A person walks down a New York subway station
Less than a quarter of New York subway stations have elevators. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

If you can’t do stairs, half the city’s neighborhoods are transit deserts, according to a new report.

When Monica Bartley got off the New York City subway at Union Square, she found the station didn’t have an elevator for her wheelchair. So she took the 4 train all the way uptown to Grand Central Station, 28 blocks away, where she knew there’d be an elevator.

It was broken. So Bartley was stuck underground for hours trying to head to work. Finally, she circled back to the station where she started, took the elevator up to the street, and took the bus instead.

“By the time I got to my office in the afternoon, my spirit was broken,” said Bartley, a community outreach organizer with the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York.

Only 24 percent of New York City’s 472 subway stations are accessible via an elevator, according to a new report by the City Comptroller’s Office, and half of the city’s subway-served neighborhoods qualify as “ADA transit deserts,” meaning that they lack a single accessible station. In these areas, nearly 640,000 residents are impacted, including those who are mobility impaired, seniors, and children under five, who often need a stroller.

Comptroller Scott Stringer’s report appears less than two months after the Metropolitan Transit Authority released its $19 billion “Fast Forward” plan. It proposes to build at least 50 accessible stations within five years, so that riders are no more than two stops away from an accessible station. The MTA also hopes to upgrade signals, replace its fare payment system, and reroute bus networks in every borough.

“A Metrocard should be a ticket to all 472 subway stations in New York City—not just to 24 percent,” Stringer said in an email. “Every time a subway station gains an accessible elevator or escalator, the subway system expands to tens of thousands of New Yorkers—and ultimately, funding for ADA upgrades will build out our subways to over 640,000.”

According to TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to urban transportation and mobility, the New York subway is the nation’s least accessible, defined as available to those who need stair-free access. Even Chicago and Boston—whose rapid-transit stations are just as old or older—rank far higher in accessibility, at 70 percent for both. The Washington, D.C,. and Los Angeles metro rail are fully accessible, either with elevators for below-ground stations, or ramps for above-ground.

The MTA is currently being sued by Bronx Independent Living Services, a community nonprofit which helps those with disabilities live autonomously, under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to build an accessible station during recent construction. In court filings, United States Attorney Geoffrey Berman cited $27 million renovations to a Bronx subway station in 2013, which added enhanced lighting, public art, and other cosmetic repairs. But the MTA did not add an elevator, due to cost and technical feasibility.

Beyond elevators, advocates are also pushing for other accessibility improvements inside stations, including increased signage for visually-impaired riders, more handrails, and smaller gaps between the train and the platform. Furthermore, although the MTA currently offers Access-A-Ride cars equipped with wheelchair lifts, the service is lacking, by many accounts. Rides must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance and trips can be lengthy; a 9 to 12-mile ride can take nearly two hours, according to the MTA website. Bartley said that her rides are often extremely late, or simply never show up.

Insufficient accessibility also has an real economic impact, Stringer’s report says. In neighborhoods with at least one accessible station, median rent costs at least $100 more than in neighborhoods with no accessible stations. Mobility-impaired riders struggle with employment: Those living in transit deserts struggle to get to work, no matter the neighborhood. The 608,000 jobs located in inaccessible neighborhoods are even more difficult to reach. This contributes to the dramatic discrepancy in labor force participation rates within the city: Only 23 percent of individuals with mobility impairments are employed or actively looking for work, compared to 74 percent of those with no disabilities.

New York State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens has long been an advocate for accessibility reform, authoring a bill in 2017 to fund accessible stations by taxing high-income earners. The Fast Forward plan doesn’t have a detailed budget, timeline, or funding yet. Other state senators have also offered congestion pricing as source of funding. Gianaris isn’t concerned about which resolution passes—as long as the project gets funded.

“I want to move the conversation past whether the measures are popular. I’m fine with either of them or both of them, but the bottom line is the system needs the money and the system needs to spend that money wisely,” he said. “We’re doing neither of them right now.”

There are some hopeful signs for disability advocates. In accordance with the plan, last month the MTA hired its first senior advisor for systemwide accessibility, Alex Elegudin, who uses a wheelchair himself.

Bartley still wants to see a more detailed action plan for the renovations, but she’s optimistic about the agency’s recent direction. “They’ve been trying to improve,” she said. “Things have changed. I think they’re listening to us more.”

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