Quemuel Arroyo is the first person at New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) to hold the title of Policy Analyst for Accessibility and ADA Coordinator. He is also a New Yorker with a disability, who understands first-hand what it takes to get around.
Meet DOT’s ADA Ambassador.
Arroyo has been at the agency for about a year and a half, where he works in the office of DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, former Assistant Secretary for Transportation in the Obama Administration.
“I was one of Commissioner Trottenberg’s new hires,” Arroyo told me recently. “It makes a lot of sense that she would create this position. In Washington, one of the many hats she wore was Chair of the Access Board, so a focus on inclusivity and universal design were already part of her career when she arrived to head up DOT.”
The Access Board, which we’ve written about before, is the federal agency charged with developing standards that promote equal access for people with disabilities to buildings, public spaces, transportation, communication, medical diagnostic equipment, and information technology.
“When I met the commissioner I learned how much DOT actually does for people with disabilities and how involved the agency is in making our public spaces accessible,” Arroyo explained. “The big pieces that were lacking were communicating this to the public and building relationships with the city’s disability advocacy groups.”
The importance of those relationships really cannot be overstated. At ICS, doing our jobs effectively requires employing people with disabilities at every level and making sure our members with disabilities have a big voice in our organization. Similarly, as an agency responsible for ensuring that 850,000 New Yorkers with disabilities can navigate the City’s roadways, sidewalks and other public spaces, it’s critical to have their expertise at the table. That’s where a lot of Arroyo’s work comes in.
“In the past, it seems like accessibility was kind of a hush hush topic at DOT,” he told me. We operate in such a litigious environment and people were afraid that they might say the wrong thing, that they might offend someone.
An internal and external ambassador
“In defense of DOT, before I had a disability I had very little interaction with the world of advocacy and engaging people with disabilities,” Arroyo points out. “At school we spoke about access issues to some extent, but I never met a person with a disability in my studies who could tell me about their experiences. Now, it’s my job to help fill that void, and I think we’ve come a long way. If you ask just about any advocate who is out there in New York City engaged on disability matters, I think they will tell you that DOT is accessible, that our doors are open.
“One asset that I have, other than having gone to school for urban design and architecture studies, is that I acquired a disability eight years ago, downhill mountain biking in Vermont. Because I have a spinal cord injury, and use a wheelchair, I am able to come in and talk about it and demystify disability for DOT staff.
“Really, my MO is to help our staff feel comfortable speaking about sensitive matters that they may not experience personally, but that are very alive in their work. I’ve helped them become comfortable about discussing disability in public.”
That, of course, is a huge deal.
Equally important is Arroyo’s external role, working with advocates to improve DOT’s outcomes. One example he cited is his collaboration with Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets (PASS), a community based organization that works to ensure New Yorkers with vision and hearing impairments have full access to our sidewalks and streets.
“I have a very good relationship with PASS. We meet on a quarterly basis around a joint agenda. I’ve been able to bring in staff from the different units within DOT to speak on topics of concern to the group and their constituency. That relationship embodies what I hope and believe we can have with all of the groups out there. It’s a productive dialog.
“For example, DOT uses a ranking system for placing the audible crossing signals at intersections that help people who are blind or who have low vision cross the streets safely. The rankings are based on standards created by the federal government. There were parts of the standards, though, that PASS members felt did not translate well to an urban environment like New York City. For example, a “T” intersection doesn’t get as many priority points as a four-way intersection, which in practice could mean that a particular crosswalk where an audible signal is really needed might not get one any time soon.
“We brought DOT traffic engineers to meet with PASS and spent about two hours talking about this issue. Because we are able to have an open and productive conversation, within about a month we were able to use their feedback to adjust the ranking in a way that they felt made more sense. You can’t lower the federal standards but you can always improve them, and that’s exactly what we did.
“PASS challenges us and pushes us in a lot of areas but the outcomes are really outstanding. It’s a good productive relationship where we can make things happen quickly at times.”
