Home Paratransit For disabled riders, an inaccessible system

For disabled riders, an inaccessible system

by Benjamin Kabak

Earlier this fall, a group of advocates fighting for the rights of disabled New Yorkers made headlines when they filed suit against the MTA over plans for the Dyckman St. station rehab. The suit, which alleges an overall failure on the part of Transit to make the subway system handicapped-accessible, says that the authority is not fulfilling its obligations under the ADA as it renovates Dyckman St. in Upper Manhattan. The MTA does not comment on ongoing legal fights, and work has proceeded apace at the station.

Piggybacking off of the attention given to the lawsuit, Jillian Jonas wrote an extensive piece on the state of underground accessibility for Gotham Gazette, and as you would imagine, disabilities advocates are not happy. Only 89 subway stations are accessible while 379 are not. “It is an absolute disgrace that 20 years after the ADA was passed, more than 80 percent of the subway stations in New York are inaccessible,” attorney Julie Pinovar said in October and repeated to Jonas.

In essence, the problems are threefold: The MTA is legally required to upgrade only 100 “Key Station” under an exemption from the Americans with Disabilities Act, an unfunded federal mandate, and advocates have been happy with that arrangement. Meanwhile, escalator and elevator outages lead to situations where accessible stations are made inaccessible, and disabled riders have little advanced notice of the malfunctions. Finally, the MTA opted for Access-A-Ride in the early 1980s, and the costs from that program have spiraled out of control, leading the authority to try to cut services for the disabled. No one is happy with the arrangement.

Ultimately, the problem is one of paying it forward. MTA officials opted for a paratransit solution at a time when they didn’t have money or foresight. They reportedly believed Access-A-Ride would cost just $9 million a year, and now it costs $450 million annually. Had they spent the money over the decades on station upgrades, fewer riders would need Paratransit, and most of the system would be accessible. Had the federal government been willing to foot any of the bill for the costly ADA upgrades, the entire fight would be moot.

“The MTA made a stupid decision in the 1980s when … they [were] foolishly relegating people with disabilities to Access-A-Ride, not realizing how the cost would grow over the years if they didn’t do more than make buses accessible,” Edith Prentiss, a vice president with Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York, said. “For years, bus lifts were as unreliable as subway elevators are today.”

While Paratransit trips number just under 16,000 a day — compared with over 5 million daily subway riders — this is a costly problem that hits disabled riders particularly hard. They do not want to be relegated to second-class status and have been vocal critics of the MTA. Still, a solution remains out of hand and out of sight as money and costs are, as always, the overarching problems.

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SEAN November 30, 2010 - 12:52 pm

The law is very clear on this subject. Check title II of the ADA & what it says reguarding station remoddles.

Curiously when the MTA did station remoddles on Metro-North the Harrison station had been totally redone, but the worning strips along the platform edges were not installed. However Rye, Larchmont, New Rochelle & Mount Vernon East had strips installed durring there remoddles. Even stranger is the fact non-ADA stations such as Bronxville had tiles put in when they were rehabbed a few years ago, yet Harrison is marked as an ADA key station. Go figgure.

Benjamin Kabak November 30, 2010 - 1:11 pm

I hear what you’re saying about Title II, and I’m having trouble tracking down the 1984 settlement agreement and the proper ADA regulations. But I think the MTA will argue that the negotiation exemptions mean they have to make only the 100 key stations accessibile and they can voluntarily choose to do so for others. Again, without the exact language, I can’t say for sure, but I’m working to track it down.

SEAN November 30, 2010 - 1:27 pm

If you find something on this,try to post it. Thanks Ben.

Benjamin Kabak November 30, 2010 - 1:28 pm

I’m working on it. I might need to FOIL the agreement. As best as I can tell, the New York statute is silent on the MTA’s obligations outside of the key stations. They have a compelling argument that, due to federal regulations and state agreements, they only have to modify the previously identified key stations though.

SEAN November 30, 2010 - 2:43 pm

If I remember correctly this waver only applies to the MTA & SEPTA.

Get this, on Philadelphia’s regional rail network there are two stations that were made accessable in only one direction. Langhorn inbound is one & I cant remember the other, although I do know it is headed outbound. In Langhorn’s case the issue relates to freight trains & trackage in that area, but I don’t understand how that arguement is even valid.

