Tunnel Vision

New York's Subway Is Hell for Riders with Disabilities

Only 24 percent of the system's 472 stations are ADA-accessible.
May 18, 2018, 3:59pm
An activist from the Elevator Action Group with Rise and Resist speaking to NYCT President Andy Byford. Photo via Pacific Press.

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

While the list of New York’s subway woes is long and depressing and a source of pain for all, those with disabilities have more reason than most to gripe about the MTA. Strikingly, only 24 percent of the system’s 472 stations are ADA-accessible, which makes New York subways the least accessible major mass transit system in the country. And the elevators that do exist, as most riders know, are all too often broken. On a daily basis, that means scores of riders have to maneuver through a vital transit network that largely doesn’t work for them.


But there has been news to celebrate lately. A lawsuit filed by disability advocates against the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)—which alleges that the agency violated the ADA by building a staircase at the Middletown Road 6 train station, and not an elevator—added a new plaintiff in March: the federal government. The new president of New York City Transit, Andy Byford, also publicly stated that paratransit is a main goal of his tenure, having led successful efforts for Toronto’s metro system. He announced that a system-wide study is under way to determine what it will take to make New York’s subways fully accessible.

Yet that is a long way in the future. And with the L train shutdown quickly approaching, many advocates argue that the mitigation plan put forth by the MTA creates a zero-sum solution for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. To find out more, VICE spoke with Colin Wright and Chris Pangilinan at TransitCenter, a major transit policy organization. Wright, an advocacy associate, and Pangilinan, a director of tech and rider engagement and former MTA planner, are behind its Access Denied campaign; Pangilinan himself uses a wheelchair.

VICE: So first off, what’s the issue here?
Chris Pangilinan: The issue is that with the New York City subway, less than 25 percent of the stations are accessible to people with disabilities. This really limits the amount of city—and all the economic and social opportunities that come with it—to people with disabilities. Especially in New York, where jobs, housing, and our lifestyle are built around transit. Car ownership is the lowest of any major city, and it's expensive to drive. A lot of times people bring up the buses, which are fully accessible, but if you look at speed, they’re much slower than the subway and they don’t cross boroughs as much. Really, this city was built around the subway, so to deny access to the piece of infrastructure that the city was built around for hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities, it really does exclude a large part of the population from living normal lives.

Nationally, we passed several laws, the most famous being the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in 1990. New York City has followed that up with the Human Rights Law that prohibits discrimination against any set of people for any reason. If we're going to adhere to those values and live up to those ideals, then the subway’s inaccessibility is a huge black mark on us.

Thinking of the comptroller's report that came out in July—which said subway delays were costing New Yorkers jobs, and money—what are the economic implications of inaccessibility?
Think about housing for a second, where a large percentage of units here in New York are inaccessible already to people with disabilities, because of the stairs to get to them. That leaves pockets of housing now that are available to people with disabilities. Then you have to couple in the fact that there needs to be a subway station nearby that's accessible, and all of a sudden, you're down to three or four neighborhoods where people can realistically live. The affordability of those neighborhoods is very low, and the cost of living is very high, because they're new buildings, and near an accessible station. We're talking downtown Brooklyn, Hudson Yards, lower Manhattan, Long Island City; all places that are going to have 50 to 75 percent higher rents than the median rent.


Tell us about the Access Denied campaign. How did it come about?
At Transit Center, we engage in numerous activities to advance public transit around the country, advocacy being one of them. I, personally, moved here four years ago, and was quickly stunned at how many times I personally had encountered, as a wheelchair user, an elevator outage, and realized that this issue didn't have a galvanized message. When I worked at the MTA for two years before coming here people knew about it, but it wasn't a priority in anyone's workload. Yes, elevators break, and yes, we don't have money for them. That's just the way it is. So coming here, we saw an opportunity where we can really make this an issue that affects many New Yorkers, and hopefully put some pressure on the MTA, and those who control the agency, to make the subway more accessible for people with disabilities.

An activist from the Elevator Action Group with Rise and Resist speaking to NYCT President Andy Byford. Photo via Pacific Press.

We started in January of 2017 by interviewing the players—the disability advocates who have been in the game since the 1970s, and fought for the first set of 100 stations to be accessible back in 1994. We tried to find out what battles they fought, and where they saw the situation today, and really tried to grab the flag with their blessing, and run with it. Coincidentally, there was a lawsuit also being filed against the MTA by other folks—and I, myself, personally outside of my work, happened to be involved with that. That made a splash in the media in April of 2017, and we launched in July 2017, which was around the 27th anniversary of the ADA.

Since we broached the topic, asking on behalf of countless subway riders who probably have this same question: why do the subway elevators break down so much?
This will happen to me a lot: on Sunday night, I was coming home from Penn Station, I get to Jay Street, and there was a big yellow gate blocking the street elevator. How am I supposed to get out of the station at that point? Luckily, I had built a relationship with the booth person, and she was able to get the maintenance person to immediately open it for me. But I shouldn't have to have a special favor done for me.


I keep a log of every elevator outage I've encountered since I moved here in November of 2014, and I'm already at 282. Which is an average of about two or three a week. That's obscene. Especially when I'm coming from San Francisco, where I encountered maybe one a month.

