PERSPECTIVES | Is accessible transportation in New York City within reach?

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New York City’s public transit system is among the nation’s least accessible and significantly lags behind other major U.S. cities. Only a quarter of the city’s nearly 500 subway stations are physically accessible, creating difficulty for the nearly 100,000 people with physical disabilities from getting to school, work, and engaging in community life like all other New Yorkers. Other transportation alternatives are also inadequate and plagued with problems.

While the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees New York City’s public transportation system, recently released a plan to modernize the system, “it’s still uncertain exactly what percentage of stations the MTA considers “possible” for it’s likely that some, if not several stations, may never be able to accommodate wheelchairs,” according to City Limits.

On a positive note, this summer the MTA hired the agency’s first-ever Accessibility Chief, Alex Elegudin, who stated in a recent The New York Times interview that the goal was, “full accessibility. That means ultimately, at some point in time, we would love for everything to be accessible.”

The MTA’s $19 billion Fast Forward Plan has accessibility as one of its priorities, pledging to install elevators at 50 new stations in the next five years, and an additional 130 stations over the next decade, so that no subway rider would be more than two stops from an accessible station. While this is a laudable goal, The New York Times notes, “then there is the question of whether the elevators that do exist are even working...And when the elevators do work, they are often tiny, foul-smelling and hard to find, positioned at the far ends of stations, forcing long wheelchair rides along narrow platforms.”

Unfortunately, while the MTA works towards the goal of full accessibility, the current transportation alternatives for riders, including buses and Access-A-Ride (paratransit), are "slow and inefficient, regularly making users late for work and other engagements." Advocates quoted by City Limit state that buses “include operators untrained in using their wheelchair equipment, or a lack of enforcement against cars blocking bus stops, which prevent drivers from being able pull up to the curb so disabled riders can board and exit safely.” 

According to a report released by Scott Stringer, New York City’s Comptroller, shortly after the Fast Forward plan was announced, “insufficient accessibility also has an real economic impact...In neighborhoods with at least one accessible station, median rent costs at least $100 more than in neighborhoods with no accessible stations. Mobility-impaired riders struggle with employment: Those living in transit deserts struggle to get to work, no matter the neighborhood. The 608,000 jobs located in inaccessible neighborhoods are even more difficult to reach. This contributes to the dramatic discrepancy in labor force participation rates within the city: Only 23 percent of individuals with mobility impairments are employed or actively looking for work, compared to 74 percent of those with no disabilities.”

Addressing New York City’s accessible public transportation issues is crucial for ensuring that people with disabilities are included in all aspects of city life.