It won’t surprise any New Yorker who uses a wheelchair or who doesn’t have the ability to climb mountains of stairs, but two recently filed lawsuits made it official: New York has the least accessible subway system in the nation.
We’ve all heard that, when it comes to accessibility, comparing New York’s subways with other cities’ more recently constructed, smaller transit systems is unfair; after all, New York City’s subway system dates back to 1904 and the elevated portions date back even further than that. It’s really hard and expensive making such a big, old subway system accessible, the argument goes, and no doubt there’s a lot of truth to this.
I must pause here to share a fun fact: according to the historians at the Transit Museum, New York City’s very first public transportation line, established in 1827, was a 12-seat stagecoach route running along Broadway from the Battery to Bleecker Street. The name of our first public transit line was . . . wait for it . . . Accommodation! There is just something so deeply ironic about this. A few years later “Accommodation” was followed by the “Sociable” and “Omnibus” lines.
How long is too long?
Now, getting back to the argument that New York City’s subway is too hard and too expensive to make accessible because it is so old – let’s take a look at how old that argument is.
From my very cursory research, this argument dates back at least to 1979 – that’s 38 years ago folks – when the federal transportation secretary ordered that “key” subway stations be made accessible. Reactions included noting that “the cost of adapting the old subway systems of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland” would reach $1billion, with about half of that needed to upgrade New York City’s system.”
So, essentially, the excuse about age and cost is at least two generations old. This begs the question, just how long should people with disabilities wait for an accessible subway system?
And now, I’m afraid, we have another distraction. As anyone who regularly rides the subways – or who even just listens to the news – knows, New York’s subway system has recently taken a sharp nose dive, with delays, derailments, and outages reminding those of us who are old enough to think back to the bad old days of the 1970s.
That was a long, hot, decade when, as a young adult, I would enter the subway each workday with no real confidence that I would actually get to work. The trains were that unreliable, not to mention un-air-conditioned, offering ancient straw seats with stuffing flowing out and open windows covered with ghastly graffiti through which fumes enveloped riders from the regular track fires while sparks lit up the tracks. I can’t count how many times I showed up to work smelling like smoke – no exaggeration!
But I digress; with millions of New Yorkers upset about the current daily system-wide failures, it becomes even harder for people with disabilities to draw attention to the additional barriers they’ve faced forever. Enter a group of well-established disability rights organizations – plaintiffs in two recently filed class action lawsuits challenging the MTA’s decades of insufficient action on accessibility. I believe this is a good thing – because griping can be ignored forever; lawsuits really can’t be.
In April, Bronx Independent Living Services, Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, Center for Independence of the Disabled – New York, Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York, Harlem Independent Living Center, New York State-wide Senior Action Council and others filed these suits, asserting systematic, system-wide exclusion of people with disabilities from our subways.
According to Disability Rights Advocates, the nonprofit legal team representing the groups, one of the two suits, filed in New York state court, “is the first case to ever challenge the fact that over 350 of New York City’s subway stations are unusable by people who can’t traverse stairs . . . affect[ing] hundreds of thousands of New York City residents and visitors such as those using wheelchairs, with arthritis, or having certain heart or lung conditions. It alleges that the MTA’s failure to install elevators in stations throughout the city is in flagrant violation of the New York City Human Rights Law.
“The second suit, filed in federal court, accuses the MTA of not maintaining the few elevators that do exist, leading to frequent breakdowns.”
Who’s in charge?
Now, the person with the most power to make the subways accessible is New York State’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA and its billions of dollars.
Last week the governor urged private nonprofits throughout the state to apply for a small amount of funding to remove barriers to transportation for New Yorkers with disabilities. He said that he “remains committed to enhancing transportation mobility, especially for seniors and individuals with disabilities.”
His transportation commissioner, Matthew Driscoll, praised Cuomo’s “commitment to . . . ensuring . . . transportation options . . . to allow older New Yorkers and individuals with disabilities to maintain their independence and live and work in their communities.”
Cuomo’s acting director for the State Office for the Aging applauded the governor “for his leadership and recognition that mobility and transportation access are paramount to living with autonomy in the community.”
There was no mention of New York City subways. But like I said, lawsuits really can’t be ignored. Stay tuned.