The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), through its subsidiary agency, New York City Transit (NYCT), is responsible for maintaining, inspecting, and repairing their accessible services throughout the subway system.
Only 114 stations of the MTA-NYCT’s 472 total stations– or just 24 percent– are considered accessible to those with disabilities by the agency. This paltry statistic is a stain on the city’s reputation as a progressive and inclusive place that affords equal opportunity to all.
MTA-NYCT is proposing improvements in its Fast Forward Plan, including the installation of more elevators in stations and a reformation of how the agency maintains its currently-accessible services. The agency set a ‘—goal of achieving maximum possible accessibility in 15 years—’, and upgrading accessibility features for those with ‘—mobility devices, vision loss, hearing loss, and cognitive and other invisible disabilities—’, and the agency recently launched the Group Station Manager Program, which promises greater focus on station maintenance, including care for accessible services.
These goals sound commendable, but after decades of unanswered pleas from disabled riders and advocates, New Yorkers are understandably skeptical about the MTA following through now. If we’re going to hold the MTA accountable for improvements in accessibility, we need to know what the current baseline is to improve upon.
So we sent staff and interns from our office to survey every currently-accessible station in the New York City subway in Manhattan.
Our team surveyed the 42 Manhattan subway stations that the MTA has deemed accessible. They visited these stations on four separate days at different times of day. Taking into account complaints the office has received as well as conversations with advocates, the group prioritized these criteria to judge the quality of each station’s accessible services:
- Are the in-station elevators operable?
- How helpful is station signage and travel alternative signage?
- Is the cleanliness—both physical cleanliness and odor—up to reasonable standards?
- Are there appropriate services for blind and vision-impaired riders, including braille and properly-painted stair nosings?
37.3% of Stations Need Improved Signage Either In-Station or Within the Elevators
81% of Elevators Were Missing Alternative Travel Information:
37.3 percent of stations surveyed needed better signage and 81 percent of the elevators were missing travel-alternative information. For station signage, common issues included missing or unclear signage, a need for more clarity between signage directing riders to either elevators or accessible boarding areas, and a lack of detail or entirely misleading signage within elevators.
Surveyors also had a hard time locating elevators at street level due to a lack of signage. While those signs fall under the purview of New York City’s Department of Transportation (NYC DOT)—not NYCT—the Group Station Managers will need to look at accessibility through a holistic lens and work with NYC DOT on improving street level signage.
NYCT is really struggling with travel-alternative signage. This is a new initiative for the agency, marketed as a step to proactively address accessibility issues. But most stations are still missing signs and the ones that aren’t are a hodgepodge of permanently installed signage and pieces of paper taped up next to elevators. It’s far from a comprehensive roll out.
54.3% of Elevators Require Better Physical Cleaning and 53.5% Require Better Cleaning to Improve Smells:
54.3 percent of the elevators we surveyed were visually unclean and 53.5 percent had odor problems. Surveyors reported stains on elevator walls, pools of liquid (most often appearing to be urine or vomit), gum stuck to the floors, and litter strewn both inside and outside of elevators. The most frequent odor reported was urine, but surveyors noted a litany of unsavory smells that made riding the elevator either difficult or almost impossible.
Many elevators also had poor ventilation. This compounded already troublesome smells and made the elevators too warm, a big issue for seniors who may be prone to overheating or have breathing problems. Sometimes, poor ventilation worked against cleaning efforts, trapping the strong scent of cleaning products in the elevators, and making it hard to breathe.
5.3% of Elevators Were Missing Raised Braille and 16.7% of Stations Were Missing Properly-Maintained Stair Nosings for the Blind and Vision-Impaired:
We also measured accessibility measures for the visually impaired, like braille installations on elevator buttons and stair nosings (bright paint that delineates the top and bottom of staircases). We found the inability to either install or maintain stair-nosings to be especially problematic. We also found a lack of uniformity in stair nosings, with some painted across full steps, others on only the front of steps, and painted hand rails only some of the time. As for braille, it was most often missing on older elevators, implying a lack of agency oversight.
5.2% of Elevators Were Inoperable:
The average over the four days of surveying found that 5.2 percent of elevators were inoperable with a total of 28 elevators being unavailable. On the worst performing day, 7.5 percent, or 10 elevators, were out of service.
The NYCT Division of Elevators and Escalators sets an aggregate goal of 96.5 percent availability (or 3.5 percent inoperability) on average for each of its elevators, surpassing our findings by 1.7 percent. Our 5.2 percent finding applies to all of the elevators surveyed—not the average for an individual elevator—but we feel this comes closer to what riders experience on a day-to-day basis rather than an internally-set MTA goal, especially since a 2013 audit by then-NYC Comptroller John Liu found that the MTA sometimes fails to record elevator outages.
