Home View from Underground Feds, MTA at odds over ADA compliance efforts

Feds, MTA at odds over ADA compliance efforts

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA’s new subway stations, such as 34th St.-Hudson Yards, are fully accessible, but the feds are putting pressure on the agency to make more older stations accessible as well. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

When it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the MTA has a rather tortured history with accessibility improvements the agency needs to make. Due to ever-spiraling costs and issues regarding available space, the agency has likely not fulfilled its obligations to make stations accessible during rehabilitation work, and it has hid behind the shield of its list of 100 Key Stations that will be fully accessible within the next few years. A new report though exposes these efforts for what they were: insufficient and likely wasteful.

Most recently, the MTA has used accessibility issues to stonewall on reopening closed entrances. The agency has claimed at various points that restoring station access via entrances closed in the early 1990s would trigger ADA requirements that make efforts to reopen closed stairways cost-prohibitive. That seem concern didn’t lead the agency to make the Smith-9th Sts. station fully accessible during a multi-year, multi-hundred-million dollar renovation effort, but I digress.

Late last week, Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal brought some attention to this issue. I quote at length:

The cost of making the New York City subway more accessible for disabled riders could rise by more than $1.7 billion as federal regulators prod the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to add elevators to more stations in the 111-year-old system. The higher price tag through 2019 for subway-station improvements represents an unforeseen potential expense for the MTA as it struggles to pay for a backlog of repair and expansion projects…

At issue is how the nation’s largest transit system complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 federal law aimed at making public spaces accessible to those who have difficulty climbing stairs and may rely on a cane or wheelchair. The MTA quantified the potential increase in station costs in a recent filing for investors who buy the authority’s bonds, citing stricter federal guidelines for complying with the 25-year-old law. The Federal Transit Administration’s push is the latest bout in a decadeslong fight over making MTA’s sprawling network more accessible for the disabled. Advocates for the disabled and a former top MTA official say the authority has moved too slowly in making the city’s now 469 subway stations more accessible. An MTA spokesman said the authority is sensitive to disabled riders’ needs and has been working to improve accessibility…

As pressure to accommodate disabled passengers began to grow years ago, the MTA and other transportation agencies around the country invested in making bus systems more accessible and paratransit services that offer automobile rides for the disabled, said Howard Roberts, a former top official at the MTA. “It turns out that was a horrendously bad decision,” Mr. Roberts said. “It probably has turned out to be … a hundred times more expensive to go with buses and paratransit than it would have been to bite the bullet and simply rehabilitate the stations and put elevators in.”

…The federal government, which provides a major chunk of funding for transportation funding nationwide, aimed to clarify how local agencies should comply with the law, this former federal official said. That could mean triggering ADA-required improvements—including expensive elevators—sooner than local agencies might have planned. That has resulted in a behind-the-scenes tug of war between federal and MTA officials. Inside the MTA, officials have balked at the suggestion the agency must install elevators when it makes repairs to subway-station staircases, according to people familiar with the matter…A Federal Transit Administration spokeswoman said in an email that the agency has been “advising MTA for years to comply with ADA during renovation projects.”

You may wonder why no one has sued the MTA over ADA violations, and this is a question I’ve asked recently as well. I’ve been led to believe that the disabilities advocacy groups are facing funding issues and simply have not been able to raise the money to fund the lawsuits necessary to force the MTA’s hand on this issue. (Roberts’ words too are rather damning for similar reasons.)

As you can see, the feds are applying pressure as they can — which could end up jeopardizing the MTA’s access to certain federal dollars — but ultimately, this is an issue of misplaced priorities and lost opportunities. We can debate for hours whether the ADA, an unfunded federal mandate, is a net positive for everyone, but the MTA should be creating an accessible system that doesn’t rely on the money-suck that is Paratransit. For the dollars flushed down the drain, the MTA could have vastly expanded elevator access at subway stops around the city. Instead, only 22 percent of stations are accessible, and as the population ages, this problem will become more pronounced. Your ideas for solving this are as good as mine, but the MTA could start by reassessing its interpretation of the ADA.

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Vinny O'Hare February 2, 2016 - 12:47 am

I was surprised that they didn’t make the Broad Channel station ADA compliant when they had it closed for hurricane Sandy repair. I know it wasn’t a priority but they had a few months to make it happen.

Andrew Fan February 2, 2016 - 7:48 pm

What use would it be to make Broad Channel accessible? The Q22 runs down the length of the Rockaway peninsula so there is an alternative for the disabled trying to go along the peninsula, and almost nobody uses the Broad Channel station. You’d be building two elevators for what, 10-15 million dollars to serve what is basically the least used station by passenger boardings. One of the elevators would basically be waiting for a single storm to destroy it as well, having little to no protection from Jamaica Bay. It would be far smarter to invest that money at Broadway Junction or some other transfer station instead.

MDC February 2, 2016 - 12:59 am

Noncompliance with ADA standards is perhaps the biggest ongoing scandal of the NYC transit system.

Eric February 2, 2016 - 6:35 am

No, the scandal is that the MTA has to spend such a big portion of its budget with such minimal results. MTA buses are wheelchair accessible, so disabled people can already get anywhere in the city. Every dollar that’s spend to give disabled people a faster ride by subway is a dollar that can’t be spent to give many more people a ride that doesn’t currently exist.

Larry Littlefield February 2, 2016 - 7:08 am

Someone needs a lawsuit to require automobile and gasoline companies to provide handicapped access in the suburbs.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:31 am

Unfortunately, that would actually require a change to federal law.

There is a *specific exemption* in the ADA for using “an automobile” (not including “a van”) to provide taxi or limo or bus or Uber or other for-hire-to-the-public services.

Another specific exemption allows religious organizations to completely ignore the ADA transportation laws.

