For years, New York has lagged behind other major U.S. cities in making its subway system accessible to people with disabilities: Only 126 of its 472 stations, or 27 percent, have elevators or ramps that make them fully accessible.
But on Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it would add elevators and ramps to 95 percent of subway stations by 2055 as part of a settlement in two class-action lawsuits on the issue.
The agreement, which still requires court approval, will establish a clear – and long-term – timeline for resolving an issue that has effectively prevented people using wheelchairs and mobility devices from gaining full access to the city’s transit system, a backbone of New York’s social and economic life. .
Under the settlement, the Transport Authority will make a further 81 metro and Staten Island Railway stations available in 2025. It will then make a further 85 stations available in 2035, 90 more in 2045 and then 90 more in 2055.
The underground stations planned for change include nine, which are currently partially accessible, where passengers who cannot use stairs only have access to trains running in one direction.
“We have no equality, we have no equality if people are left out of their ability to use a mass transportation system that for so many people – more than half of New Yorkers – is the only way to get around,” he said. Janno Lieber, Chairman of the Authority.
Both Mr. Lieber and disability groups acknowledged that the agreed timeline was slow. Transit officials have said technical concerns, construction time and costs all necessitate a long-term plan.
And even when the work is completed – more than six decades after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prevented discrimination against people with disabilities in public facilities – the subway is still not set to be 100 percent accessible.
“We want it sooner,” said Jean Ryan, president of Disabled in Action, a nonprofit organization that is a plaintiff in the lawsuits. “But they say they can’t do it before. And you don’t get anyone to promise to do something they can’t.”
The changes will benefit a wide range of riders struggling to spend narrow fares or climb stairs in the subway, including parents taking children in strollers, shoppers carrying large items home and airport travelers with luggage.
But the most transformative effects of settlement will be felt by people with disabilities, who have long been excluded from large parts of New York’s subway system and, by extension, parts of the city it serves.
Samuel Jimenez, 65, who uses a cane, said he hoped to see significant improvements in the system. The Montrose Avenue station in Brooklyn, where he typically goes on board, does not have an elevator, making travel difficult.
“I have to go down the stairs at my station, which takes me an hour and a day,” said Mr. Jimenez, who was on his way to a dialysis appointment, at Union Square station on Wednesday. “I want to say that it slows me down a lot. I miss many trains because of that. ”
Many individual subway lines have significant stretches that are not allowed for wheelchair users, including areas outside of Manhattan where the distance between available elevators is more than 10 stops. They include large stretches of the G and J lines, part of the F line and much of the part of the 6 line that runs through the Bronx.
Mrs Ryan, who drove the metro for 25 years before starting to use a motorized wheelchair, said these gaps force many people with disabilities to use modes of transport that are less convenient and reliable and sometimes more expensive than the metro.
“It takes 24 hours and it’s spontaneous,” she said. “You can change your plans. You can do anything with the subway.”
Disability rights activists have been trying for years to pressure transit officials to improve access, with a particular focus on the lack of elevator service. In 2017, a group of organizations and disabled residents filed a lawsuit in state court that said the transit system’s lack of elevators was a violation of the city’s human rights law.
Two years later, another set of plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit in which they accused the transit agency of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act when officials renovated subway stations without installing elevators, ramps or similar housing.
When the law was passed in 1990, it required that all public facilities built after 1993 be accessible. Although most of the subway system is significantly older than that, in 1994 the transit agency reached an agreement with the federal government to make 100 “key stations” available by 2020, a goal it met.
Transit systems newer than New York, including those in San Francisco and Washington, are fully available. And other aging subway systems have significantly higher accessibility rates than New York. More than two-thirds of the stations in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago meet American With Disabilities Acts standards.
New York transit officials had been criticized for the slow pace of improvements that disabled riders said was inadequate given the breadth and scope of the subway system. It runs around the clock and has the highest number of stations of any city in the world.
“They have been fighting against us for over five years in these lawsuits,” Ryan said.
In late 2019, when the trials were being discussed in court, officials approved a $ 5.2 billion plan to add elevators to 70 stations by 2024, a rate at which the agency had “never” operated before, Mr. Lieber.
The settlement agreement would promote this obligation. The transit authority would be required to set aside about 15 percent of the metro’s capital budget – which is used for construction, upgrades and maintenance projects – for specific efforts to improve accessibility.
“It’s going to take billions of dollars, it’s going to take a lot of sweat and muscle, but we’ll get it done,” he said. Lieber.
The settlement will represent a significant financial outlay for a transit authority that has been exposed to increased tax pressures as a result of the pandemic. The transit system has long struggled to keep capital costs down and has paid some of the highest construction costs in the world for projects.
Transit officials already have a long list of expensive projects and system upgrades in their capital plan. A congestion pricing plan that was expected to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to these improvements has been delayed, with Governor Kathy Hochul and Mr. Lieber accuses Washington officials of an extensive federal review process.
Even with the financial investment it requires, the settlement will not make the metro system fully accessible. Mr. Lieber said the remaining 5 percent of stations not covered by the agreement have difficult technical issues, including concerns about stability or extra weight that would make it impossible to add elevators or ramps.
The agreement will also not address the state of existing elevators, the focus of another lawsuit. Passengers who rely on the elevators say they are poorly maintained and that even those that function properly are overcrowded, unclean and plagued by bad smells.
Milagros Ortiz, 69, who has a heart condition and uses a walker, said Wednesday morning that the elevators in Union Square were often out of order, limiting her journey.
And even when they worked, she said, seemingly simple rides could be an ordeal.
To travel from her home in Alphabet City to a destination in Downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday, she took a bus to Union Square and then two elevators down to the subway platform.
When she arrived at Atlantic Avenue station, she had to take three elevators to get up to street level, with long walks between them.
But still, she said, it was better than the alternative.
“I can not go up the stairs,” she said. “If you see the stairs, it’s like you’ll never get to heaven.”
Olivia Bensimon contributed reporting.