One of the most frustrating issues we found is that out-of-service elevators often don’t have notices posted to let riders know they aren’t functioning. Our office receives many complaints about this issue, after riders end up waiting several minutes for elevators that are out-of-service before realizing that they are trapped within the station. Surveyors also often found the MTA to be slow to remove out-of-service notices from the MTA website, which sends riders on long, circuitous, and unnecessary detours to other stations.
Other Structural and Mechanical Issues Limiting Accessibility:
First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that, intentionally or otherwise, the MTA’s assertion that they currently operate 114 accessible stations, an already-low number, has itself been inflated as some stations that are not fully accessible are listed as accessible on the MTA’s website. For example in Manhattan, the Dyckman Street 1-train station, the 49th Street NQRW-train station, and the 50th Street CE-train station each provide accessible travel in only one direction yet are defined as accessible by the MTA. Moreover, ruling out stations that provide accessibility in only one direction, as well as stations that do not provide accessible transfers between other lines, would reveal a true percentage of accessible stations that is substantially lower than 24 percent.
Other problematic issues we found during our survey were:
- Convoluted ramps connecting the north- and south-bound ACE platforms to the mezzanine at the 42nd Street – Port Authority Bus Terminal station, which are only wide enough for one user at a time. So if two riders enter the ramp from different sides and meet in the middle, one has to double back to the start of the ramp.
- At the same station, there is a difficult-to-use lift that must be replaced with an elevator and makes travel an otherwise stressful experience, even if it technically offers stair-free access.
- We found several older elevators that have a sign that reads “Elevator Closed.” The signs light up when the elevator is actually closed, but since the lettering is always readable, it leads to confusion.
- A number of station booths near accessible service entry gates were vacant. If problems arose, employees were not available to help.
MTA-NYCT should reach settlement agreement detailing agency accessibility commitments
Prior to NYCT’s hiring of their new president, Andy Byford, the transit authority had no comprehensive plan for reaching 100% system accessibility nor in how to address other current issues of accessibly in already-accessible stations. Instead, the agency sporadically added elevator installations to its 5-year capital plans at a rate that civil rights organization Disabled in Action calculated would take more than a century before reaching system-wide accessibility.
President Byford’s aims laid out in the Fast Forward plan are commendable, but in the past, NYCT has not lived up to demands. An issue so critical to the livelihood and vitality of so many New Yorkers should not be left up to the whims of who currently sits in the President’s chair. If we want accessibility solutions, we need requirements put into law like other cities have done.
In 2006, after years of ongoing litigation, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL) reached a settlement agreement that put the MBTA’s overall commitment to accessibility—and dictated a litany of requirements for the authority—into law. The MTA should commit itself to many of the same requirements the MBTA agreed to and can do so by settling current litigation (Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York et al. v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 2017). It is through these means that the agency can then truly commit to accessibility, and engage in a legislative funding process that addresses accessibility issues including, but not limited to:
- Set a timeframe for reaching 100% accessibility and revamp elevator maintenance practices:
The MTA’s biggest accessibility issue is the lack of ADA-compliant elevators. To make real progress, the MTA needs a target date for 100% accessibility and a plan for ongoing elevator installations.
The agency clearly struggles to properly maintain its existing elevators, and following the MBTA’s example, could improve conditions. In 2018, the MBTA/BCIL reached an amended settlement agreement that stated, “the MBTA must design, fund and implement an elevator management plan to provide continuous, uninterrupted elevator service during all passenger service hours, subject only to temporary and isolated elevator outages for repairs, maintenance and inspections. Service interruptions for preventive maintenance and inspections shall be scheduled in a manner to minimize the impact of any gaps in service.”
Since then, the MBTA has maintained 99.5 percent elevator availability. The MTA should consult the MBTA and engage in a similar maintenance program in order to raise elevator availability levels. The agency should also be more transparent about updated maintenance practices.
- Improve elevator hygiene
Following many of the same recommendations made in the MBTA/BCIL agreement, the MTA needs a total revamp of its elevator cleaning practices—and transparency about what those practices are. The MTA should publicly report how often elevators are checked for cleanliness, how often elevators are cleaned without a complaint, and how quickly complaints about dirty elevators are handled. The MTA should also post employees near elevators that are often problematic and make it easier to make cleaning requests, possibly by putting the Group Station Manager’s contact information inside elevators.