Mike February 2, 2016 - 7:47 am

By that logic, there is no need to continue subway expansion at all.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 11:02 am

Remember separate but equal doesn’t work. A disabled person has just as a right to be moble as anyone else including access to rapid transit.


I hope you have read up on title II of the ADA as it explains the requirements on such things as…

1. renovations of facilities
2. path of travel
3. communications
4. wavers (witch the MTA & SEPTA) were foolishly granted plenty of)
5. vehicle requirements including wheelchair securement spaces.

Eric February 2, 2016 - 5:21 pm

Subway expansion generally pays for itself in economic development. Elevators for a handful of people don’t.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 7:38 pm

But they do go hand & hand when you factor in that all riders can potentially use elevators even if they don’t end up doing so. The disabled & certain other rider pools such as people with strollers just make greater use of them.

Roger February 4, 2016 - 12:57 am

There are more important things in the world than GDP figures, my dear rational economist.

Nathanael March 3, 2016 - 10:52 pm

London (UK) figured out that elevators benefit everyone, and is approaching the problem that way.

People with suitcases and parents with prams (strollers) use the elevators as well as people in wheelchairs and people with canes and people with broken legs. The elevators are busy.

But NYC is apparently still full of vicious bigots who sneer at anyone who has a disability, so NYC is still violating the ADA law. It’s no wonder the feds are getting fed up with them.

Bolwerk February 2, 2016 - 1:21 pm

Rather unlikely there is anywhere near complete redundancy for subways with buses on a one-transfer per-trip policy, even allowing for the cases where a transfer to the subway at an ADA station might be possible because a destination has an ADA exit.

That’s ignoring buses are humiliatingly slow for all but the most local trips and that, when substituted for many routes, buses are more expensive than rail to operate.

Eric February 2, 2016 - 5:24 pm

So then disabled people should be provided with discounted MetroCards – I’m sure that’s cheaper than building new elevator shafts under Manhattan streets.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 7:40 pm

They do make use of such cards like autogate.

Bolwerk February 3, 2016 - 12:10 pm

I dunno. I think telling disabled people, who already have mobility penalties, to just use the inherently slowest mode possible is probably a non-starter. Buses largely don’t travel between boroughs either.

On the flip side, even if we ever get costs under control, I assume some station pairs could never be fully ADA. 4/5/6 at Union Square, perhaps. Buses or alternate subway routing will probably have to suffice.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:33 am

London (UK) is planning to make every single Underground station wheelchair-accessible.


They have a much, much harder problem than you do in New York. Your situation in New York is trivial by comparison to the crazy antique stations in London, some of which are on steep slopes which would violate OSHA standards today.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:34 am

Of course, they’re expecting it’ll take until 2060 or later. But they’re planning to do it.

Jessica February 4, 2016 - 10:13 pm

They tried giving away free metro cards to people with disabilities. Most continued to take Access-a-Ride and gave the cards to a friend or sold them. Access-a-ride costs nearly half a billion dollars a year, it will probably cost over 2B in the next 5 years. So, they should be rethinking those elevators…

Megen January 5, 2017 - 11:29 am

Eric I wonder how old you are and how old your parents are? I certainly hope you never age or ever have any health issues that make it difficult for you to get around. My mom has 4 herniated discs in her back and fibromyalgia – she doesn’t live in the city, but when she visits it is very difficult for her to walk up and down stairs. And my heart aches for the poor woman I just saw walking up the subway stairs with a cane – it probably was taking her 15 min to walk up the stairs, no exaggeration. You don’t have to be fully disabled to benefit from what is required by law – elevators to gain access to the subway. The bus system in this city is not as convenient as the subway – and it doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t – the MTA is somehow breaking the law and getting away with it.

Megen January 5, 2017 - 11:32 am

Also Eric – are you a parent?? Ever tried carrying a stroller with a child up and down subway stairs? Not just inconvenient but dangerous. Elevators in the subways can benefit many more than a “handful.”

Gian February 2, 2016 - 2:14 am

They should install elevators/ramps wherever possible, but it must be acknowledged that it’ll never be possible for 100% of stations in a system where entrances are often just stairways with some railings and signs placed in the sidewalk. The only way would be to use eminent domain on part of a nearby building to install an elevator, and that’s only problem #1, subsequent problems including funding and then how they’ll squeeze it into a station that’s 1) cramped and 2) built long before ADA. I think, however, that the solution is to proceed full speed ahead with renovations as Cuomo proposed, bringing them to more stations, and including both a decent aesthetic standard and ADA compliance.

In addition, other cities have experimented with using existing taxi/rideshare services as a cheaper alternative to paratransit services run by the local transit authority. Perhaps we should try that, either with standard yellow/green taxis, or with a private contractor like UberX or Gett. More often than not, rides with these services are significantly cheaper (disregarding surge pricing on Uber) than the high cost of MTA-operated paratransit service.

Nick Ober February 2, 2016 - 7:30 am

This would have worked better if the previous administration had required the Taxi of Tomorrow to be wheelchair accessible. We’d be on the dawn of an entirely accessible cab fleet, but instead only a couple thousand vehicles or so will be accessible.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 11:12 am

Not every station can be accessible, but with the closeness of so many stations, a great deal more needs to be done to bring the network to a point where all riders can reasonably access it, & no busses alone isn’t enough.

John-2 February 2, 2016 - 12:15 pm

Most of the cut-and-cover stations that are only one level below ground have a pretty obvious fix of one elevator per side outside of fare control. It might force the sacrificing of one stairway down from street level, but the logistics are fairly simple, since fare control is at platform level.

The more levels down the station is, and the more platforms there are at the station or within the station complex, the more difficult the logistics. The MTA may be best served by doing the easiest stations to retrofit first, even if they aren’t the highest volume stations in the system.