Colin Wright: The MTA's bids aren't competitive when it comes to maintainers. They don't have enough maintainers to do the preventative maintenance. The comptroller’s report last year said that something like 80 percent of preventative maintenance [for elevators] is not occurring on time. Byford has said that the agency needs to be paying more, and employing more people, but they haven't been able to because they've been going into the private sector. And new elevators cost tens of millions of dollars. Old technology is another issue: the controllers that they use to operate these elevators, which are only going like two stories, are using the same technology, so they can standardize it across the whole fleet. The problem is, this technology is from the 1980s. It's not current stuff, so there are fewer people who can really work on it or are familiar with these particular parts, the parts cost more, and they have to make new parts to fix things. So it takes forever to fix.

[In response, an MTA spokesperson told VICE that $400 million is included in the agency’s current capital plan to replace 69 elevators, and escalators. The hiring of workers was also accelerated under the MTA’s ‘Subway Action Plan.’]

So what has the MTA done so far on the issue of accessibility?
The brief history is that today, where we stand, the MTA is operating under their 'Key Station Agreement,' which was finalized in 1994 after a decade of negotiations with the disability community and the passage of the ADA in 1990. That called for 100 key stations—places that are highly trafficked, and near destinations—to be accessible, which is why you have a lot of stations in Manhattan that are accessible. That plan was supposed to be completed in 2020, and it looks like they'll probably hit that goal.


Now, what we are upset about is that there is still no plan to go beyond that. It's like the agency is saying, 'Well, we're done. If we ever build a new station, then of course they'll be accessible, but forget about Bay Ridge or the Bronx.' Which just seems like backward thinking, especially when you look at cities that are also old. Toronto has a plan to get to 100 percent accessibility in seven years. You also have Boston, which had a lawsuit 12 years ago, but they're at 70 percent now. Chicago, same thing: 70 percent, and marching to 100. Here in New York, we have more riders per station, which means more dollars, yet we make the excuse constantly that we don't have money for this. It kind of rings hollow when you look at what the other cities are doing.

[In response, an MTA spokesperson referred to a recent press release, which announced a capital plan amendment for increased investment in ADA accessibility projects. “Nearly $5 billion has been invested to make subway stations ADA-accessible, including the nearly $1 billion already approved for the 2015-2019 MTA capital plan,” it reads.]

Do you see the lawsuit as a way of moving forward?
Chris: Definitely. I think there needs to be a multi-pronged approach, where it’s advocacy, political pressure from Albany and city leaders, but also, sometimes you just need a backstop. You need the force of the law of the court, saying, 'Look guys, you just need to do this.' I think the ADA in 1990 was supposed to be that law, but we've seen time and time again here—and now with the L train shutdown—that it just gets ignored. We need this series of lawsuits to backstop their actions. We've heard a lot of good things from Byford, who made accessibility one of his four main pillars coming in, but he's not going to be here forever. You can't guarantee that the next president will have the same voice on accessibility as he does. And we haven't seen the action yet, just voice.


Let’s talk L train shutdown for a second. We know that the MTA is adding elevators to two key stations—Bedford Avenue and 1st Avenue in Manhattan. But what’s the issue there?
Colin: The issue is that the tunnel is going to shut down, and a huge portion of the 275,000 riders are expected to transfer to other train lines, which are largely not accessible. The MTA gave no thought to, 'All right, these are going to be critical transfer hubs. Are they accessible?' And they're not.

There are three things wrong here: from a practical perspective, for folks who need elevators; the whole moral issue, of, yet again, we're neglecting the needs of riders who are disabled during an emergency shutdown; and then the legal aspect, where, at Broadway Junction and Court Square, they are only creating new stairways and widening existing stairs. The problem with that, as the federal Department of Transportation has told New York City Transit, you cannot only focus on stairs as a point of entry without making the station accessible for folks who need elevators, and you cannot use cost as an excuse in that scenario. You can use technical infeasibility, which the MTA often does, but they never showed it.

[In response, an MTA spokesperson said the agency is “improving accessibility at stations impacted by the L tunnel reconstruction,” and referred to the project’s website for further details.]

So what is Access Denied calling upon the MTA to do?
Chris: We have two outcomes we want to see with the campaign. One, we want to see 100 percent subway accessibility, meaning elevators at every station, or some other kind of accessibility platform. And two, we want to see 99.9 percent uptime on elevators across the system. Very simply asks, if you will, but how do you get here?


With the elevators themselves, we want the MTA to take a systematic look, starting with maintenance, on what is it with their maintainers and how they operate their internal agency to achieve this. Do we need to contract it out, if internal staff isn't getting it done? Do we need to hold internal staff more accountable? Possibly pay them more, train more, maybe; that's up for them to decide. In the short-term, it’s really just setting the bar higher than 96.5 percent uptime, and working our way to 99.9.

That aside, our argument is to first have a plan beyond 2020 that gets up to 100 percent accessibility. Yes, we acknowledge that some stations will be more difficult to build at than others. This is an old city, and the subway was built in 1904. We all understand that. But there also is a lot of low-hanging fruit around there that we could attack today. We also really want them to take advantage of the station shutdowns. With no elevators planned, we really see the billion-dollar Enhanced Station Initiative as a huge missed opportunity

So developing that plan, and taking advantage of the capital cycles in order to put elevators in there. They've only been building at a rate of about 2.5 elevators a year, to achieve the 100 stations over 30 years. They're still 372 stations to go. At this current pace, it's going to take 100 years to get there. That's not acceptable. We need a plan that gets us there much sooner.

This interview was condensed, and lightly edited.

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