Despite MTA Progress, Disabled Subway Passengers Must Plan Alternate Routes

Navigating the New York City subway station can be daunting at times. However, for Tiffany Hall, even getting down to the platform is a challenge.

“I try to use the trains, but that may not turn out well, because it’s not like I can walk up the stairs,” said Hall, a wheelchair-bound Brooklyn resident.

Hall was recently trying to return home using the 5 train, which runs from 233rd Street in the Bronx to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. She attempted to get off at the 125th Street stop in East Harlem, a handicap accessible station, but the elevator was broken. She was advised by workers in the information booth to travel to the 149th Street station, but that elevator was broken as well. After taking a detour to the Bronx, Hall was eventually able to navigate her way home to Brooklyn.

Hall’s situation is not that unique. She is one of roughly 889,000 people living with a disability in New York City, according to a report from the Center for Independence of the Disabled (CIDNY). Only 85 of the subway system’s 469 stations are handicap accessible, meaning that Hall is able to use just 18% of NYC’s stations.

This reality is made worse because Hall resides in an outer borough. 42 of the MTA’s 85 accessible subway stations are located in Manhattan, leaving just 43 stations scattered throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The Staten Island Railway is not considered part of the subway system. There are 17 accessible stations in Queens, 25 in Brooklyn, and just 12 in the Bronx. While Brooklyn is the outer borough with the highest number of accessible stations, that amounts to just 14% of its total stations. The Bronx’s subway stations are 17% accessible, while 23% of Queens’s subway stations are accessible. In comparison, Manhattan’s subway stations are 28% accessible.

This is despite the fact that the majority of NYC’s disabled population lives outside of Manhattan. 164,581 handicapped individuals lived in Manhattan in 2011, whereas Brooklyn was home to 269,060 residents with a disability. The Bronx and Queens had 185,745 and 222,923 disabled residents, respectively.

The inclined elevators at the new 34th-Street Hudson Yards station. These elevators are the first of their kind in the NYC subway system.
The inclined elevators at the new 34th-Street Hudson Yards station. These elevators are the first of their kind in the NYC subway system.

The situation has slowly been improving. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all newly constructed subway stations be fully handicap accessible. As a result, the 34th-Street Hudson Yards station, which opened in September, featured the city’s first inclined elevators, and the Second Avenue subway line will be completely accessible as well. For renovations on existing stations, up to 20% of the budget must be dedicated to improving accessibility.

The MTA is also in the process of making 100 key stations accessible by 2020, a goal set in 1994 following a 1979 lawsuit with the United Spinal Association. According to Samuel Forde, MTA ADA Coordinator, the list of key stations was devised after “extensive consultation with the disability community.” The MTA has dedicated $561 million to completing the project by 2020, and Forde says that they are on track.

Despite this progress, United Spinal CEO Jim Weisman is not optimistic for accessibility improvements beyond 2020. Weisman was involved in the original 1979 lawsuit that resulted in the 2020 goal, and said that by 2020, the group had expected a “cultural shift” to take place in attitudes towards disability access.

“We thought 20 years from now, it’ll seem so stupid to keep things inaccessible, that the transit operators will just opt for accessibility, we won’t have to keep forcing them,” said Weisman. “Well, it’s 21 years later now, and we’re still having to force them.”

Weisman acknowledges that with the ADA’s renovation requirement, eventually all of NYC’s subway stations will be accessible. However, retrofitting existing stations to be ADA compliant is difficult in terms of construction and cost, and 20% of the renovation budget may not cover the entire cost. Thus, only one direction of the line may be made handicap accessible, as was the case with the Dyckman Street station renovation. The $31 million rehabilitation project, completed in 2014, originally did not include plans for improving accessibility. However, following a lawsuit brought by United Spinal, the MTA agreed to add an elevator.

“They were just being boneheaded, I can’t explain it. They throw out more on Danish and coffee for meetings than it would cost to make that station accessible, and it was outrageous that they litigated it for years,” said Weisman.