- Set uniform standards for what station features are needed to be ADA compliant:
Some stations listed as ADA-compliant only offer stair-free access in one direction. Only some stations have clear signage. And there isn’t uniformity in stair nosings between stations. Guidelines for what exactly qualifies a station to be listed as accessible and how those stations will be maintained should be outlined and posted publicly.
- Commit to offering alternative transportation when elevators are out of service:
When elevators are out-of-service, the MTA should commit to offer alternative transportation to the closest ADA-accessible station.
A current lawsuit filed against the MTA notes, “When elevator outages occur, Defendants provide no alternate accommodations to ensure that people that require elevator access can get to their destinations.” If the MTA truly wants to serve disabled New Yorkers, alternative transportation is a must.
The MTA can take another page out of the MBTA/BCIL agreement, which states “The MBTA must have vehicles suitable for providing alternative transportation for persons with disabilities immediately available whenever there is a need to provide alternative transportation.”
- Increase and improve communications both online and within stations, including added audio announcements in elevators for the blind and vision-impaired:
The MTA can avoid trapping riders in stations by notifying them about elevator outages in real time with online notifications, in-station audio announcements, and audio announcements or graphics on trains. This can diminish the negative effects of an out-of-service elevator. The MTA should also work to quickly install audio equipment in elevators for those who are blind or low-vision.
- Work with NYC DOT to improve signage out-of-station signage accessible conditions:
Improving accessibility conditions for riders requires a holistic approach. A rider’s trip doesn’t start when they enter a subway station; it starts as soon as they go outside. Unfortunately, this is where problems begin. A recent report produced by our office in July 2015 found that of 1,357 pedestrian ramps along Broadway, only 115 (or 11.8 percent) were in full compliance with the ADA. Group Station Managers should work with NYC DOT not only to improve critical pedestrian ramps near stations but to improve poor street level signage, as recorded in the survey.
- Increase elevator redundancy at stations:
Even if the agency made every subway station accessible and provided alternative transportation when elevators were out-of-service, the needs of riders would still not be fully met. Elevators need occasional preventative maintenance, so every elevator will be out of service at some point in time. During those instances, the best form of alternative transportation is not a bus or paratransit vehicle but another elevator, which will keep the station available for all riders. Stations need to have more than one elevator to be truly accessible.
At the 42nd Street – Port Authority Bus Terminal station, our surveyors saw first-hand how a second elevator can keep a station accessible. During our survey, one of the elevators between the bus terminal and the subway station was out of service for major rehabilitation. But there was a second elevator right next to it, so the connection was still accessible.
NYCT’s recent efforts to improve accessible services, as detailed in the Fast Forward plan, represents a potential step-forward for the agency. Riders and advocates have been waiting for fair treatment and equal services for too long and deserve better.
Whether it’s a lack of accessible stations, clean elevators, or other accessible services, the MTA is hindering the mobility of hundreds of thousands of disabled and elderly New Yorkers, as well as caregivers with children.
It is important to remember that people with disabilities are largely kept out of our workforce market, in part, due to the inaccessibility of jobs. New York and the MTA are unfortunately a prime example of this given that the majority of our subway system is inaccessible and, as noted above, that the MTA currently struggles to maintain its accessible stations. Unfortunately, according to 2014 census data, disabled New Yorkers make up only 4 percent of the City’s workforce, and the inaccessibility of the City’s transit system is a major contributor to this problem. Achieving maximum accessibility within our subway system and ensuring that those accessible stations are kept in working order is what the MTA needs to do to make sure disabled New Yorkers are treated as equals across our city.
 MTA Guide to Accessible Transit. (September 2018). http://web.mta.info/accessibility/transit.htm
 MTA-New York City Transit (2018). Fast Forward: The Plan to Modernize New York City Transit. 2018. pg, 41.
 Ibid, 44.
 Office of New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer (2018). Audit Report on New York City Transit’s Efforts to Inspect and Repair Elevators and Escalators, pg 1.
 Office of New York City Comptroller John Liu (2013). Follow-up Audit Report on New York City Transit’s Efforts to Inspect, Repair, and Maintain Elevators and Escalators, pg 4.
 Joanne Daniels-Finegold, et al. v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. April 10, 2006.
 Ibid. pg. 13-14
 Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York et al. v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority. United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. April 25, 2017. pg. 2.
 Joanne Daniels-Finegold, et al. v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. April 10, 2006.
 Brewer, Gale A. Accessible Manhattan: Making Sidewalks Safe and Navigable For All. July 2015. pg. 4.
 New York City People With Disabilities Statistics: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/mopd/downloads/pdf/selected-characteristics-disabled-population.pdf