Joe Steindam February 2, 2016 - 1:10 pm

That concept is a little tricky, mainly because many stations already do a poor job of moving people in and out of the station. Many side platform stations only have two or three staircases between the street and fare control, and many of them are too narrow to accommodate the additional passenger flow if you removed a staircase. While the staircase would be replaced with an elevator and represent some passenger flow, it wouldn’t siphon off enough to compensate for the loss of that staircase.

An interesting concept in stations with closed access points would be to reopen those as elevators for ADA compliance, since you would be retaining what presently exists plus providing a new access point. That of course depends on whether the closed access point has space for necessary elements at the street and platform level. But it can and should be considered.

Andrew Fan February 2, 2016 - 7:51 pm

I think this is a viable solution, especially since there is usually a corresponding abandoned stairwell to platform level already in place. But this is the MTA we’re talking about, and it’ll cost way more than we’d like it to.

John-2 February 3, 2016 - 12:32 am

I’d assume you’d want the ADA access points at the main entrance for each station, as opposed to putting it at a reopened access point, if that point is to be open for others using high-entry turnstiles at night.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t at least maintain the same number of stairways or increase the overall total at the close-to-surface stations by reopening those closed areas for the majority of uses and then placing the elevators at the main entrance, where one stairway to the street might have to be sacrificed.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:35 am

“Main entrance” is a changeable concept and it’s perfectly valid to redefine the main entrance as the one you build the elevator at.

adirondacker12800 February 2, 2016 - 2:05 pm

They have to maintain emergency egress. taking out a staircase isn’t the way to do that.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 3:46 pm

Depends on the location.

Alon Levy February 3, 2016 - 9:24 am

In Boston, the subway is close to 100% accessible. What’s New York’s excuse?

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:43 am

Other examples:

Chicago L is about 75% accessible and is currently designing a plan for 100% accessibility.

Toronto Subway is only about 50% accessible but is legally mandated to achieve 100% accessibility *within 5 years* and they’re going to do it.

Philadelphia subways are about 75% accessible and they’re working on the rest of them. The “surface-subway streetcars” will be made accessible in one big bang when the vehicles are replaced.

Worth noting: Philadelphia has one station which is an unbelievable pain in the neck to make accessible, worse than anything New York has — City Hall Station, which is inconveniently located underneath the heaviest masonry building in the world. It’s extremely hard to find an access path to move an elevator into place for access to the Broad Street Line platforms, since there’s literally no place they could sink a surface shaft from. I don’t even know how they’re going to do it (carry the elevator in on rollers through the tunnel, maybe?) but they’ve promised they’re going to do it and allocated funding.

New York has no excuse.

Jonathan R February 2, 2016 - 8:50 am

This is a lot easier to accomplish if the city is willing to provide space in the street right-of-way that is currently being used to store motor vehicles.

With so many elevated stations in the system, it should be simple to build discrete elevator sharftways for access to elevated mezzanines in an off-site factory, then transport them to the locations and bolt them on to the existing station structure.

Elevators from mezzanines to station platforms can be done the same way, just with piloti to hold the shaftway structure above the street.

The underground stations might be more difficult to work with, but again, if the city is willing to sacrifice street space used today for motor vehicle storage, it would get a lot easier. At a station like 7th Avenue & 9th Street in Brooklyn (F/G), an elevator shaft could be built in the 9th St right of way, just east of the intersection with 7th Avenue (a location by 8th Avenue would suit me better personally, but the mezzanine is sloped in that area). More street space could be used for the tops of the shaftways that go between the mezzanine and the platform. Similar to my plan for the elevated stations, the whole shaft could be designed as a single discrete unit and just dropped in a hole dug the right size and shape.

For stations with side platforms, the elevator shaftways can be placed in the right-of-way of other streets that cross above the subway platforms.

Craig February 2, 2016 - 10:14 am

Could be tricky given the need for turnstiles or faregates—so you’d need elevators to the fare control area, then separate elevators from the fare control area to the platforms, sometimes with more to access mezzanines in between.
Introducing a proof-of-payment fare system like in Berlin might help with this issue—and would solve the problem of the insufferable metrocard.

(Also I wonder how much this would actually help people get around overall, since so many sidewalks you’d use to get to and from the subway are tiny or in deplorable condition anyway)

Jedman67 February 2, 2016 - 11:42 am

If you have the space you can simply build a small fare access gate right in front of the street elevator.

John-2 February 3, 2016 - 12:37 am

I think for most elevated stations, you’ll need a minimum of three elevators — one to street level outside of fare access, and then two more to each platform, if you’re dealing with side platform stations or express stops (the same would be true of any below ground stop with fare control a level above the platforms. Only a handful of two-track, center-platform stations both underground and elevated would be able to get away with installing only two elevators).

Kai B February 3, 2016 - 8:35 pm

Very good point in that POP systems have to build significantly less elevators as they don’t have to worry about “fare control levels”.

Seeing that we already risk low turnstiles for greater passenger flow at non-staffed entrances, risking additional farebeaters by allowing direct elevator access to the platforms to save tons of capital money might not be such as crazy step.

Rob February 2, 2016 - 9:38 am

why no one has sued the MTA over ADA violations? Bec they HAVE NOT VIOLATED IT.

so you think the pols and bureaucrats in dc know better what is good for NY than NY does? I don’t.

Every other study I recall showed you could buy a limo for every seriously disabled for less than the cost of making the system fully accessible. And remember you would still need paratransit for those who could not get to your stations with their gold-plated elevators.

VLM February 2, 2016 - 9:46 am

You seem to be literally the only person anywhere who thinks the MTA is complying with the ADA. Even the MTA isn’t really sure of it these days. And it’s not an issue of knowing what’s better for NY but rather what federal law requires the MTA to do.