Nathanael December 17, 2010 - 12:17 am

The new construction rules are finicky and involve rules saying you don’t have to touch parts of the station if you weren’t doing construction there at all. If only one side of the station is rebuilt, you only have to make that side accessible….

In a related example, NYC managed to list several of the stations in “station complexes” as independent stations for purposes of its “100 key stations” count, which I think is a bit unreasonable, but that sort of stuff *is* permitted.

Back to Philly. Mini-highs are used in a bunch of places where freight is the issue. Obstructing freight would be considered to be too expensive, but even then Philly would be expected to find a “second-best” solution, which is mini-highs.

So if freight is the issue, I would have expected a full station rebuild to put mini-highs on one side and a full-length platform on the other. But you may also have a case where only one side of the station was rebuilt at all.

Nathanael December 16, 2010 - 11:51 pm

The “waiver” from federal law only applies to some of the provisions of the ADA. It specifically does *not* provide a waiver from the “new construction” rules, which are independent.

Aaron November 30, 2010 - 6:31 pm

I’m with Sean – if you can find the firm info on this I’d be very interested to read the outcome (I know that I was simply swimming in free time during law school [/snark].

My brief read of the rules, which I read for personal amusement while doing some research into the “standard” rules at a non-profit in Arizona, is that the waiver applies to the deadline to make all stations accessible, but does not waive their independent obligation to apply the ADA when doing a station rebuild like at Dyckman Street. I honestly think the MTA is handling this in a foolish manner and that they would have gotten a lot more traction if they had, during the Congress about to end, pitched a tri-state stimulus project designed to make far more subway stations accessible; they would have been able to do their station rebuilds while generating a lot of good will with ADA advocates who know damn well how difficult it is to make things accessible and have given the MTA a lot of breathing room until now. The next Congress will not be nearly as receptive to that idea as this current one would have been.

Marc Shepherd November 30, 2010 - 2:53 pm

I think you need to look at the law and the MTA’s exemption in tandem. On the law alone, you would be right, but the exemption is crucial.

In any event, the plaintiffs cannot get what they want, because the MTA cannot afford to make the whole system accessible. If rehabs like Dyckman Street trigger ADA, all it means is that the MTA won’t do them. That’ll make it worse for other riders, but no better for the disabled ones.

David M November 30, 2010 - 10:43 pm

I think experience with ADA in general – and I would hazard a guess in transit in places like Boston??? – suggests that your argument is a little bit simplistic. ADA adds costs, yes, but are their examples where it has stopped progress where it would have occurred elsewise?

Sharon December 2, 2010 - 12:01 am

This may be true especially for underground stations but there is NO EXCUSE for the mta not to include elevators on ALL brighon line station that for 100% down to the beams overhauls. They are outside and easy to do when they ripped down ALL the concrete structures.

The west end EL stations are getting upgraded right now. It would be quite easy to append an elevator.

The sea beach N line is getting similar upgrades.

They could have used this to justify the reduction or elimination of express bus service in the area as the main excuse is the elderly and disabled can not climb the steps.

In the case of the brighton you could deny AAR rides to Kings plaza shopping center for many riders. There are 4-5 vans lined up at all hours of the day. I followed AAR around the mall. Many had no problem walking for many hours but get aar

Nathanael December 17, 2010 - 12:10 am

Totally agreed, Sharon. This is pretty much identical to the point made by the people suing over Dyckman Street.

Nathanael December 17, 2010 - 12:12 am

There is no MTA exemption from the new-construction provisions of the ADA. None at all. The exemption is from the “must upgrade key stations” requirement (every other system was required to upgrade its key stations *years* ago).

M. Levy November 30, 2010 - 12:59 pm

How do leading Asian and European transit systems provide wheelchair access? Do they do bus lifts like in US cities? I haven’t seen it in Western Europe.

Phil November 30, 2010 - 1:17 pm

Western Europe tends to only deal with major stations, in part because it’s near impossible, as in New York, to reconfigure stations over a century old with lifts. For the most part, their argument is that their bus systems are just as effective, thus negating any problems with rapid transit inaccessibility. The London Underground and Paris Metro, despite their countries’ recent legislation, very inaccessible to passengers with disabilities, the latter even more so. In London, most transfer stations have some sort of lift (Waterloo, Paddington, Liverpool Street, Bank, etc), while only new stations in Paris have those amenities.

