Subway Elevators: In the Eye of the Beholder

If you ride the New York City subways, you are likely aware that most of the system’s 469 stations do not have elevators. Individuals who are wheelchair-bound, use a cane, travel with children in strollers, have shlepped heavy suitcases on the way to taking the “train to the plane” or just have difficulty negotiating stairs are certainly aware of it.

The inaccessibility of the subway for those with mobility problems in many cases causes personal hardship and severely limits their lives, as it makes commuting to a job or getting around the city for shopping or pleasure difficult, if not impossible. It may be a major impediment to one’s ability to live a normal life.

Yet, it would seem that officials of the MTA are not aware of it. For the situation seems not to change; or if it does, it is at such a slow pace as to be almost imperceptible.

This, despite the fact that the law requires it to change. The Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law passed in 1990, mandates the installation of elevators in the nation’s mass transit systems whenever major upgrades and repairs are done.

However, as renovation projects have come and gone over the last quarter of a century, we have not observed a swift, steady rise in accessibility in the city’s subway stations.

It’s not just that we weren’t paying attention, either. For example, in October 2013, the MTA oversaw a major renovation of the Middletown Road station in the Bronx. No elevator was installed. This was noticed, and a lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of two disabled Bronx residents who depend on mass transit to get around.

In response, the MTA released a statement saying: “Under the ADA law, we are not required to install an elevator where it is technically infeasible to do so.”

The term “technically infeasible” sounds like a hard-science answer with no court of appeal. Like they consulted the engineering experts who calculated and simulated and considered all the angles and the stresses on materials and concluded that putting an elevator in the Middletown Road station was not possible.

Not so. It is almost always possible. The question is not whether it can be done, but how much will it cost, how long will it take, how much will it disrupt operations and inconvenience passengers. “Technically infeasible” means that when all things were considered, it was decided that it wasn’t worth it.

But whether it’s worth installing an elevator in a subway station or not is, subjective. What the MTA regards as “technically infeasible” may not be what the federal government or disabled citizens (if they had the expertise) regard as “technically infeasible.”

Washington has for several years now been pressuring local transit authorities to speed up their compliance with ADA, a former senior transportation official familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

A Federal Transit Administration spokeswoman confirmed that the agency has been “advising MTA for years to comply with ADA during renovation projects.”

“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,” wrote the WSJ.

The public face is, of course, different. The MTA states that it has 111 subway and Staten Island Railway stations accessible via elevators and ramps, and that number is expected to rise to 144 by 2020 under its current plan. Each of the authority’s approximately 5,700 buses is accessible to people using wheelchairs.

“We are doing more all the time,” an MTA spokesman said.

No one denies that inserting a new elevator in a renovation project that didn’t initially call for it can be a huge undertaking for all concerned. It can send costs soaring and delay construction deadlines.

We sympathize with the difficulties, technical and otherwise. Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act was never a simple matter for the largest subway system in the world.

But we sympathize more with the disabled and others who depend on an accessible mass transit system. And it’s the law.