Advocating against access isn’t a sympathetic position either. Do you really want to go down that road?

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 10:41 am

Rob must also believe the falicy of the welfare queen.

TimK February 2, 2016 - 11:58 am

Every other study I recall showed you could buy a limo for every seriously disabled for less than the cost of making the system fully accessible.

Who’s going to drive those limos, smart guy?

The MTA in a sense did this by focusing on paratransit instead of making the system accessible. The result is a disaster — paratransit costs considerably more per trip and stops working in many kinds of bad weather, unlike the subway.

Zach S February 2, 2016 - 1:06 pm

The ADA requires paratransit even if all stations are 100% ADA compliant. My understanding is that paratransit must be provided by transit agencies for disabled individuals whose disabilities are such that they can’t use the fixed routes at all, and that they must serve an area 3/4 of a mile from a transit stop on either end of a trip.

There is also a mandate to transport someone who uses a cane if they are within 3/4 of a mile of a stop, but that person is incapable of walking that far. Or if the sidewalks on the route (not controlled by the transit system) are not ADA compliant, or if there is some other non-transit-system controlled environmental factor preventing access.

Making the subway system accessible would go a long way to eliminating certain paratransit trips (simply needing a wheelchair), but would not eliminate paratransit for the elderly (the biggest growing market, the one most likely to vote, and a huge cost drain even for systems like WMATA that are mostly wheelchair accessible).

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 3:44 pm


Let me add that paratransit guidelines have become more restrictive over the past several years. This is to ensure only those who really need it are the ones using it. This is why busses are transporting more & more passengers in scooters & wheelchairs. This has the effect of causing some bus delays.

TimK February 2, 2016 - 5:13 pm

I’m not disputing what you’re saying. You missed the point of my comments. Here’s some emphasis, quoting myself:

The MTA in a sense did this by focusing on paratransit instead of making the system accessible.

My point wasn’t that paratransit could have been avoided altogether, but that the MTA treated it as a complete solution, which it isn’t and shouldn’t be.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:45 am

Regarding sidewalks, there ought to be some way for the transit system to countersue the local city to make them fix the sidewalks.

I know the city can be sued directly by disabled people over the sidewalks (it took over a decade after the passage of the ADA but this is now settled law), but the city’s only required to fix the sidewalks when they bother to do any work on them at all, which they often don’t.

Chris C February 2, 2016 - 12:18 pm

Accessibility is NOT just about the disabled who are in wheelchairs.

Accessibility is about assisting the parents pushing a stroller or people carrying heavy shopping or visitors and their luggage and even just those that are tired.

There are many elderly people who would be made more mobile and less socially isolated if there was a lift or escalator to help them get to the platform.

Megen January 5, 2017 - 11:36 am

Thank you Chris C!!! So agreed.

Bolwerk February 2, 2016 - 12:33 pm

Assertions like that limo thing almost always come from dopey economic “experts” like Randroid^H^H^H^Hal O’Toole and they’re almost always based on apples-to-dog meat comparisons. Set aside upfront costs to install an elevator vs. buy a limo, the comparison is bullshit. A car lasts a decade or so, a well-maintained elevator lasts for several decades. A car requires an operator, a modern elevator doesn’t. Automobiles consume possibly thousands of dollars in fuel a year, an elevator barely consumes any energy.

tacony February 2, 2016 - 11:21 am

The MTA often shows contempt for its riders in general, but the disabled are given a special brand of scorn. It’s clear that the MTA see the ADA as an obstacle to their operation, to be complied with at the bare minimum. They don’t actually see value in giving disabled people equal access. It’s that simple.

Stations should be made accessible wherever possible, and passive accessibility, and mainstreaming accessibility should be prioritized wherever possible. What does this mean? It means minimizing the number of grade changes in stations for everyone in the first place, not relying on vast, expensive deep tunneling that requires ever more expensive custom technology to bring disabled riders to the surface. It means not intentionally slowing down this technology to deter able-bodied people from using it. A couple people have gone on record saying that the stupidly expensive incline elevators that delayed the Hudson Yard station’s opening were intentionally designed to be so slow that people would opt to take the escalators instead. Think about what this implies. Disabled riders can wait. Their time isn’t valuable. The technology required to make the station accessible needs to be made impractical and unbearable, otherwise it would be overwhelmed by the general population. What a horrible mentality. The fact that so many people agreed with this idea is depressing. I also wonder how that jives with the spirit of ADA. “Equal” access does not mean unbearably slow access.

Build stations as close to the surface as possible! Why do people accept the concept that we can’t move existing utility lines in the ground to a lower depth to build a new subway tunnel at a more accessible grade, but we should instead force human beings to travel that distance back and forth every day? It’s an inefficient waste of time for all of us, not just the disabled, although it obviously impacts them far greater.

I also still can’t believe they got away with rebuilding Smith-9th with even more stairs than it had previously. They didn’t even put in a ramp to enter the building to get on the escalator, where there was clearly space to do so. Of course, a ramp to enter the headhouse and then take the escalators from there would not be fully ADA compliant, but it’d be a lot more accessible. Complete and utter contempt for people with mobility issues.

They need to entirely re-think things. The solution is not expensive custom incline elevators that will be constantly broken. The guidelines should be:

1. build close to the surface wherever possible
2. move everything else in the system so human beings don’t encounter endless grade changes
3. use long ramps wherever space allows
4. and last case scenario: elevators

It seems the MTA thinks number 4 on this list is the first and only solution to complying with ADA, and thinks 1-3 are basically too much work to figure out. Meanwhile building and maintaining quirky, custom elevators costs a fortune, takes an eternity, and doesn’t actually improve the system for disabled riders. Obviously the MTA inherited a 100 year old transit system that was not built with disabled users in mind, but it’s no excuse for such obtuseness when it comes to improvements.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:47 am

The Smith-9th rebuild was completely illegal. If I lived anywhere near it, I would sue, and I’d win, and the MTA would be forced to go back and rebuild it and add elevators.

