Mass transit is for everyone

July 26, 2017

We have an equity issue in transportation. It is an issue that cuts across class, age,  race, gender, and borough. It is about accessing the city if you’re a person with a disability. The TransitCenter has put out the report, “Access Denied” principally authored by TransitCenter’s Program Analyst Mel Plaut, to give insight into the problems of accessibility to the MTA’s system for people with disabilities and offers solutions on how to fix those problems.

On the subway, the lack of elevators and elevator disruptions are critical issues for people with disabilities on MTA’s subways.

We have all been on the train and heard the announcement of an elevator outage. Some of us think, “That is awful,” and move on about our day, but if you have ambulatory challenges this isn’t a slight inconvenience, this is a major quality of life issue.

Chris Pangilinan, a wheelchair user who has cerebral palsy and is the Program Director of Technology and Rider Engagement for TransitCenter states, “In the last two and a half years I've encountered a broken elevator 230 times. [And owing to those 230 elevator outages] I've either been stranded underground and have had to have a stranger or two carry my chair up or alter or cancel my trip.”

The MTA claims to be working on this issue, but according to “Access Denied” with the current pace of installing new elevators, New York City’s subway stations would not reach 100% accessibility until the year 2100.

New York City has one of the least accessible mass transit agencies in the United States. If you’re in a wheelchair, have a stroller, or have challenges walking, you will have a very hard time getting around in Manhattan.   If you’re in Brooklyn or Queens, you’ll probably be at home.

photo courtesy of TransitCenter's report Access Denied
photo courtesy of TransitCenter's report Access Denied

This shouldn’t be the case.

According to “Access Denied” the Boston T and Chicago CTA urban rail networks, like New York’s subway, are century-plus old systems, but have twice the station accessibility.

Today is the 27th birthday of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


“The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.”

The MTA at times seems to view ADA compliance as an exercise in box checking. A citizen requiring an elevator enjoys only 5% as much trip-making opportunity in comparison to New Yorkers who don’t require an elevator.

Out of 472 subway stations, only 110 are accessible under ADA, and often those elevators are out-of-service.

How did we end up accepting a separate, but definitely not equal mass transit system in a city that has one of the best transit systems in the United States?

The buses which are 100% accessible for people who have disabilities are slow and unreliable, “New York City's buses are technically 100% accessible to people in wheelchairs, however, New York City's buses are some of the slowest and least reliable in the country, and has seen a tremendous drop in ridership in the past decade. While many riders have abandoned the bus, riders who rely on its accessibility have no other choice but to take it. So in fighting for more equitable and accessible public transit, better bus service is a huge priority,” said Jaqi Cohen Campaign Coordinator from Straphangers.

The paratransit service which is supposed to be the stopgap between the bus and the subway for New Yorkers with disabilities requires a person call 24 hours in advance and can be very late.  Pangilinan described an incidenct where a person with a disability booked a paratransit ride three hours in advance of a medical appointment, and was still six hours late.

“Fixing the elevators we have, and working towards 100% station accessibility shouldn't be viewed as a box to check, or a nice to have. These are tools to enable social inclusion and opportunity for what historically has been the most isolated group of people - people with disabilities. We're 27 years after the signing of the ADA in arguably the greatest city on Earth, and yet this is how we have chosen to treat people with disabilities? We can do better than this, New York,” said Pangilinan.

We can do better, because we have to. We can’t expect people to stay home, just because they use a method other than walking to get around. Wheelchairs give people with who have disabilities freedom. The MTA doesn’t have the right to take that freedom away, by viewing the law as a suggestion instead of a mandate. Accessibility must be built into long-term MTA planning and an office that oversees issues in regards to accessibility must be created.

No one should have to sit in the back of the bus in 2017.

by Teka-Lark Lo