J. Murphy

Only a quarter—or 118—of New York’s 472 subway stations are accessible, and another 26 are in the process of getting elevators, according to the MTA.

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With additional reporting by Greis Torres, Nuha Dolby, Sokhna Fall, Jasper Krause, Yasmine Chokrane, Darius Jankauskas and Fariha Fawziah of the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative for Youth (CLARIFY).
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Last week marked the 28th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was signed into federal law on July 26th, 1990—guaranteeing the equal rights of people with disabilities and changing the way we build doorways, sidewalks and other public facilities to make them more accessible.

But nearly three decades later, disabled residents and advocates in New York City say they remain largely cut off from one of the city’s most vital public accommodations: its subway system. Only a quarter—or 118—of New York’s 472 subway stations are accessible, and another 26 are in the process of getting elevators, according to the MTA. The system lags far behind those of other comparable U.S. cities, according to a report released by the comptroller’s office earlier this month, which deemed half of the city’s neighborhoods “ADA Transit Deserts” because they lack a single accessible station.

A similar report released this month by State Sen. Michael Gianaris’ office ranked New York’s subways dead last in terms of accessibility compared to mass transit in 12 other U.S. cities. All stations in San Francisco’s BART and Washington D.C.’s Metro systems are accessible, for example; Boston’s MBTA system has a 96 percent accessibility rate, while 67 percent of stations in Chicago’s CTA system are accessible, the report says.

“28 years after the passage of the American with Disabilities Act, we are in a very disappointing place,” says Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York.

While all city buses are technically wheelchair accessible, using them can come with its own set of potential pitfalls, and city buses are notoriously slow. Disabled residents are also able to use the MTA’s Access-a-Ride program, but those rides need to be booked in advance, and the service has been criticized for often leaving riders stranded or taking them on long, meandering routes.

To Dooha and other advocates, the only way for the city to offer a truly equitable transit system is to address the barriers in its subway system, which—despite its many flaws—remains one of the most vital ways for New Yorkers to get around.

“I see what a struggle it is for people on my staff and people on my board of directors to get to appointments, to get to meetings, because the subways are inaccessible, and yet they remain the only quick way to get around the city,” she says. “The lack of progress on this is really disgraceful.”

In recent months, the MTA has made moves to address the subway’s accessibility problem. The agency hired its first ever accessibility advisor last month, while New York City Transit President Andy Byford declared accessibility one of the four priorities in his “Fast Forward” plan to modernize the subways.

The plan pledges to install elevators at 50 new stations in the next five years, and another 130 additional stations over the next decade, with the goal of having “all possible stations” made accessible by 2034. It’s still uncertain exactly what percentage of stations the MTA considers “possible” for accessibility—a spokesman for the agency says teams are currently assessing that number—so it’s likely that some, if not several stations, may never be able to accommodate wheelchairs.

At a TransitCenter panel talk on July 17, Byford said the MTA’s hired a company which is now analyzing all of the system’s stations “to evaluate the cost and complexity of how they will be made accessible.”

Of course, finding room to construct elevators in century-old subway stations can be a difficult and expensive task, one that can take months or even years to complete. A project announced earlier this week to add three elevators to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Avenue G train station, for example, is expected to last 28 months.

But experts point to other cities which have managed to make their systems significantly more accessible in spite of equally-antiquated infrastructure. A report TransitCenter published last year lauded the progress of Boston’s T and Chicago’s CTA rail networks, detailing how Boston created a special department to specifically monitor ADA compliance and prioritized maintenance of its elevators. Similarly, Chicago formed a “Infrastructure Accessibility Task Force” charged with creating a concrete plan for expanding accessibility.

“These plans and improvements were only possible because elected leaders and senior agency management took a firm position to make accessibility a priority and hold their agencies accountable,” the TransitCenter report reads.

Byford says the MTA is already making progress on its accessibility goals, and that by the end of the year, teams will have surveyed 150 new stations for the addition of elevators, coming up with concept drawings and cost estimates.

“I’ve always thought that you can’t be proud of a transit system unless that transit system is accessible to all,” Byford told attendees at TransitCenter’s event. “How can you possibly say that your transit system is world class, or that it’s one that you can be proud of, unless everyone is able to participate in it?”

Advocates say they’re pleased to hear such statements, but counter that this work should’ve happened long ago. Disability rights groups have been fighting for decades for improved subway access, including filing several lawsuits.

“They’ve been making progress because they’ve been sued,” said Dooha of CIDNY, which is the lead plaintiff in two separate suits against the MTA.

“They are making progress because the community is sick and tired of being left out of family gatherings, unable to get to their doctors appointments on time, unable to take their children to school in another district, and unable to do other things that people take for granted.”

Lawsuits and broken elevators

When the ADA was passed in 1990, it required construction of new public facilities built after 1993 be designed to comply with its accessibility standards, but “acknowledged” the difficulties involved in doing so with existing infrastructure, like a century-old subway system, according to Michelle Caiola, director of litigation with the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates (DRA).

The MTA had agreed to start adding elevators to some subways in 1984, well before the ADA’s passage—part of a deal struck following a lawsuit filed against the agency over accessibility, according to news reports at the time. In 1994, local law required the MTA to install elevators at 100 specific “key stations” by the year 2020, a requirement it’s on track to meet: as of February, 86 of those stations were ADA accessible, according to MTA board meeting minutes (the agency has also added elevators at a number of stations besides those on its key list).

But advocacy groups have mounted legal challenges against the authority arguing it’s failed to comply with the ADA in other ways. In 2016, DRA filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the MTA violated ADA standards when it renovated the Middletown Road subway station in the Bronx, adding $21.85 million in repairs and upgrades, but no elevators.

