The slow train to NYC subway accessibility – New York Daily News

By some measures, the New York City subway system is one of the most accessible to people in wheelchairs or with other challenges: It has 130 accessible stations, the most in North America. By other measures, it is abysmally inaccessible, since about two-thirds of all stations are useless to such people.

Over the last few years, disability groups have filed several lawsuits against the MTA for its failure to add elevators when doing station renovations, not maintaining its existing elevator fleet, and generally not prioritizing accessibility upgrades enough.

While the American with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990, mandates equal access to public transportation, facilities built before the ADA, like the NYC subway system, are exempt. The result is that wheelchair users and others with mobility disabilities must travel extra stops out of their way to get around — or be relegated to the Access-A-Ride paratransit system, which doesn’t allow for spontaneous travel. This doesn’t even touch on the many accessibility challenges that persist for those who have vision, hearing and other disabilities.

In 2018, the tide started to change when Andy Byford was appointed president of New York City Transit. On Day 1, he announced that accessibility would be a major priority of his Fast Forward plan with the goal of full accessibility in less than 20 years — something never previously publicly stated by the MTA. This long-overdue prioritization of accessibility was a breath of fresh air and incredibly welcomed by disability advocates.

However, even Byford’s appearance on the scene was not enough to settle the accessibility debate. Advocates contended only a binding legal settlement would set a course to full accessibility that could survive leadership changes, economic ups and downs, and political ebbs and flows.

This week’s settlement announcement in two of the class action suits is a historic milestone in the fight for an accessible subway system. The dollar value of the settlement is upwards of $30 billion, the largest in history for such a case. According to the terms, by 2055, the MTA will reach 95% accessibility by installing elevators or ramps in at least another 340 stations, bringing the total accessible station count to approximately 475 of 492 stations.

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The MTA has certainly agreed to this settlement with the blessing of the governor and state legislative leadership, who will determine the ability of the MTA to deliver on this since the MTA, for the most part, does not control its own funding. The state will need to keep funding levels high over the next 30 years, no easy task as COVID-era federal funding is drying up.

It’s significant that this settlement covers universal ADA compliance — meaning not only does it include elevator installations, but it also covers accessibility features like hearing loops, wide fare gates, tactile warning strips, subway gaps between platforms and trains, accessibility of communication systems and more. However, the settlement offers few details on how and when these non-elevator access features will be deployed. Further, the same pool of funds is being allocated for elevators and other features, which creates a precarious situation for how items for those with vision, hearing, intellectual and other disabilities (including parents with strollers) will be prioritized.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the 1980s, but it has been no easy journey. In 1984, the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (now United Spinal Association) sued the MTA over its lack of accessibility. Then-mayor Ed Koch said “it would be cheaper to pick every wheelchair user up in a limousine than to install elevators in subways and make city buses handicap accessible.” Still, that suit turned out to be the first step towards subway accessibility when then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, over Koch’s objections, reached a settlement with the plaintiffs to start making some stations accessible and required the MTA to spend $5 million a year on accessibility. Now, 38 years later comes the definitive step toward subway accessibility.

Better late than never, some may say — but others, more persuasively, contend too slow, too little, too late. 2055 is three decades from now, making this seem like less of a prioritization and more of a codification of the status quo. Though a historic settlement, it’s hard to reconcile with the fact that we should already have an accessible subway system, if accessibility were taken seriously in the 70s and 80s.

Ultimately, many of the disability advocates alive today who fought tirelessly for an accessible subway system will not be around for its completion. A faster timeline seems feasible. Everyone says it’s a funding issue. Then maybe our political leaders can find more funding, as they often do for priority issues.

Indeed, I wonder what the late Edith Prentiss, longtime champion of the transit accessibility cause, would have to say about 2055?

Elegudin is the president of Wheeling Forward and former accessibility chief for MTA New York City Transit.

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