Low accessible station rates make subway stations a daily struggle for New Yorkers with disabilities. Elevator breakdowns and limited accessibility in stations listed as accessible are a common occurrence, with rates of 25 daily breakdowns from 2014 to 2015.
Over 550,000 New Yorkers experience a disability associated with walking. As the MTA’s 2015–2019 capital plan for accessibility improvements comes to an end, new short-term and long-term steps are needed to further shutter the gulf in subway accessibility.
Of the 472 MTA Subway stations across New York City, only 91 are wheelchair accessible. Within Manhattan, 36 of 147 stations are accessible. This puts New York City behind most major metropolitan cities in providing accessible public transportation for its citizens.
MTA inaccessible stations outnumber accessible stations almost four to one with the former counting at 308. This puts the percentage of stations accessible to wheelchairs at 19.3 percent of the total number of MTA stations in New York City.
In the interactive map shown above, the disparity between accessible locations and inaccessible locations is depicted through separate icons. Accessible locations show up in green wheelchairs.
Globally, The New York Times has reported that MTA accessible station rates in New York City are among the lowest percentages in the world.
Quest for accessibility
New Yorkers in wheelchairs have few stations to use in their daily commute. Chris Pangilinan, in a 2017 Curbed article, said “It takes a ton of energy . . . My job needs to be near an elevator, or hopefully two, and I have to live near two elevators.”
Frequent elevator breakdowns means more mental strain. As Pangilinan states,
“I’ll arrive to a station and realize the elevator broke while I was on the train, or it just wasn’t reported [on the MTA website]. I stare at the elevator like an idiot for a couple minutes. I realize it’s broken. I go to the stairs, wait for another train to arrive, and hopefully I can make eye contact with someone who looks strong enough to carry my wheelchair while I walk up. When I get to the top, I get back into my chair, and then hope the next elevator is working.”
Zack Anner, a comedian and spokesperson for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, created a video in 2017 showcasing the various travel obstacles for New Yorkers with ambulatory disabilities as he tries to secure a rainbow bagel from a Brooklyn bakery.
As Anner attempts to navigate the MTA subway system, two of the closest stations, one of them labeled wheelchair accessible, lack ramps and elevators. A third attempt after an hour leads Anner onto an elevator and the A train.
Unfortunately, there are no accessible stations near the bagel shop in Brooklyn and Anner ends up taking the ferry.
How tech might help
As Anner’s trip shows, Google Maps does not by default provide directions for travelers with disabilities.
In 2018, Google launched the “Wheelchair accessible” option in its Google Maps app. The capability allows users to choose “Wheelchair accessible” under route options. Routes are continuing to be added but are only available in eight cities, New York among them.
Anner’s Quest redone with Google Maps’ accessibility feature
Congestion pricing: helpful or hurtful?
Severe MTA problems, including a deficit in the billions and out-dated infrastructure, have incurred increasing MTA fares. Proposals by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for congestion pricing hope to work in conjunction with fare hikes in addressing the deficit and critical repairs.
Funds raised will go to addressing necessary repairs before renovating stations to be accessible. New Yorkers like Pangilinan will pay higher fares without increases in accessibility. Foundations like TransitCenter are pushing for more urgency in improving accessibility.
MTA 2015–2019 capital plan: http://www.mta.info/news/2018/04/26/funding-subway-station-ada-accessibility-approved
Access Denied by TransitCenter: http://transitcenter.org/publications/access-denied/#introduction
Congestion pricing facts: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/nyregion/what-is-congestion-pricing.html?rref=nyregion
New York data source: https://data.ny.gov/Transportation/NYC-Transit-Subway-Entrance-And-Exit-Data/i9wp-a4ja