It’s no secret that the New York City subway system is woefully inaccessible. Despite being one of the largest and most widely used transportation networks in the world, with an estimated 5.6 million riders each day, the subway is the least accessible system in the country. The TransitCenter in New York recently held a panel with local politicians, the MTA, and disability
advocates to discuss this serious issue.
According to reports from NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office and the TransitCenter:
- Only 110 of 472 stations are currently accessible
- 25 elevators break down every day, on average
- The average rider can expect to encounter 90 elevators that don’t work each year
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers each day need special accommodations, particularly working elevators, to gain access to the subway. This includes not only people with disabilities, but parents and caregivers with strollers, travelers with luggage, the elderly, people with health conditions or injuries, and anyone transporting large packages or other items.
The Impact of an Inaccessible System
The lack of reliable subway access affects where people are able to live, where they can work or go to school, their ability to visit family, go to the doctor, and participate in community life. It also affects their cost of living, not to mention the social and psychological harm of not being able to gain access to their social networks and important services.
A Time for Change
New MTA commissioner Andy Byford has made accessibility a priority in his new administration, as part of his “Fast Forward Plan.” One of his first initiatives was to name Alex Elegudin as the MTA’s Accessibility Chief, a new position created to oversee subway, bus, and paratransit service for commuters with disabilities. Elegudin is a wheelchair user and founder of the disability advocacy organization Wheeling Forward and The Axis Project, which is also an ICS partner.
The MTA plans to make 50 more stations accessible in 5 years, so that a rider is never more than two stops away from a station that has access. But whether the MTA’s plan is effective will depend on getting funding from the State and ensuring that it’s spent wisely, according to New York State Senator Michael Gianaris, who was one of the panelists.
Challenges and the Road Ahead
After initial remarks from NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, the TransitCenter panel discussion ensued, including Byford, Gianaris, Monica Bartley from the Center for Independence of the Disabled NY, and Disability Rights Advocates Attorney Emily Seelenfreund.
Bartley and Seelenfreund, who are both wheelchair users, described some of the daily challenges they face on their commutes, and called on the MTA to be more accountable for repairs.
“Elevators are often hidden, and people treat them as places for trash. Elevator maintenance is a big issue, and there is no ‘ADA police’ when the system isn’t working,” Seelenfreund said.
Bartley described a long and frustrating day in which she spent three hours in subway stations, struggling to find one that was accessible.
“Sometimes when the elevator from the street level works, the second elevator to the platform doesn’t. The platforms are too narrow, and you feel like you’re taking your life in your hands,” Bartley said.
Byford shared that transit improvements will focus not just on infrastructure, but cultural and process changes as well.
“All of our MTA employees will undergo sensitivity training for providing service to people of all abilities,” he said.
Members of the audience made suggestions, including making people more aware about the MTA text alerts that are available, and allowing users to purchase disability Metrocards from the MTA vending machines. As an amputee who wears an artificial leg, I asked that the MTA not forget issues with the bus system in the winter – such as large piles of plowed snow that often prevent people from boarding, or even getting close to a bus at a bus stop.
At the close of the panel, one of the panelists offered a sobering reminder that accessibility is an issue that affects all of us, no matter our age or mobility.
“We are all temporarily able-bodied. One day you will need that access.”