How to work with DOT
I asked Arroyo for a list of the top things people with disabilities need to know about DOT.
“First, we do not operate on our own. We need New Yorkers’ eyes and ears,” he said. “There are 116,000 street corners in New York City. There are 18,000 intersections. Our job is best done when we hear from the public about the obstacles they face and what their needs are.”
To make that easier, Arroyo recently created an online contact form that goes directly to his inbox. “That’s the best way to communicate with me about an access issue. Some things take time but when you write to me that way I get it and I read it.
“It’s also important for the public to know that there are a lot of resources available to them. For example, 311 has a map on its website that shows you complaints that have been reported throughout the city.”
Having just tried it myself, I have to say, the map is actually pretty cool. You can search any address or intersection in the five boroughs and get a list of complaints that have been filed, which includes type (e.g., air quality, noise, trees, streets and sidewalks, animals), dates, and descriptive details.
“It’s a good idea to check the map before reporting a problem,” Arroyo explained, “because we are mandated to respond to every complaint individually. That means if ten people report the same pothole, for example, ten people have to get a response which, obviously, is a huge waste of time and effort that could better be spent on serving the public in other ways. So one way to streamline and speed up our ability to respond to problems is for the public to really use resources that are available, like the map.”
Arroyo also reminded me that DOT is NOT in charge of the subways and buses which, in fact, are controlled by the MTA and the governor.
“That’s one of the biggest misperceptions about DOT and we’re really trying to change that. What is in DOT’s portfolio is about 6000 miles of New York City roadways, 12,000 miles of sidewalks, 789 bridges, six tunnels and the Staten Island Ferry. If you have an accessibility issue with any of these properties, we’re there.”
What’s on his plate?
“One major area I am working on right now is construction sites. We issue over 400,000 permits a year for work on our streets and sidewalks. The contractors and the construction companies need to understand what their mandates are to maintain an accessible path of travel throughout their worksites.
“I’m also working on policies to make the Staten Island Ferry more accessible. Both of our terminals have multiple levels for access to the ferries but after 9/11 a lot of those areas were deemed off limits to the public for security reasons by federal agencies and the NYPD. But if you have a vision impairment, if you use a wheelchair or walker, it can be really hard to navigate the terminals, so we are looking for ways to make it easier.
“We are doing great work with DOT’s plazas program. We want to standardize public plazas so that people who can’t see have a better idea of how to navigate them. DOT is in charge of 69 public plazas and many more are planned throughout the city. And another interesting project, which we got a federal grant for, is studying how cars can communicate with each other, with traffic signals, and with other infrastructure to keep pedestrians safe.
“Really, my job is to look at all of our operations, and our standards and policies for operating, to see how we are accounting for New Yorkers with disabilities, making sure that all pedestrians’ needs are taken into account.”
So, what does he do for fun?
Arroyo, who was born in the Dominican Republic, is bilingual and a devoted New Yorker. “There’s no place I’d rather be,” he said. And, despite his engrossing job, he makes time to stay active.
“I’m an athlete. I swim at the McBurney Y, where I used to be a lifeguard. I also scuba dive and I rock climb at Brooklyn Boulders twice a week with the adaptive climbers – a magnificent group of people! And when it’s not 40 degrees out I cycle to work down the West Side.
“Hand cycles are great, he enthused. “Last year at Summer Streets DOT had hand cycles for people to use – 900 people tried them out! Now I’m working to see how we can incorporate hand cycles into our bike share program.
“I love my job,” Arroyo says. “Before coming here I worked in finance. I had a lot of fun. I travelled and enjoyed myself. But I would always go home and I wouldn’t be able to answer why it mattered.
“Now, it’s my job to make sure that 850,000 New Yorkers with disabilities can travel down Fifth Avenue like everybody else. It’s demanding. It’s challenging. I learn so much and I get to work with brilliant people. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”