Accessibility advocates have uphill climb in New York City subways

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Jean Ryan, president of Disabled in Action, gave New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members an earful at a recent meeting.

“I’d like to talk about apps, bus apps and myMTA apps. Both need fixing,” said Ryan, a wheelchair user. “The myMTA app needs more funding to be improved, as soon as possible. It’s almost useless, except for booking trips.”

That app “measures distance as the crow flies. Access-a-Ride is not using helicopters,” Ryan added, referring to the MTA’s paratransit shuttle. “The vehicle icon is sideways, so it’s hard to tell where the vehicle is headed. Who does that in any app?”

Arrival times, according to Ryan, are way off.

“It will say the vehicle will arrive in 14 minutes, when it takes an hour,” she said. “And I could see on the app that it’s really far away. And it does this consistently.”

Ryan is part of a rising transit accessibility movement advocating at public meetings, at rallies and in the courts.

“You have a system that’s shutting out hundreds of thousands of people,” said Joe Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence for the Disabled.

Nearly 30 years after passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, only 24% of the system’s subway systems are elevator-accessible. And accessibility concerns, advocates say, extend far beyond elevators.

The MTA, one of the largest municipal bond issuers with nearly $43 billion in debt, is also feeling the heat from the legal system. In early June, New York State Supreme Court Justice Shlomo Hagler, ruling from the bench, allowed an April 2017 lawsuit by disabled advocates to proceed. The MTA has appealed.

“Right now, the statistics are that we are dead last in the field of handicap accessibility for an international city like the City of New York. That is deplorable,” Hagler said in court.

The lawsuit, which argues that 2008 revisions to the New York City’s human rights law call for broad-based accommodations, is one of four accessibility-related legal actions against the authority.

“I have voluminous papers that I've read in this case,” Hagler said. “I can't fit them all on my desk.”

Other lawsuits stem from allegations relating to poor elevator and escalator maintenance to station reconstructions without accessibility. “Essentially [Hagler] is saying local discrimination laws can’t be overruled by other statutes,” said Rappaport, whose organization is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Accessibility advocates are on strong ground, said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “The MTA can’t keep saying the fixes will be gradually factored in.”

Accessibility, she said, also applies to parents with baby strollers, able-bodied elderly people and travelers with suitcases.

In addition, Access-a-Ride — which primarily delivers service through contracts with a network of private vendors, including 13 dedicated carriers and two broker car service providers — has come under fire. Two audits by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the most recent in January 2018, cited widespread dysfunction.

Access-a-Ride workers, meanwhile, have periodically complained to the MTA board about alleged mistreatment ranging from supervisory abuse to unheated phone dispatch rooms during the winter.

Accessibility, a one of four pillars of New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s still-unfunded Fast Forward plan, is but one competing budgetary interest as the MTA prepares to submit its 2020 to 2024 capital program to a state review panel within three months.

Still, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pending and possibly far-reaching reorganization of the MTA casts a huge cloud.

The reorganization — with consulting firm Alix Partners LLP running point and which Cuomo critics call a power grab — could strip Byford of much of his power and shift accessibility and other operations to the authority’s capital construction division under Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber.

Byford, widely popular among New York rider advocates, has overseen transit operations in London, Sydney and Toronto. Whether he would remain with the MTA in a diminished role is an open question.

“I believe Andy Byford is sincere in his desire to make the system accessible, but there’s no guarantee Andy Byford will be around in five years, 10 years or even tomorrow,” Rappaport said. “Let’s codify that accessibility portion of Fast Forward.”

The transit accessibility movement in New York has a long history, according to Rappaport.

“Obviously the system was built before people were thinking about accessibility,” he said. “But as the disability movement grew in the 1970s and 1980s, people started looking at the subways and said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re shut out there.’”

Advocates at the time encountered pushback from the state-run MTA and the city, Rappaport added. “There was tremendous resistance from the MTA on buses and Mayor Ed Koch was very dismissive.

“This is not an excuse for Mayor Koch and the MTA board but in the 1980s, it was easy to dismiss.”

During the 1980s, a lawsuit filed by James Weisman, chief executive of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association — now the United Spinal Association — helped win access to buses and key subway and rail stations, and the creation of a paratransit program to supplement mass transit for those with disabilities.

Weisman also sued Philadelphia’s transit system, yielding similar results by 1988. These landmark settlements opened the door for enactment of the ADA.

New York, with one of the nation’s oldest mass-transit operations, is playing catch-up with other legacy systems with aging infrastructure, according to David Bragdon, executive director of the group TransitCenter.

“New York is not doing as comparatively well as those places,” Bragdon said. “If the topic were the baseball World Series, if the topic were who has the best museums, we would not tolerate the idea the Boston and Chicago were better.”

Speaking at a TransitCenter workshop in lower Manhattan, Byford said his agency is striving to make 50 priority stations fully accessible within five years and 130 more in the next stage. The subway system has more than 350 stations that aren't accessible.

Byford emphasized that accessibility includes community outreach, signage and other components.

“We’ve been working on sensitivity training for all 50,000 employees, myself included,” he said. “We’ve been working on signage. We’ve been working on other things we absolutely need to do in terms of other disabilities be they sensory or visual impairment or aural impairment.

“We have good days and bad days in transit, Planet Transit I call it.”

Audio: New York City Transit President Andy Byford discusses accessibility at TransitCenter meeting.

One of Byford’s first hires last year was Alex Elegudin as New York City Transit’s first executive for accessibility.

Elegudin, 35 and a wheelchair user since 2003 following a deer-related car accident, co-founded the nonprofit Wheeling Forward in 2011. He also co-founded the Axis Project, a multidisciplinary center specifically designed to empower and motivate people with disabilities. He has also been an accessibility program manager at the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission.

“Our team is relatively small for now, but it’s growing,” said Elegudin, whose title is senior accessibility advisor. “The disability movement is coming to life."

Funding, he said, is an ongoing battle.

“Here, it takes billions and billions of dollars to move heaven and earth and make the system accessible,” he said. “Accessibility does have a price tag, which not every movement does. It’s not just cultural change. But at the same time, we’re fully committed to getting it done.”

New York’s real estate complexities often accelerate costs, according to Elegudin.

“Interesting enough, when people think about ADA stations they think of elevators, right? But the truth is, elevators probably cost a quarter, if not less, than our total cost on an ADA project because the much bigger cost often [is] real estate,” he said.

“We need to find real estate on our street levels in order to put in elevators to put down to the mezzanine. Sometimes we don’t own that real estate, sometimes it’s in a building, sometimes it’s anywhere."

Subterranean utility structures also worsen the degrees of difficulty.

“We have to move huge water mains just to be able to put in an elevator at times,” Elegudin said. “That kind of civil work, the actual construction work, often is the biggest cost driver in our projects, because if you did just have a clean shaft, and you could drop an elevator in, it would be no problem.”

By contrast, he said, new building construction often includes elevator shafts built in advance.

The MTA, Elegudin added, has been speaking with contractors and with the city’s Department of Transportation about cost-cutting possibilities, including alternative designs, modular elevators, zoning variance for developers and public-private partnerships for ADA projects.

“Also, New York City has a vast real estate market. There’s a lot of development going on. We’re working with the city to see how we can leverage that development,” he said. “Our goal of 50 stations in the next five years is a great way to recalibrate how we do ADA projects.

“The genie’s out of the bottle.”

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Infrastructure ADA Budgets Transportation industry Andy Byford Metropolitan Transportation Authority City of New York, NY New York