The Smith-9th rebuild was also seriously offensively stupid in design. A surface headhouse under the elevated tracks on the east side of the river would have solved all the problems *really really cleanly*.

Matt February 2, 2016 - 11:44 am

The iceberg seems to have disturbed the deckchairs.

JJJJ February 2, 2016 - 11:57 am

“unforeseen potential expense”

Unforeseen by who?

MTA has had 26 years. The fact that every other transit agency in the country has made extensive steps to comply indicates that the MTA is the one with their heads in the sand.

The MBTA didn’t go back and add elevators to every single station (I think 2 are left) because they were rolling in cash, but because they knew it was a mandate, period.

As for costs, I wonder if there are certain stations where instead of an elevator, they could install one of those stairway lifts you see frequently in historical buildings and museums?



It would work best between lobby and platform in a station with multiple staircases so that user is able to monopolize one without creating havoc.

Joe Steindam February 2, 2016 - 1:19 pm

I imagine the stairway lifts would likely require (for liability reasons or other) the assistance of an operator to staff the lift. Not that this should be a huge burden for the MTA, but as they are cutting station booth agents (and the agents were reluctant about being given assignments outside of their booths) it seems like they’re going in the opposite direction of doing something that could deliver accessibility at more stations quickly.

I’m not sure whether they are reliable enough for daily operation on a subway, I suspect APTA doesn’t have defined specification for those kind of lifts like they do for elevators and escalators.

Nathanael March 3, 2016 - 10:56 pm

The MBTA actually got sued to provide *redundant* elevators at one crucial station (Park Street) which already had elevators (due to elevator breakdowns). They settled the case, and they built them.

Time marches on, and so do building standards. The longer the MTA delays complying with the current law, the more legal requirements will advance on them.

Michael549 February 2, 2016 - 12:09 pm

Here’s the part that is troubling.

The majority of public transit systems in the US happens to be bus transit! Rail public transit is not as plentiful outside of certain select cities. So over the 25-year history of the Americans with Disabilities Act – making public buses accessible to those who have difficulty climbing stairs and may rely on a cane or wheelchair – in fact helps more people all over the country in places both large and small.

Or is this a case of NYC folks only looking at NYC issues?

Benjamin Kabak February 2, 2016 - 12:15 pm

I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. In this instance, the feds were directing their comments to the MTA regarding its subway system, and overall, the ADA certainly contemplates accessible transit facilities that aren’t just buses.

Michael549 February 2, 2016 - 3:11 pm

I am responding to the following statement in particular and I have placed in capitals the particular words that triggered my response.

“As pressure to accommodate disabled passengers began to grow years ago, the MTA and OTHER TRANSPORTATION AGENCIES AROUND THE COUNTRY invested in making bus systems more accessible and paratransit services that offer automobile rides for the disabled, said Howard Roberts, a former top official at the MTA. “It turns out THAT WAS A HORRENDOUSLY BAD DECISION,” Mr. Roberts said. “It probably has turned out to be … a hundred times more expensive to go with buses and paratransit than it would have been to bite the bullet and simply rehabilitate the stations and put elevators in.”


Plenty of transportation agencies across the United States as a whole consist of bus systems, so a federal law (affecting the whole country) supporting the improvement and making buses accessible is not “in my view” – a horrendously bad decision. Such funding in fact helps people all over the country in places both large and small.

None of this is say that NYC and MTA does not have major issues when it comes to providing access for the dis-abled – I never argued that at all.

Nor was I ever arguing that a mix of services – accessible buses, para-transit, accessible subways, or more should not be done.

You can easily argue that much better decisions and actions should have been taken by the MTA in the NYC region. That IS the discussion going on right now, that is a fine discussion.

Generalizing what happened or did not happen in NYC to the nation as whole, and to places that do not have subways, to then say, spending for accessible buses was a “horrendously bad decision” – that’s going a bit over-board.

If all you have is buses in the many smaller places that only have buses, then improving those buses is not a “horrendously bad decision.” In my view.


Joe Steindam February 2, 2016 - 5:04 pm

I suspect this comment by the former MTA official is being slightly misinterpreted. I doubt he was generalizing to all transportation operators, since his experience is limited to NY, and I think his comment is meant to be understood that the MTA should have made more of an effort to make the subway and bus systems accessible, with less of a focus on what has turned into an expensive paratransit program. As others have discussed, it is likely that if every station were accessible, the MTA would still have a responsibility to offer paratransit services, but it might have resulted in lower operating costs for the MTA if their subway system was mostly or entirely accessible.

Reading his quote, I interpret his inclusion of buses to be inaccurate or a slip-up, as buses were relatively easy to improve as low-floor models were developed and adopted.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 8:19 pm

Most transit agencies have moved to low floor vehicles. Oddly enough the only large ones that haven’t done so around here are the MTA & NJ Transit.

I was kind of surprised when NJT purchased standard floor busses from NOBI a few years ago. NICE & Bee-line are in transition & CT Transit is all low floor except for there use of MCI coaches on express routes in Hartford & between Stamford & White Plains.

A primary advantage of low floor busses is it just takes a few seconds to flip the ramp as aposed to the time it takes to operate the lift witch has it’s own set of challenges.

Joe Steindam February 3, 2016 - 8:41 am

With the exception of the express buses, it appears that the MTA is moving towards a complete low-floor fleet.

