A crowd mills around a subway platform and up the stairs at a New York City subway station
It's hard for passengers with disabilities to navigate crowded subway stations with limited elevator access. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

Advocates allege that the entire MTA system discriminates against riders with disabilities.

The subway is often cited as the most convenient way to get around New York City, but for Chris Pangilinan, riding the system is like playing a game of Russian roulette. “There are some 20 elevators out every day, and we don't know which stations they’re going to be at,” says Pangilinan, a transit planner who uses a wheelchair. “That's impossible to plan your life around.”

It was only a matter of time before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would be hit with another accessibility complaint—this time, in both federal and state court. Earlier this week, the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocate (DRA) filed two lawsuits on behalf of a handful of individuals, including Pangilinan, and a coalition of disabilities-rights organizations that say the MTA is discriminating against people with disabilities by running the least-accessible subway among U.S. major cities.

This latest pair of lawsuits is unprecedented, says DRA’s litigation director Michelle Caiola, because they’re going after the entire system. The federal suit contends that the existing subway elevators “aren't maintained, that they break down too frequently, and [are] out of service too long,” Caiola tells CityLab. “When they do break down, there isn't adequate notice given to people who rely on those, and there's no alternatives to help people who are stuck." Meanwhile, the state complaint alleges the overall system is generally inaccessible, and calls on MTA to come up with a plan to change all that.

When Pangilinan moved to Brooklyn more than two years ago, he made sure to live close to a subway station with an elevator—which only about 100 of the 472 stations have. In fact, according to the lawsuits, three-quarters of all subway stations are not wheelchair accessible, lacking elevators and lifts. Factor in the two stations that are on street level, and the accessibility rate of NYC’s subway sits at just 22 percent. By comparison, the Washington, D.C., and San Francisco transit systems score 100 percent in accessibility. Even Chicago’s system—which started service in 1892, 12 years before NYC’s subway began its operations—is more than 60 percent accessible.

Pink dots indicate stations that are completely inaccessible to wheelchair users. Blue dots represent stations that are only accessible in one direction, while green indicates that not all lines that run through station are accessible. (Disability Rights Advocate)

To get to his office near the Bowling Green station in lower Manhattan, Pangilinan first propels his wheelchair 10 minutes from his house to the nearby Borough Hall station. Then he takes two elevators down to the northbound platform and gets off at the next stop. That trip is just 25 minutes. Coming home, however, is a different story. “I can’t take the reverse path because Borough Hall is not accessible in the southbound direction on the A-C line,” he says, adding that he has to add an extra 10 minutes to his commute to reach a different station and essentially take a different route home.

And that’s just on a good day. Pangilinan says the elevators are down at the stations he frequents at least once or twice a week. When they’re out of commission, that adds 20 to 30 minutes to his commute each way. The lawsuit alleges that elevators at about 25 stations are likely to be broken at any given moment—and they stay broken for hours, sometimes even weeks. Pangilinan says he’s counted nearly 220 elevator outages since he’s moved to the city. There have been times he’s had to decline invitations to events because the destination sits in what he calls an “elevator desert.”

The MTA has not commented on the lawsuits, but told CityLab in a statement that the agency is spending over $1 billion to make 25 stations more accessible, and putting $334 million toward replacing existing elevators and escalators in the coming years. The agency also says that, while the elevators aren’t always operable, they’re generally available to the public over 96 percent of the time.

Caiola’s nonprofit previously filed other suits alleging that the MTA had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to improve accessibility during multi-million-dollar renovations to stations in Manhattan and the Bronx. (The ADA requires that at least 20 percent of budgets for upgrades be dedicated to improving accessibility.) Now, Caiola’s group is invoking the city’s human rights law, “which is a great civil rights statute with a lot of teeth,” she tells CityLab. “We believe [the MTA] is not doing what they need to do to include the disabilities community into the fabric of New York City.”

Both Caiola and Pangilinan say they’re optimistic that the MTA will take action. San Francisco and Boston both score high for accessibility, and that is largely the result of cases like this latest one. In the 1990s, the DRA won a lawsuit that forced the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to fix and replace broken escalators and elevators, clean them regularly, and conduct preventive maintenance. And a landmark case against the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in 2006 resulted in $310 million overhaul of the entire public transit system.

Still, these cases are small—but not insignificant—battles in the greater national fight for accessibility across the U.S. public transportation network, and that goes beyond elevators to broader station design. In some systems, the level between the platform and the train is uneven, making the gap a major obstacle to boarding. Other systems may still lack adequate accommodation for visually impaired riders. Just last year in D.C., for instance, a rider who is almost totally blind fell between the gap of two metro cars after mistaking it for a doorway. “It felt normal,” he told local radio station WAMU after the incident. Above ground, broken sidewalks may make it hard to get to a bus station.

One major concern that Pangilinan has for the future of public transit is the increasing integration of private companies like Uber and Lyft, which have yet to make rides convenient for wheelchairs. "NYC had a mandate for 50 percent of all yellow cabs to be wheelchair accessible by 2020, which is great,” he says. “But if the taxi industry is being overrun by Uber and Lyft, then it’s not very helpful, now is it?”

He adds that if ride-sharing companies are going to become part of the public transportation system, they all have to be truly wheelchair accessible. “And I don't mean that they're going to call some van that's not affiliated with them to get you 10 minutes later,” he says. “I mean equivalent service. That you and your friend can board the same vehicle seamlessly—that needs to happen today.”

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