Waiting for an Accessible Subway

An open letter to New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority regarding the slow progress it's making in opening the system to all

By John M. Williams

Mr. E. Virgil Conway


Metropolitan Transit Authority

2 Broadway

New York, NY 10004

Dear Mr. Conway:

As a frequent visitor to New York City, I usually ride the subway. So I was most pleased to learn that the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority had purchased 1,080 new cars with features that make them much more accessible to disabled users. Those new cars will represent 16% of the fleet by the end of this year, the MTA has declared.

My disabled friends in the Big Apple love the new additions. They tell me these cars have dedicated wheelchair space, which makes parking easier. The larger windows allow for better sight lines as trains enter stations. And security railings at bench ends help those with mobility problems remain seated and stand up. The sound system, with prerecorded understandable messages, is a vast improvement over the garbled announcements of the past. Wider doors for quicker entrances and exits are a godsend for crowded platforms.


  Sounds great. Just one problem: Nobody seems to know when they're coming. You see, I asked a number of times if the MTA might be able to let me test ride the cars and write about them. But your staff was unable to help me and canceled several appointments. Why? They couldn't tell me when and on what lines these new cars were running. If you think I was disappointed, just think of all the disabled people in the labyrinth waiting to be graced with one of the cars.

This seems to be par for the course in Gotham. New York City's subways remain the least accessible public subway system in the country. Progress in improving the system has been far too slow. It's time for the Big Apple to take a bite out of this festering problem.

Since the 1970s, federal laws have mandated that public transportation systems be accesssible to disabled users. But so far, the MTA has upgraded a mere 40 out of 468 subway stations throughout New York City to meet standards, or one accessible platform for every 11.5 stations. At that rate, the whole system may not be accessible until the year 2211. I understand that the MTA is planning some more upgrades in the near future. But until you make serious inroads, New York will remain an unfriendly place for disabled subway riders.


  The new cars further illustrate how far the MTA has to go. Mr. Conway, people who are disabled really do appreciate that the city is spending $1.4 billion on the cars. But they won't mean much if no one can use them. Worse still, those cars represent a fraction of those in the system. And there are no immediate plans to replace the remaining 84% of the fleet with disability-friendly cars.

Clearly, the MTA has made some strides toward making the subways easier for disabled people to use. The Web-site map of accessible stations is a great help, as are the MTA phone numbers to call for disability-related information (available on the same Web page). And for blind riders, the MTA provides Braille tactile maps.

I was also cheered to hear that the MTA is installing signs and warning strips at platform edges in its 40 accessible stations. And new TTY [text teletypewriter] telephones installed in some stations make it easier for people who are deaf or hearing-impaired to use these stations. Reduced fares for disabled riders provide an added bonus. It would be nice if you would market these features. Most people with disabilities who I've spoken with aren't aware of them.


  Perhaps the MTA could install a paging system or some type of systemwide locater device so that disabled riders would know when an accessible car was due to arrive at the station. But if that's too costly, then maybe you should think about buying more cars.

As for making stations more accessible, I know about the cost, Mr. Conway. But this should be a priority. New York will be a better place to live if the subways are easier to use, particularly as the population ages. It's no picnic riding the subway in Gotham if you have a disability.


John M. Williams

Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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Edited by Alex Salkever

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