The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is promising to make the New York City subway nearly entirely accessible, but that is going to take 33 years. Disability advocates say it’s too early to celebrate given the challenges that persist for them.
Among those advocating for disability rights is Monica Bartley, the manager of community organizers for the Center for Independence of the Disabled, a social services organization that was one of the parties involved in a class-action lawsuit against the MTA that was settled in June. The two sides reached an agreement that requires 95 percent of the stations to be accessible—but not until 2055, “by which time, many of us would have died,” Bartley said with a wry laugh.
According to Bartley, the MTA has been “fighting us in every sense of the word” to get to this position. Concerns about whether the MTA will live up to this promise still lingers for advocates like Bartley, who said that acting as a watchdog for the MTA is essential.
Bartley is a wheelchair user, and she is familiar with the uncertainty of working elevators and the type of difficult, time-consuming commutes that are common for disabled people navigating public transit. When the elevators are functioning and she can get to her train in time, Bartley describes feeling “so good.” And this is what it does for us, as people with disabilities,” she said.
Disabled commuters say they are rolling the dice whenever they choose to take the subway. Most times, Bartley relies on the bus to get to where she needs to be because of the more accessible ramps and lifts it provides for disabled passengers. On the contrary, the bus, too, has its own challenges. Bartley noted the “attitudinal” problems from drivers and passengers who aren’t always willing to take a passenger with a wheelchair and recalled being denied a bus ride one time. She also finds Access-a-Ride, a paratransit service designed for the disabled, unreliable, citing delays, missed pick-ups and time costs as major issues.
The subway is a faster option—that is, if existing elevators work and ramps are in good condition.
The MTA’s subway system is the largest in the nation, but currently, only about 24 percent of subway stations are accessible, which means that 114 of the 472 stations have elevators and ramps, according to the MTA’s Guide to Accessible Transit. Most of the accessible stations are concentrated in Manhattan. The MTA has maintained for years that installing elevators is a costly effort, and consequently, accessibility hasn’t been a priority. The MTA has long been subject to complaints regarding its violation of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). In a 2019 class action lawsuit, the transit agency was challenged for its practice of renovating subway stations without installing elevators.
Quemuel Arroyo, the MTA’s chief accessibility officer, said that the MTA is committed to changing the relationship between the transit agency and the disabled community. The MTA is investing $5.2 billion towards newly accessible stations and an estimated $600 million for elevator upgrades. Upon completion, the MTA will have created 70 newly accessible stations and updated 78 subway elevators. The settlement reached earlier this year builds on this program with an eye toward full accessibility. “Subway riders will never be more than two stops away from an accessible station,” the MTA promised on a page outlining its station accessibility projects.
“That is the MTA saying we are doing right by a community that we’ve wronged for far too long,” said Arroyo, who’s also a wheelchair user. For Arroyo, access goes beyond elevators and ramps. “I define access as providing the tools and knowledge so that all of our riders can move around independently on their own time.”
One such tool is the Long Island Rail Road’s TrainTime app, which includes a feature that tells users of the number of available seats in each train car and helps them determine which car to board. According to Arroyo, this kind of tool benefits everyone, from an immunocompromised individual, to a person using a wheelchair, to an average commuter who doesn’t like crowded spaces. While there are no plans yet to implement such a measure for the city’s subway riders, Arroyo noted that NaviLens is an existing tool that improves wayfinding navigation for people with visual disabilities.
New York has a transit system that is more than a hundred years old and was designed before the ADA went into effect, which partly explains why plans for accessibility have never been the master priority for the transit agency. According to Jessica Murray, a disability advocate and researcher who has studied the impact of transportation on disabled people, the MTA hasn’t thought much about full accessibility. “The MTA has been essentially saying we are going to make 100 stations accessible and then, after that, we don’t really know, we don’t have money, we don’t have funding. There was never really a plan to make all of the stations accessible, so that’s really what advocates had to fight for in this lawsuit that has been going on since early 2017,” Murray said.
Rebecca Lamorte, a disability advocate, acknowledged just how daunting commuting remains for disabled New Yorkers, particularly during the winter when sidewalks are icey and difficult to navigate. She was left with degenerative nerve syndrome in her left leg after being pushed on a stationary 6 train and having her leg get caught in between the train and platform. Stairs posed a newfound challenge for her. Even with the assistance of a cane, which she relies on permanently, Lamorte has found it cumbersome to navigate subway stations. “That day,” she said, “illuminated for me how inaccessible our city, our society and just every aspect of life truly is.”
For Lamorte, the MTA’s efforts to move forward with congestion pricing, the tolling program that aims to charge motorists a fee when entering below 60th street, doesn’t change the number of challenges disabled New Yorkers already face. Congestion pricing will generate a total of $15 billion in revenue to fund improvements in transit such as creating and modernizing elevators, according to the MTA’s environmental assessment. The MTA’s website indicates 80 percent of the money generated by the tolling program would be directed toward improving and modernizing the subway system and buses, making them “faster, more accessible, and more reliable for everyone.” Lamorte said that “it’s not about supporting or opposing it anymore, because they didn’t care about the impact on disabled people when they chose to move forward with it knowing what the subway system is.”
“We need to know what the plan is, what a real timeline is for these accessibility upgrades,” said Lamorte. “The benefits will be tangible, but it’s not tangible if I have to wait 50 years to see them.”