Nathanael December 17, 2010 - 12:03 am

France has no ADA equivalent. The UK’s DDA is weaker than the US’s ADA, though not much weaker — but the new construction rules are slightly weaker from what I can tell, and there doesn’t seem to be *any* key stations law.

Nathanael December 17, 2010 - 12:04 am

To be fair, I may be wrong about France, since I don’t read French.

Aaron November 30, 2010 - 6:25 pm

I was just in Tokyo, and found a variety of accommodations that basically made nearly the whole system in Tokyo accessible (note: I avoided the two oldest lines, the Ginza and Marunouchi lines, on a warning that accessible might be the worst there).

1) Elevators. We never encountered a broken elevator, but we always found signs indicating that they would be out for 2 hours every 2 weeks (those times posted) for maintenance.
2) Stair lifts. In Japan, where station attendants are easily found, I was not frustrated by these – it wasn’t a substantial delay to have to use a stair lift.
3) Accessible escalators – this is something MTA should have been looking at, but again requires station attendants to utilize them. They work by evening out 3 steps on the escalators such that a wheelchair can ride them up or down. But, as I said, station attendants are required to utilize these. I have to wonder if the MTA ever seriously considered utilizing accessible escalators in staffed stations as a way to provide access without the consistently-asserted utility relocation problems in shoehorning elevators into 100-year-old stations.

The latter two options, of course, require a station attendant to be on hand, available, and highly trained. The former option requires regular maintenance, which is something MTA needs a little help with.

The busses, or at least the Toei and Seibu busses, did not have ramps or lifts, but instead the rear doors were so low to the ground that, as soon as the bus kneeled, the entrance was flush with the curb. It’s not clear if this would be a reasonable option in New York, where the curbs aren’t consistent heights.

Nathanael December 17, 2010 - 12:06 am

It was determined a while back that curb cuts and wheelchair-accessible sidewalks were mandated in the US by the ADA whenever sidewalks were rebuilt.

I wonder if some political pressure could cause curb heights to be normalized as part of the same incremental process of sidewalk & road rebuilds; it would seem to be a relatively straightforward thing to do.

Alon Levy December 1, 2010 - 12:57 am

Singapore retrofitted the old subway stations and is building new stations to be wheelchair-accessible. Only one station on the entire system is inaccessible.

I don’t remember having seen wheelchair lifts on buses, though.

John November 30, 2010 - 3:28 pm

Most local, non-transfer stations are going to require two elevators to make them ADA compliant, while express or elevated stops will need 2-3 (one up or down to fare control and the other 1-2 from fare control to the platforms), and the major transfer points could require five or more elevators to allow disabled passengers the same access between lines other subway riders currently enjoy.

One of the problems is that while the local stations one level below ground would be the easiest stations to modify — bang two holes in the ground on opposite street corners for elevator shafts — in more cases than not those aren’t the stations disabled riders want to go to. They’re just as likely to be headed to/from the high-volume stations as any other riders, and in many cases, those are the most complicated stations to rework.

So the MTA has a choice. Do the stations that are the simplest to modify and would cost the least amount of money, or do the stations ADA passengers most want to go to, but cost more to modify to meet their needs because of the 80-to-100 year old passages and connections. From a PR standpoint, they probably should be working harder at getting the ‘easy’ stations done and then figure out the logistics/costs of the more complicated station complexes.

Nathanael December 17, 2010 - 12:09 am

I think from a PR *and* a legal standpoint, the key is to add accessibility when they do things like the massive Brooklyn line rebuilds. People understand “oh, it’s old, it isn’t accessible yet” — nobody understands or appreciates “We rebuilt it last year and it isn’t accessible”.

And in fact the ADA law is designed specifically to require accessibility in major, expensive rebuilds.

NYC has actually been doing pretty well on the complicated station complexes, many of which are on the “key stations” lists. It’s been falling down completely when it comes to making ADA accessibility a *routine part of all otherwise planned work*, which is what it should be.


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