I was given a particularly terrible excuse by a NJ Transit employee as to why they haven’t adopted low-floor buses. It was so terrible that I seem to have expelled it from my mind, and can’t recall it entirely. I do recall that he chalked it up to terrible road conditions in NJ that he wanted to claim made the low-floor models incompatible with service in NJ.

SEAN February 3, 2016 - 10:18 am

What kind of an excuse was that!

As it turns out, New Flyer industries bought NOBI a few years ago & purchased MCI late last year http://www.newflyer.com.

Joe Steindam February 3, 2016 - 12:43 pm

It was a terrible and baffling excuse. Since I cannot recall it entirely, I probably should’ve refrained from offering any information about it. Either way, it’s why NJT will probably not consider a low-floor alternative until the NOBI’s are ready to be retired.

SEAN February 3, 2016 - 3:38 pm

As it turns out, NFI owns… MCI, NOBI & production rights & after market parts of Orion Bus industries. As a result of these deals NOBI & Orion vehicles are no longer being produced. That leaves Nova & Gillig outside the NFI family.

This also explains why NICE acquired NFI Xcelsior CNG busses recently & they are nicer with better exceleration & breaking than the Orions.

mrsman February 5, 2016 - 3:55 pm

With regard to this statement by Mr. Roberts:

“It probably has turned out to be … a hundred times more expensive to go with buses and paratransit than it would have been to bite the bullet and simply rehabilitate the stations and put elevators in.”

Would the MTA be relieved of the responsibility of providing Access-a-Ride if all of the subway stations were handicapped accessible?

I don’t believe so. They would probably still maintain funding for Access-a-Ride and it would still be a money pit.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:54 am

Anyone who can avoid Access-A-Ride avoids it.

(1) There are pretty much no wheelchair-accessible taxicabs in NYC (which is appalling), and
(2) Most of the subway stations are inaccessible,
so basically everyone with mobility impairments is *forced* to use Access-A-Ride.

If the subway system were accessible, Access-A-Ride would mostly be used by people on kidney dialysis and people with severe mental problems who can’t find their way around the system — these are the major paratransit populations in modern cities.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:51 am

““As pressure to accommodate disabled passengers began to grow years ago, the MTA and OTHER TRANSPORTATION AGENCIES AROUND THE COUNTRY invested in making bus systems more accessible and paratransit services that offer automobile rides for the disabled”

Some historical background here. I’ve been following this since the ADA passed.

In fact, when the ADA first passed, several other transportation agencies tried to avoid upgrading their urban rail systems and focused on buses. Nearly all of them figured out that this was a mistake within the first 5 years, bu roughly 1997. The laggards figured it out by the early 2000s. Since roughly 2000, every agency but one has been pretty gung-ho about making rail stations accessible.

And then there’s the MTA.

(Also, the majority of systems bought high-floor buses with lifts. It was very quickly obvious that this was a terrible mistake and everyone was buying low-floors by the early 2000s.)

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:55 am

(…and I see that NJT and MTA are still buying high-floor buses, because they’re run by idiots. Oy.)

TimK February 2, 2016 - 12:18 pm

So over the 25-year history of the Americans with Disabilities Act – making public buses accessible to those who have difficulty climbing stairs and may rely on a cane or wheelchair – in fact helps more people all over the country in places both large and small.

I’m not at all sure that’s true.


Rail and bus each account for almost half of total ridership nationwide. Demand response transit makes up the very tiny rest.

Of course, those are unlinked trips. But even so, I’m not convinced of your point at all.

As for NYC folks only looking at NYC issues:


The chart that’s about halfway down the page shows how New York dominates the transit scene in the U.S. As the chart says, “The NYC area had more trips than the next 16 largest systems combined.”

I believe that something over half of all transit trips in the U.S. are taken in the New York region.

AlexB February 2, 2016 - 12:17 pm

Hard to find anything positive here when it comes to how MTA handles things… Wasted money on a terrible paratransit system, inability to control costs, inability to get work done at all, disabled customers poorly served, no ada upgrades to stations that have been renovated. Not sure if pathetic is too strong a word.

I'm not crippled February 2, 2016 - 12:34 pm

The needs of a few cripples should not outweigh the needs of the majority of people that ride the subway!! this is lubricious! repeal the ADA act now!

Larry Littlefield February 2, 2016 - 3:03 pm

No, but you will be.

Then again, at that time you and I will probably be retired, and will have time to take the bus.

Chris C February 3, 2016 - 9:24 am

What a disgusting term to use.

You won’t be saying making stations more accessible is ludicrous when you personally or a loved one find walking up / down steep steps hard just because you are old and not because you are in a wheelchair. And because of those steep steps and the difficulty they present to you you then decide it’s just easier to stay at home meaning you become more and more socially isolated.

Accessibility is NOT just about people in wheelchairs.

Tactile strips don’t necessarily help those in a wheelchair but they do help the blind.

Chris February 3, 2016 - 9:47 am

Accessibility isn’t about people in wheelchairs (though the symbols imply it to be). It’s about everyone. The elderly, the blind, the hearing impaired, someone who has broken his leg, even you.

But anyway, when you’re busy repealing the ADA, might as well write a law banning you from doing anything. Because you clearly hate accessibility.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:57 am

Every other city in the country has managed to make their system mostly accessible. Including Boston (older than NYC), Chicago, Philadelphia… what’s wrong with NYC?

Stephen Smith February 2, 2016 - 12:35 pm

I wonder how much London, Paris, Tokyo, etc. pay to add elevators to their older stations? Anyone have any comps?

