Invisible Riders: Subways and Accessibility

Most New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with the MTA, but while the iconic Transportation Authority may occasionally irritate the average commuter, it presents myriad other difficulties for people with disabilities. Advocacy for people with disabilities has increased in recent years, with organizations like Disability Pride NYC raising awareness through events like the annual Disability Pride Parade. While the parade, which takes place in July each year in honor of Disability Pride Month, is postponed this year due to COVID concerns, organizations are working to better incorporate everyday necessities like the subway for disabled people.

NYC currently has 118 actively accessible subway stations out of a total of 472 stations, including the Staten Island Railway; 25 percent accessibility might be a good start, but not all of these accessible train stations offer full access – some only offer access to certain train lines, even if the station is a stop for many different lines. There is also no uniform design of barrier-free and inaccessible stations, which makes every subway stop a unique experience for commuters and MTA employees. The variety of subway stations in downtown Manhattan shows how great these differences in accessibility can be.

Perspectives of the transit workers

Always a hub of activity, 14th St. Union Square station provides access to L, N, Q, R, W, 4, 5 and 6. Its only elevator qualifies it as an “accessible” station, but because of its positioning As for the elevator, it lacks barrier-free access to lines 4, 5 and 6. This may be frustrating for some passengers, but it doesn’t prevent the station from being constantly full of traffic as the elevator is almost always in use. This was confirmed by an MTA employee at one of the many ticket booths in Union Square who found that people often come to the train station because they have to use the elevator. (This member of staff, along with most of the other interviewees, asked to keep her identity anonymous.) When asked about accessibility complaints, she replied that she had not received any during her working hours in this ward.

Similar to 14th St., other accessible train stations in downtown Manhattan are hubs of activity with many different train routes stopping at. West 4th St. was so busy the only booth attendant couldn’t answer questions, while Broadway-Lafayette was filled with confused passengers clamoring for help buying a MetroCard.

The booth employee, struggling with a broken microphone, had to leave the booth to direct some tourists on the way before mentioning that in his experience not many disabled people were using the station. Since Broadway-Lafayette has two elevators instead of one, and gives access to five different train lines, this was surprising. However, the overcrowding of the station and the lack of helpful resources such as a working booth microphone or cash at the ticket office could discourage not only the physically handicapped but also anyone with a reduced function from braving the subway.

“It’s hard for them when you have a stick and you go down the stairs, you can really feel it in your knees and back,” said an MTA employee at Astor Place, an inaccessible ward with steep stairs that only lead to the 6th move. Since busier train stations tend to be the ones with ADA-approved facilities, it’s no surprise Astor Place doesn’t offer these amenities. What was surprising, however, was how confident this employee was of the difficulties that even people without severe mobile disabilities faced, and pointed to a larger problem of minimal adjustments and performative corrections.

More than mobility

These feelings were most strongly expressed by an employee of the inaccessible Christopher St. Ward. For him, the issue of accessibility goes far beyond caring for people with obvious physical disabilities. This categorization includes people with cognitive disorders such as autism, who often need special help that is simply not currently offered at these wards. “Sometimes they don’t know how to work [MetroCard] Vending machines, ”remarked the employee, describing cases where commuters with intellectual disabilities were frustrated when ticket machines did not work and then collapsed. Instead of helpers or special advisers, workers are instructed to call the police when a customer has a meltdown, which often makes the situation worse. From the point of view of the employee, the police are “not at all” equipped to deal with mentally ill or neurodivergent persons, which implicitly makes the transit system unwelcome to them.

In addition to people with intellectual disabilities, this employee also says that the MTA did not deal adequately with senior citizens, as many do not know how to use the new MetroCard machines and how to get stranded. And like on Broadway Lafayette, the Christopher St. booth doesn’t have any cash for customers who want to buy MetroCards. Some station entrances have no booths at all, leaving commuters helpless if they don’t understand the technology. Even though he knows the MTA has plans for better accessibility for everyone, this employee wonders why they don’t immediately come up with simple solutions, like supplying ticketing counters with cash, that would make commuters’ lives exponentially easier. “It’s depressing because I don’t feel like we’re giving [disabled commuters] this service [they deserve],” he sighed.

The MTA’s website offers accessibility resources, including a list of accessible train stations, discounted fare qualifications, and an overview of current projects aimed at improving accessibility, such as the Jay Street Accessibility Lab. Press releases boast achievements like the addition of an elevator and an expanded mezzanine on 57th Street, making it accessible to drivers with mobile disabilities. Although initiatives like this one focus on physical disabilities, they are still important steps forward, especially since the MTA’s accessibility plans were slightly thrown off track last year due to budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in lost revenue for the MTA led. The departure of former MTA President Andy Byford, who campaigned for accessibility planning, also hampered the speed with which accessibility was introduced. The MTA claims to do its best in the face of the enormous financial burdens that hinder optimal rehabilitation and resource allocation. However, unfair denial of service lawsuits have been filed against the MTA, some of which are currently ongoing.

The future of accessibility

On July 15th, the Avenue HQ station, which was usually quiet except for a few passers-by, was bustling with activity. Elected officials, activists and MTA staff stood in front of microphones and cameras to announce the completion of the renovation of the station, making it the newest ADA-approved subway station in NYC. Instead of an elevator, the station now has a ramp, barrier-free turnstiles and new roof and lighting fixtures that make getting in and out as easy as possible.

The project was championed by Quemuel Arroyo, MTA’s first chief accessibility officer, who stated that “there will be no point of failure” here because ramps are far less likely than elevators. Arroyo pointed out the importance of there being no alternative route directions for people with disabilities, as they could now use Avenue H station instead of going out of their way to find others to accommodate them. His remarks highlighted that many able people take transportation for granted, while for disabled people, every new train station is a step forward in accessibility.

MTA project manager Barney Gray stated that it had been in the works for over 10 months and cost about $ 12.2 million. The Avenue H renovation is the first completed project in the MTA Capital Plan 2024, their 4-year plan to improve transportation based on community needs. The voice of the community is especially important in shaping the MTA’s goals, as Arroyo said that only by working with commuters and community organizations can the MTA decide which stations to prioritize in accessibility projects.

Another thing for the MTA to consider is the basic architecture of the subway stations, many of which are over 100 years old. The infrastructure of these stations has often not been built with disabled people in mind, so changing the structure to accommodate disabled people often means disrupting deeper structures, which can take a lot of money and time and often leads to changes in service. Still, the results are worth the fight, as Congregation member Robert Carroll said that accessibility means everyone can enjoy “the great benefits of a New Yorker” and that the new station has “made the neighborhood a better place for everyone” to us. “Many MTA officials and community officers are looking forward to future projects and preparing for more hard work to make the NYC subways accessible to all regardless of skill level.

In the meantime, people with disabilities can turn to other organizations if the subway system operated by MTA goes down. One such organization is Metropolitan New York’s Disabled in Action (DIA), a civil rights organization that aims to raise awareness of disability rights, pass laws for the disabled, and provide a platform for disabled activists to reach out to the surrounding community. Its long list of resources contains specific information for many different disabilities while also providing information on public transport. Another program specially designed for people with mobile disabilities is called Accessible Dispatch, which connects disabled people with taxis at no additional cost and ensures that people are not stranded even when the subway is down.

But while these two organizations benefit the disabled community, many long for a day when they are no longer needed, a day when disabled people can have the same access to MTA facilities as everyone else can, in Arroyo’s words the MTA will take over ADA projects as long as the willpower and resources are there. ”All that remains is for them to pull through.

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