As the slow march towards subway station accessibility continues, handicapped passengers must find ways around these transportation obstacles. The MTA boasts a 100% accessible bus system, another product of the 1979 lawsuit. Those with qualifying disabilities can receive a Reduced-Fare Metrocard, which reduces the cost of a bus or subway ride from $2.75 to $1.35.

Dustin Jones, a member of advocacy group Disabled in Action, says that he predominately prefers riding the bus, as it allows him to “come and go as I please.” However, relying on bus transportation leaves him at the mercy of traffic conditions. Recently, when the United States General Assembly was in town, a trip that normally lasts an hour and five minutes took over two and a half hours.

“A lot of the passengers just got tired and said ‘Screw this’ and they got off the bus. I couldn’t get off the bus, because we were at a standstill in the middle of traffic,” said Jones. “My wheelchair was just limiting me from moving anywhere, so it was just horrible.”

Despite such difficulties, as a Bronx resident, Jones relies primarily on the bus to travel back and forth to Manhattan several times a week. Jones does not live near an accessible subway station, and instead takes two different buses. Jones formerly lived in Queens, and although 23% of Queens’ subway stations are accessible, he said that travel was no easier. His closest option was Jamaica Center, an accessible station that houses the J, E, and Z subway lines. However, Jones said that unreliable elevator service was too much of a risk.

“I never used that station because that elevator is about 20 years old, and it was broken more than it was ever

A map of the NYC subway system that shows which stations the MTA has already made ADA compliant, and which stations they plan to retrofit by 2020.
A map of the NYC subway system that shows which stations the MTA has already made ADA compliant, and which stations they plan to retrofit by 2020.

running. It was really bad,” said Jones.

Instead, Jones opted to ride 2 buses – an additional 20 minutes – to get to the Sutphin Boulevard station, which connects to the John F. Kennedy Airport via the JFK AirTrain. Because so many people use that station, Jones said, elevator service is much more reliable.

Smartphone apps such as NYC Accessible help disabled MTA passengers navigate these challenges. Created by Andy Glass and Jason Schwab for the 2015 App Quest 3.0, NYC Accessible provides users with up-to-date information about elevator andescalator outages and their estimated return date. The app refreshes every five minutes with information gathered from the MTA dataset.

“Imagine you can only use so many stations, and then imagine that these elevators that are the only way you can get into the platform are always in and out of service,” said Glass. “What a pain that would be.”

Disabled passengers can also use Access-a-Ride, the MTA’s door-to-door paratransit service, which costs $2.50 per ride. Access-a-Ride operates 24 hours a day, and trips must be requested 24 to 48 hours in advance. Because Access-a-Ride is a shared-ride service, pick-up times cannot be guaranteed, and the website cautions that drivers may arrive up to an hour later or earlier than requested.

Hall experienced this first-hand while trying to use the service during the UNGA, when she was left stranded after her Access-a-Ride driver failed to show up. After calling the dispatcher, she learned that her driver had arrived early and left after the required five minute wait. However, Hall believes that the UNGA traffic was the source of the mix-up.

“Normally I don’t have a problem – well, not much of a problem. Not that kind of a problem,” said Hall.

Hall and Jones are both regular users of Access-a-Ride, and have developed their own methods to make the most out of the service. Hall says that if she knows a big event is coming up, she will schedule her trip two hours earlier than normal so that she has a better chance of being on time. Jones, who uses the service several times a week to travel from the Bronx to Manhattan, says that he schedules his trips 30 minutes early. Jones expressed frustration at his fellow passengers who do not structure this additional time into their schedules.

“A lot of people blame the system, but it’s them,” said Jones. “I have a lot of people telling me ‘Oh, Access-a-Ride’s dropping me off late,’ and it’s like, well, okay, what time did you tell them you had to be there?”

Methods such as these are likely to endure past 2020. Even if the MTA is able to retrofit the remaining 15 stations, just 21% of all NYC subway stations will be handicap accessible. Thus, Jones, Hall, and the roughly 889,000 New Yorkers living with disabilities will have to continue using creative combinations of transportation methods until the “cultural shift” that Weisman hoped for takes place.

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