Q and A: A look into the accessibility problem within New York City mass transit

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NEW YORK — The MTA New York City Transit is one of the largest public transportation agency in the world with 472 operating subway stations.

According to the MTA, the subway system has a daily ridership of an average of 5.6 million people.

But there’s a population that finds the subway system one of the least accessible – those who face a mobility challenge or have a physically disability that require stair-free access.

Colin Wright is an advocacy associate for the TransitCenter, a research-based organization that works with transit agencies nationwide on how to improve public transportation services.

In his 2017 report “Access Denied,” Wright found that there are currently 110 subway stations out of 472 total – about 23% – that are accessible under the American Disabilities Act (ADA).

He explains more on why roughly 23% the city’s subway system isn’t accessible to those who require stair-free access and what the MTA is currently doing to try and fix the issue.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your campaign, “Access Denied,” and more on what’s the accessibility issue within the New York City subway system.

CW: We started that Access Denied campaign with the idea that New York City is the least accessible subway system in the country. Fewer than one quarter of subway stations have elevators for folks who need them. And the elevators and accessible stations that we do have are frequently actually inaccessible because elevators are often broken down, escalators are broken down and indications with riders about breakdowns are pretty inaccurate.

So over the past year, we put out a report that sort of lays down the facts and figures, statistics and give short and long term recommendations for how to improve the situation. We’ve been taking every opportunity here. We looked at that and said, “We’re spending billion dollars, we’re getting zero elevator’s out of the equation, out of the deal. What’s the best use of our money? Are we prioritizing cost over the accessibilities over people?” We’ve been using that as an opportunity to say that we need to increase our investment in accessible stations and make sure that the decision that we do have the elevators that are reliable.

Q: Why isn’t there more attention within the MTA to fix these issues? 

CW: I think there are a number of issues. First, the maintainers that work on elevators, the MTA historically has not paid them a competitive wage compared to the private sector, so it’s difficult for them to hire and retain maintainers. They’ve got to address that issue, but I think that’s one of the causes. I think it comes down to you know a lack of accountability in preventive maintenance. The New York City Comptroller put out a report that showed the vast majority of preventive maintenance checks for elevators were not performed on time or at all. If you’re not conducting a preventive maintenance, they’re going to break down more often. I think that’s a huge reason. It’s disappointing to see that even some of the new elevators on the 2nd Avenue subway are frequently broken down as well. There could be something to do with you know the instillation, the construction. It’s probably a number of factors, but when we want to see is the MTA to devote more attention, more resources towards maintenance and towards elevator construction.

Q: Why has it taken so long for the MTA to install more elevators and make more of their stations accessible?

CW: I think historically issues of accessibility just have not as been in front of the MTA’s mind. Historically, there’s been a bias against people with disabilities. You know the elderly and I think there hasn’t been the recognition that everyone – whether you have a disability, whether you’re a senior citizen – you have a life to be had. I think that recognition hasn’t fully sunk in the MTA over the last 30 years. And it’s just been a pattern of lack of resources devoted to the issue, of a lack of attention devoted to the issue that’s changing now. There’s certainly more that’s been spotlighted on this issue in the last year. We’re seeing real commitment now. So hopefully, this will change.

Q: You found that roughly 23% of the subway stations are not accessible, meaning they don’t have any elevators or working elevators currently installed. What did you think of that finding? Were you surprised?

CW: You don’t have mobility challenges, you’re not disabled, you’re using the subways. Once you break a leg, once you have packages, once you have a kid you need to cart around, you suddenly begin to realize how hard it is to get around the subways without accessible entrances. And I think for a lot of people going to their day-to-day life, it’s easy just to not realize that many stations don’t have elevators and it’s definitely easy if you’re using the elevators to not remember how often out of service they are. Just like anybody else, I was really surprised about the subway system and people are surprised. When you tell them that only 23 percent of stations are accessible for people with disabilities, people are really disgusted by the fact and they think that you know it should change.

Q: New York City Transit’s president Andy Byford recently proposed an extensive investment plan for ailing the subway system. He calls the plan “Fast Forward” and it’s projected to cost about $19 billion dollars and would hopefully improve the subway’s accessibility. Specifically, the plan said that in the first five years ,it will make 50 stations accessible to people with disabilities so that rides are never more than two stations away from an accessible station. What do you think of that?

CW: Never before has New York City Transit president acknowledged the full scale of the problem. We’re very happy that he has taken the needs of the accessibility community to heart and has really put forth a plan that addresses not only elevators, but communication, training for disabled riders, training for employees when it comes to disability issues and all the other things that make stations accessible. That’s very common. It’s a very good start. Now, we need to see the state and the governor step up and make sure the MTA has the resources that it needs to actually deliver this plan.

Q: What is the TransitCenter’s and the MTA’s relationship like?

CW: Since Andy Byford has come in, the MTA has reached out to the TransitCenter and other advocates more than they have before to get our input, to make us aware of things that are going on at the agency and get a thought for it because now they see that we can work with the same purpose. We could be allies if the MTA is honestly putting forth good work. Now I think with Andy Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan, we have an opportunity to work together to make sure that the MTA gets the resources it needs in order to deliver on the plan.

Q: Going forward, what do you want to see happen to fix this issue? How the MTA or others involved fix the accessibility issue within the subway system?

CW: We’re looking for 100 percent accessibility and elevator at every station. To get there, we think the MTA needs to devote more funding toward the problem. Take advantage of station shutdowns. So we’re renovating stations, make sure to include elevators and other ADA improvement while stations are under renovation. Devote more attention and resources to elevator maintenance. And also along the way, communicate better with riders. Information on outages and breakdowns needs to be accurate and needs to be prompt. Today it really isn’t. So we understand that it’s going to be a long process. The MTA has acknowledged it’s going to take 15 years to get to that point, but making sure that incremental progress, benchmarks in terms of elevator construction are reported and checked off on yearly toward that 15 year goal.

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