. Each of the different neighborhoods of Boston has its own flavoring, own historical distinctions, and most prevalent are its own college students. It seems that wherever you are in town you're never far from stepping onto a college campus!

Actual sign at a Boston station!
As a wheelchair user in my home city I know how long to hold my breath as the elevator to the Park Street station opens to avoid breathing in a urine drenched stench. I also know which bus lines will allow me to ride for free, and most importantly how to get to Fenway Park when the 'normal' station everyone else uses (Kenmore) is non-accessible. I have an internal clock that lets me know how many seconds I have in order to look for where the train is leveled with the platform before doors slide shut. And when the elevator buttons have the letters M, UP, and P on them - I know that those stand for Mezzanine Level, Under Pass, and Platform respectively. It certainly took me several years to get the hang of it and sometimes I still get a little confused as to where elevators are, but public transportation is definitely my preferred method of getting around town. I don't want to spend too long talking about public transportation systems since my readers hail from all over the country (and world!) so the various train systems will differ widely, but I will encourage you to at least try it out! 

The patchwork of different textured cement, brick, stone, and pavement is something that I find weirdly fascinating; especially in a city like Boston where renovations and construction projects are never-ending as it tries its hardest to hold firm to historical roots. One second I will find myself cruising smoothly along freshly laid granite when suddenly my wheels will hit cobble stones, and I'll feel like a bobble head doll! This might just be me but on routes that I have traveled many times I have memorized not just mentally but physically what to expect. Depending on the material the sidewalk is made out of my body automatically positions itself in preparation. If it's brick I straighten my back a bit more and tighten my stomach; if it's cobble stone I am barely breathing and only trying to not go too fast; and if it's pavement that's been all cracked up I am much more relaxed and going over the crevices slowly but steadily.
Maybe it's because I grew up in Boston or because I have had so much experience wheeling through cities but so much of my travel instincts come naturally to me. I innately know that although that sidewalk crack may not look big, it actually will send quite the thud through my entire wheelchair and body as I cross it. And what about that brick path that goes on for about five feet? I know that I need to be careful of their corners and edges that jut out awkwardly from the surface. I also know that when curb cuts aren't around in a residential area I quickly borrow someone's driveway to cross to the other side. My eyes have become superb at guesstimating the height of a bump, will my wheelchair be able to handle that? Will I need to stiffen my body in anticipation of the thud as the chair returns to even ground? Scanning the sidewalk for a small enough place to drop down or climb over has become second nature, I guess it's kinda like when an experienced tailor eyes a suit. 

Taking caution while traveling in the city is especially necessary if I am wheeling about with a fracture. Even the most natural looking sidewalk crack that doesn't have a single blade of grass growing between it can send reverberations through a broken limb that will have me slow my wheelchair down to a crawl; I have been known to hold my breath as I tap the joystick of my wheelchair ever so slightly to nudge my wheels over a bump. I remember when I was younger if I had a broken leg my parents would put me in the stroller but I would plead with them to take their time going down the sidewalk. They would usually respond with something like, "Doesn't the cast hold it still? Why does your leg still hurt? There are no big bumps on this sidewalk, you will be fine." But they never understood why the neatly squared and separated pieces of sidewalk would make the fractured area feel so sore. 
A couple times when I have NOT been as careful as I should have been I have hit bumps or hopped off curbs that were a little too high; with a sharp breath I'll breathe in and for a split second I wonder if I have broken any ribs, my back or maybe my tailbone. Fractures that happened like this have only ever happened a handful of times but each time I am logging it into my mind: What landmark is the bump nearby? What street is it on? Where should I have steered instead? All of this ends up adding some more topographical detailing to my mental maps, for the maps of my wheels. 

A favorite place for a stroll
I realize that all of this might seem like I am staring at the ground a lot when I am traveling. But I promise I'm not. I don't travel with a magnifying glass as I roll through the city, like some old fashioned sleuth - I'm not that awkward. Growing up on the East coast means that I am also an old hand when it comes to traveling in eight or more inches of unforgiving snow, ice, and slush. THAT stuff makes it impossible to know what lies beneath their crude snowy surfaces, so really I can't always be looking on the ground - it doesn't always do me any good. (By the way, traveling in snow & winter will be for a completely separate future post. But it's the middle of July and I don't want to be depressed just yet...) If you were to ever see me cruising around the city it's kind of a mix of looking ahead, around, above, and below. Simply put it all of this forces me to be more aware; I've learned that there are far more than just roses waiting to be smelled along the way. 

Rolling with it in the City:
  • As with anyone else, the longer you live in a place the better you'll know it. Finding the best routes for your chair to go will take experience and time - allow both of those to grow! 
  • Go with your gut feeling. If you think that you probably shouldn't try to fly over that curb cut or over the pot hole... DON'T! Try to see if there is a way around it - this might even take some back tracking and finding an exit that you may have already gone by
  • Wheelchair routes may not always be visibly obvious. Don't hesitate to ask someone which path would be best for your chair to travel
  • If you're adventurous and willing, try exploring your city's public transportation options for the day. Many cities have discounted fares for the disabled and other companion benefits
  • If possible, I would recommend traveling in an area when it is daylight out before you go through it at night for the first time (for safety and visibility purposes)
  • When crossing the street, make sure you are comfortable with the curb cut at the crosswalk (that you have found a place that is not too high) before crossing. It won't be the end of the world if you need to wait for the walk signal to tick off again while you find a safe place. The worse nightmare would be if you were awkwardly stuck on a curb cut as cars are whizzing by! (Yes, I am speaking from experience). 

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One Response to Urban Rolling: The Ground Never Looked So Interestingly Dangerous

  1. Ever wondered why our wheels have zero suspension? I have, but don't have an answer.

    I wheel exclusively with a power chair and even with that it's like driving with shopping cart when there's cobble stone (or the snow has frozen unevenly). Can't even imagine what kinda beating it is when there's miniscule manual wheelchair wheels involved. And won't dare to imagine doing it with broken limbs for gods sakes. Neverrrrr.


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