During the opening of the 7 line extension in February, I overheard one MTA official talking about the new station. Speaking of the vast hallways and open spaces underneath 11th Ave., this official remarked “I’ve spent my entire career closing these mezzanines.” For someone with decades of experience — and organizational philosophy — under his or her belt, this new station design represented a massive break from the past. While the old guard may still be wary of the safety elements of open spaces, New Yorkers aren’t fazed by areas that, by design, aren’t always crowded.
Over the past few years, meanwhile, the MTA has engaged in an effort that intentionally reduces eyeballs underground. As part of the 2010 budget cuts, station agents were reduced to the point where only one station entrance requires staffing. That is, if the northbound Union St. entrance underneath 4th Ave. in Brooklyn has a station agents, the southbound entrance doesn’t need one even if the southbound platform is separated by the northbound platform by four tracks and two walls. Most stations now have (and really always have) plenty of waiting areas that aren’t visible by station agents. Plus by removing the station booths at hundreds of locations throughout the city, the MTA ensured it wouldn’t face calls to bring back these agents were the agency’s finances to improve.
With this in mind, we return to shuttered station entrances. As the MTA struggles to cope with expanding ridership, station chokepoints and unhappy crowds, we continually return to access points no longer open. They dot the city, a remnant of an era of declining ridership and increasing crime when the MTA engaged in a short-sighted attempt to seal off areas of the subway system that agency officials deemed high risk. Not only would these entrances improve passenger flow at stations with increasing ridership but they would create more pedestrian paths to stations, a boon to both residents and business.
Lately, a new round of media coverage has focused on these entrances. amNew York ran a piece in October on closed entrances in Williamsburg and Bushwick and revisited the topic last week. As Rebecca Harshburger noted, one in four stations have closed entrances, and some grassroots organizers who have approached me for advice have begun to look at the issue on a granular level. These closed entrances are hyper-local issues of transit access.
Now, Kate Hinds and the data team at WNYC have delved into the location of the closed entrances. They produced the map embedded above, and the data is extensive. This isn’t of course the first time this issue has gotten attention. When I last looked closed entrances in January, I noted a 2001 PCAC Report urging action. After nearly 15 years, not much has changed, but the MTA, in comments to amNew York and WNYC, recognized these entrances as “something we’re very actively looking at,” at MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Hinds.
“The MTA has been setting modern ridership records almost every month, and as we try to accommodate more than 6 million customers on our busiest days, we’re looking at ways to expand capacity everywhere in the system — including analyzing whether some closed parts of subway stations could be reopened,” said spokesman Adam Lisberg.
It’s certainly taken a long time for the MTA to analyze these entrances, and again, I’m left wondering if there’s a short-term plan to disperse crowds and adjust to spiking ridership numbers. In reality, the MTA can open many of these entrances in the amount of time it takes to procure some HEETs, sweep and paint. While many have pointed to ADA requirements as a potential roadblock, the issues regarding accessibility requirements for long-closed entrances that are reopened remain untested and a potential risk to the MTA. I believe the agency could point to the 20% threshold in Section 202.4 in the 2010 ADA Standards as indication that they do not have spend prohibitive amounts of money to reopen these entrances, and one station could serve as a test case if the agency wants to pursue the action.
Rather, I’m left with a nagging suspicion that Patrick O’Hara on Twitter may be onto something. As he put it, “Accessibility requirements are also tend to be a convenient excuse to throw out when you don’t really want to do something too.” But we’re past the point of doing nothing. Reopening entrances can ensure compliance with NFPA guidelines on station egress times and can actually contribute to transit usage — something that should be embraced as a policy goal but may otherwise scare an agency whose trains are packed at all hours. The move can also ease chokepoints and commuter frustration. Why wait much longer? Transit should identify those entrances easy to open and start opening them. There’s no good reason not to.