Rex February 2, 2016 - 5:29 pm

Here is some info on a recent upgrade at Clapham Juncton in London

Alistair February 3, 2016 - 10:11 am

So that’s a little over $2m per elevator at a station above ground. I’m not sure whether the stated figure of £14.5 million includes the new entrance to the station they also built as part of the same refurb (or why the elevators to tracks 13/14 and 15/16 weren’t included) But it suggests that if prices are the same between London and New York (they should be but everyone knows they aren’t) that’s about $7m per elevated station. Which isn’t cheap.

Chris C February 3, 2016 - 3:50 pm

I can assure you that there are lifts on platforms 13/14 and 15/16- They were done later as I remember a large gap between them being opened on the other platforms.

Also the lifts don’t go up very far – something like 30 ft or so and were installed in pre-fabricated frames so much much cheaper than having to dig down and no utilities to avoid!

When Southern trains installed a single lift at Balham station it cost something like £1m for the lift and other improvements (such as removing a step from the pavement to the ticket office) and that was only 15-20ft from the elevated platform to ground level. It had to be hand dug as well!

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 2:58 am

London has much more difficult conditions than New York. The stations are much older and have much stupider designs (sharp curves, steep grades, no space, everything historic…)

Matthew February 2, 2016 - 12:36 pm

I want to point out that improving accessibility is a lot more than just adding elevators, and that almost everything in the MTA budget will improve ADA accessibility in some meaningful way. New subway cars are designed with technology improvements to help the deaf and blind navigate the subway easier, rehabilitated stations include tactile warning strips along the platform edges. Rebuilt staircases included regraded steps to uniform heights, the next generation fare payment system will make it easier for anyone with physical disabilities to pay their fare. Every new stations is fully ADA accessible, and even many of the backend system improvements can lead to an increase in accessibility. Updating the HVAC systems can improve air quality which can benefit riders with severe asthma(can be classified as a disability).

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 4:26 pm

True enough. Every step forward involving accessibility helps all not just those with challenges & this is coming from someone who is legally blind.

I have a close friend from childhood who has both CP & a deft perception problem that causes her to fall down sometimes. As a result, she cant travel alone therefore use of transit independently is out of the question. I point this out to those who would want to deny her & others like her the right to be as independent as possible.

Eric February 2, 2016 - 5:31 pm

It sounds like there is nothing the MTA could do to improve her mobility, except provide a full time attendant. And that’s really a health issue, not a transit issue. Come to think of it, all ADA transit requirements are about offloading health care onto transit agencies, at the expense of providing actual transit service.

Spendmor Wastemor February 2, 2016 - 6:16 pm

Yep. As someone with disabilities, I can state that most of the fixes the MTA or any other agency is forced to provide are useless. They address disabilities defined in some document somewhere, unfortunately Nature hasn’t bothered to read those regulations and hands out disabilities as it pleases, not those defined by do-gooders and political trash.

Wheelchair ramps are pretty good and serve a fair number of people; enclosed, vertically moving toilets that don’t flush (that’s a public elevator in NYC) are not only useless, they’re an insult.
In NYC at it exists today, there’s nothing the MTA can do about it, since people here value the ‘freedom from oppressive sanitation rules’ or whatever this week’s formulation is about 1000x over liveability for ordinary people.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 8:22 pm

She’s in Connecticut.

Bolwerk February 3, 2016 - 12:04 pm

Re “there’s nothing the MTA can do about it”: but there is. What’s with the learned helplessness? Clean. Every other agency in the world cleans. The MTA has a whole army of bodies doing busy work, but they can’t find the resources to clean? It is a testament to how much transit users are ignored by NYC pols that this stuff goes on. Even an inefficient solution, requiring all new token booth hires to regularly inspect and clean, would all but solve the problem in a few years of normal attrition.

Chris February 2, 2016 - 12:40 pm

So the MTA would rather have long-term costs with short-term savings. Can anyone explain why this doesn’t surprise me, at all?

Croce February 2, 2016 - 3:16 pm

Just one comment – Mr. Roberts was president of NYC Transit for less than 2 years & was asked to leave – his comments should be taken within that context.

LLQBTT February 3, 2016 - 8:51 am

I don’t know his work history, but this doesn’t say anything one way or another. Perhaps he was a transformational leader that became frustrated with the inertia of an organization trying as hard as it can to maintain the status quo.

Didn’t he introduce the line manager program that produced the 7 Super Express to Mets games amongst other innovative ideas? I wrote the 7 line manager once, and he actually responded. Where is that kind of customer interaction now?

smartone February 2, 2016 - 3:58 pm

The problem ultimately is that ADA is an unfunded mandate. if the Fed wants a 100 year subway system that runs 24/7 and has 469 stations – then the Fed should give money to fund this upgrade .

Ralfff February 2, 2016 - 5:54 pm

Actually, as Larry Littlefield has documented, the federal government has been the only government consistently funding the MTA for two decades. The MTA needs to do the right thing. Also, maybe it’s just me, but don’t think agencies should get to cry “unfunded mandate” when it’s something they should have been doing anyway.

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 7:53 pm

Unfunded mandate is such a cop out. If you receive federal dollars, then you must follow federal regulations mandate or not.

Corey Best February 2, 2016 - 5:35 pm

The PATH has also tried to dodge upgrading its stations but was caught… The older Trains probably don’t meet ADA requirements with the doors not bouncing back automatically….and various hard to hear or understand announcements…

SEAN February 2, 2016 - 7:55 pm

But wasn’t the entire PATH fleet replaced?

Corey February 4, 2016 - 10:13 am Reply
LLQBTT February 3, 2016 - 8:46 am

Access-A-Ride is $35/trip I saw somewhere. That’s something like 1100% greater than the base subway fare. Does it make sense to do it this way?

Nick February 3, 2016 - 10:53 am

Access-A-Ride cost $2.75 per trip for the rider (as required in the ADA). But I have heard that the average AAR trip cost $65 total. Can anyone confirm that?