The U.S. Attorney’s office joined that lawsuit as a plaintiff in March, and the MTA has faced similar backlash for other station renovation projects — under what it calls the “enhanced station initiative” — which closed stations for months at a time to make repairs and improvements, but didn’t address accessibility.

In a separate class-action lawsuit filed in April 2017, DRA argues the MTA’s overall lack of subway elevators violates the New York City’s Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations and other sectors. A third class-action suit the group filed last year alleges that the MTA’s failure to properly maintain the subway elevators it does have constitutes a violation of the ADA. Riders frequently face elevator outages—at least 25 per day throughout the subway system—and are given little to no warning about them, the lawsuit alleges.

“We’re trying to approach this from multiple angles, because the lack of accessibility in the New York City subway system is astonishing,” Caiola explains of the group’s multiple legal actions. While the ADA is a “very progressive” law, it can be difficult to enforce without going to court.

“The one drawback is, basically, you have to sue to get enforcement if someone is not complying,” she said.

An MTA spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but said in a statement that “New York City Transit has never been more committed to an accessible transit system than it is right now.”

Examples of this include the recently hired accountability officer, Alex Elegudin, and the Fast Forward roadmap to dramatically expand subway accessibility, “with customers no more than two stations away from an accessible station within five years, and continued elevator installations after that,” MTA Spokesman Shams Tarek said, noting that the MTA is also overhauling its bus network and Access-a-Ride system to be better for disabled riders.

Complaints about subway elevator maintenance have long been an issue for the MTA. Those who depend on the lifts say they’re often broken or out of service, rendering the small portion of accessible subway stations—which amount to just a quarter of the system—even smaller, and sometimes leaving disabled riders stranded.

“I have back and leg issues, so it’s harder to walk up and down steps, especially with a backpack,” one straphanger, who declined to give her name, told reporters recently, saying she’s canceled outings altogether after realizing that the elevators were down.

Several commuters who spoke to City Limits said they use the subways’ elevators for a variety of reasons: because they have asthma, because a past injury makes it painful to walk up the stairs, or because they’re traveling with a stroller, bike or other heavy items.

“It’s already hard for me with a stroller, so imagine people who really can’t walk,” Stephanie Soto, a 20-year-old mother who says she uses the elevators when traveling her young daughter, told City Limits reporters recently.

Riders also complained that the MTA should do a better job of communicating elevator outages, saying alerts on the agency’s website are often inaccurate or not up to date. On a recent weekday morning, City Limits reporters spotted a sign in the 125th Street station at Lexington Avenue declaring the “Elevator Closed” despite the fact that the lift was indeed working.

During his talk at TransitCenter, Byford said that the agency is “tearing into” making its elevator fleet more reliable. During the month of June, 96.5 percent of the system’s elevators were operating correctly, compared to 95.9 during the same month of 2017, according to Byford.

“It’s still not good enough, but it’s improving,” he said.

Emily Seelenfreund, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates who was among the panelists at TransitCenter’s event earlier this month, said the elevator statistics seem positive at first glance, but are more disruptive in reality.

“When I was first here and I first heard this 95 to 96 percent number, because I was new to New York, new to the subway, I was like, ‘Yeah that sounds pretty good, that’s an A,” said Seelenfreund, who uses a wheelchair herself and says her daily commute requires the use of five different subway elevators.

“95 percent, that’s 1 out of 20 elevators [that] is going to be out of service. If I’m taking five elevators a day, that means one out of four of my trips I’m going to encounter a broken elevator. So it’s one out of four days I’m going to be late for work,” she told the crowd. “That’s a real-world impact—that’s time that I’m wasting going all around the city to get where I need to go.”

Other consequences

According to city data updated in 2016, there are nearly 950,000 residents in the city living with a disability, including 99,000 wheelchair users. For New Yorkers who can’t use stairs, the lack of access to reliable transit can have significant, real world consequences —particularly when it comes to finding work, according to Dooha of CIDNY.

“Only 29 percent of people with disabilities in New York City are employed. That is a pretty horrifying statistic, and one of the main reasons that this occurs is that the subway system is inaccessible and the alternatives don’t work well,” she said.

For others, the consequences can mean having to endure daily commutes that are longer and more complicated than those faced by ambulatory riders.

“We’re not able to go to work, to school, to do our leisure activities like other people,” said Monica Bartley, a community organizer with CIDNY who spoke at TransitCenter’s panel event. She recounted one particular day where her commute was foiled by two out-of-service elevators, forcing her to shuffle back and forth between train stations in an effort to find one she could exit from.

“I was just wandering around in the subway station. I think I spent about three hours,” she told the crowd. “Whenever we plan to travel, we always have to plan for a lot more time than it would take someone to normally travel around this city.”

Michelle Caiola, who’s representing the plaintiffs in the class action suit against the MTA over its general lack of elevators, said they’re pushing for the agency to settle the case by entering into a legally-binding agreement to make sure the increased accessibility they’ve promised will actually be carried out.

“What we would need is some kind of firm commitment—because this is a large bureaucracy—and a funding proposal,” she said.

How to fund Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan and the improvements it promises is still uncertain, though experts and elected officials have floated a number of ideas, from congestion pricing to a tax on the state’s wealthiest citizens. The MTA’s current 2015-19 MTA capital program earmarked $1.4 billion for making subway stations accessible, according to the agency, as well as $479 million to replace existing elevators and escalators in the system. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota has yet to attach a price tag to the Fast Forward plan, telling reporters the cost will be determined in the MTA’s 2020-2024 Capital Plan.

At TransitCenter’s panel talk this month, Byford said he’s open to the different proposals that have been pitched for funding future improvements—as long as the money comes through.

“All I know is, it needs funding,” he said. “It’s the right plan, we’ve got to get on with it, and we’ve got to get on with it right now.”