TimK February 3, 2016 - 2:31 pm Reply
Michael549 February 3, 2016 - 11:53 am

At various times on this forum folks have complained, pitched and moaned about buses stopping at every stop with lines of folks having to stuff their fares in the fare-box. Often there’s talk of either reducing bus stops, having folks walk longer distances between bus stops, and creating some kind of contact-less fare card or device. Then there are those who want to create “bus-rapid-transit” in its purest form – with dedicated pathways, off-board fare collection, and bus stations – where anything less than that is a major perversion of the concept.

As Rodney Dangerfield would say, “Buses Get No Respect!”

He’d also say that about all local routes like the G, #1 and R-train.

Buses are NOT SEXY! Regular plain everyday local buses do not fire up the imagination of those who want to tinker with stuff. Or capture headlines unless there is a problem. “It’s a bus, and it’s for those people” seems to be mind-set.

Those with long histories remember a time when there were steep stairs on the bus that everyone had to climb – well before buses could “kneel”. Or seats set aside for the elderly or handicapped. Or even folding seats that folks in wheel-chairs could use, or wider aisles. Basically over time there have been many improvements to the buses have helped and continue to help both the “abled” and those who would need some help. Those low-floor buses and kneeling buses do not just help the “dis-abled!”

In another discussion on this forum there was a call for the trains to have certain features. In that discussion several folks lamented the fact with the replacement rate of and long life-span of subway cars it would take 50-something years before the hoped for change would be implemented on a wide scale. It can certainly be said that on the buses that there has been continual change and improvement.

I still flatly dis-agree with the idea that improving bus transit for the dis-abled was a “horrendously bad decision”. I’d agree that things could be better in many ways, or that knowledge of the various issues has increased over time.

In addition as is well known in NYC, the buses often reach places that are ill-served or NOT served by the subways. In addition NYC local buses are often used for different kinds of trips compared to the subways, even when there are parallel subway lines. Many elderly folks will use the buses for trips where they won’t use the parallel subways, because the buses are easier to deal with.

There’s a good argument for a range of transit services and means – with no one “type” solving every problem. Should access for the abled, dis-abled and the “not – so – abled” be improved. YES!!

In the quest for improvements – don’t let the “perfect” become the enemy of the “good” or the “we are trying”.

Nathanael February 8, 2016 - 3:03 am

The entire basis of the ADA rules for public transportation was based around incremental improvement. The agencies are not required to fix anything *unless they are already doing work*. If they are renovating a station, *then* they have to make it accessible. If they are replacing a bus, then the new bus has to be accessible. Etc.

Most agencies nationwide have had no problem complying with this. PATH got sued (and lost) over an attempt to evade the law at Grove Street.

The MTA got sued (and lost) over various attempts to evade the law, *over and over again*, until the disability groups doing the work ran out of money to fund the lawsuits. Because it seems to be necessary to sue them over every single freaking station.

Ed February 3, 2016 - 12:57 pm

I apologize for skipping over the other 74 comments. There are two things that need to be said on the subject, one of which never gets said for reasons I could never understand (again, sorry if an earlier commentator actually mentioned it), and one point which does get raised but I just want to emphasize.

The point which never gets raised is simply that ADA improvements, eg elevators and ramps, are essential for able-bodied people with infants and toddlers that have to be pushed around in strollers, or carried up and down stairs. For the past three years, I have paid close attention to what is wheelchair accessible, since that means it is stroller accessible which is a bid deal for us. Enough people in New York have small children that I’m really surprise this isn’t more of an issue.

These improvements also help normally able-bodied people who are dealing with temporary injuries that impair mobility, such as twisted ankles.

Really, even without the ADA, it should be a goal of the MTA to make every other stop on each line accessible. This should be prioritized just behind necessary safety improvement such as signaling. I would actually put it ahead of storm-proofing parts of the system.

The second point is that we are dealing with an environment where it takes years and a gazillion dollars to just repair one escalator.

Roger February 4, 2016 - 12:24 am

There are stations that cannot be ADAed due to space limitations, So why don’t we just remove the stairs and use that space for elevator?

Michael549 February 4, 2016 - 11:16 am

Because those stairways are more efficient at allowing the movement of vast numbers of generally abled-body people, less technologically or mechanically difficult to repair, and energy efficient.

The usage of elevators as the sole means for the movement of vast numbers of folks at any place other than a low usage local station is a recipe for disaster as the original planners of the IRT subway realized a century ago.

That is why only three stations on the original IRT system – in Washington Heights/Inwood were supplied with elevators as the main means of access. Attempting a “cut & cover” type subway station due to the elevation of the land was not impossible. These stations are 8-10 stories below the street surface where stairways would be prohibitive for regular rider usage.



ben guthrie February 6, 2016 - 12:26 pm

Two things:

First – wheelchair bound folks should use buses. Obviously you don’t take buses. Getting a wheelchair on or off a bus takes a lot of time and delay for everyone. When I see one at in the bus stop, I head for the exit. It’s best to switch to walking. Let’s get them on the subways where they don’t slow things down much.

Second – The city hall BMT station can be easily mad ADA compliant. One elevator one floor. Adequate space to install it both above and below ground. Is there more low lying fruit around the system?

Blaise February 7, 2016 - 1:51 am

I was wondering whether any of the station upgrades that Cuomo announced last month are going to include ADA compliance? I agree with the ideas that 1- The MTA should be doing a lot more to make the system as compliant as possible, because 2- this benefits ALL riders and should be a basic priority for a TRANSIT agency. It is kind of remarkable how low we have let our standards fall in regards to what is expected from our governments and agencies.

I’m also curious about how much could actually be saved on the cost of ADA compliance if we move to a gate-less honor system like Berlin.


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