New York makes a promise: subway stations will be accessible to all

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will invest $5.2 billion to modernise and upgrade hundreds of the subway system’s stations

On the streets of Brooklyn, they call them the “transit deserts“: subway stations that boast the sad record of being among the most inaccessible in the world.

The problem in Brooklyn, where 68% of the subway stations are “off limits” to the handicapped and the frailest (the elderly and children), is particularly severe. But it affects all of New York City — so much so that the MTA (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages New York’s subway network) has now been forced to undertake one of its most complex infrastructural challenges ever.

There are 472 active subway stations beneath the surface of the Big Apple. Of these, just 126 are fully accessible with elevators or ramps for travelers, making the rest a mirage for many people, particularly the handicapped.

The MTA has agreed to make up for this delay, following a lengthy negotiation to settle two class action suits brought by New Yorkers because of the de facto discrimination due to the system’s infrastructure conditions.

The recently-signed agreement provides for a series of massive modifications covering 95% of the network that should be fully completed only in 2055, when the New York City subway will truly be accessible for anyone

New York City's subway accessibility: an obstacle course toward integration

The plan for work on New York City subway stations is not limited to adding elevators or electric ramps for the handicapped, but requires significant maintenance work in the structure of the stations themselves.

To date, the MTA says it is already investing $5.2 billion in its 2020-2024 capital plan, including 81 accessibility upgrades. Work on the first 81 stations will be completed by 2025. Thanks to the recent agreement, now, by 2035 another 85 stations will be retrofitted; another 90 by 2045 and the last 90 by 2055.

Overall, these are monumental measures when one considers that in 2020, accessibility projects had been completed at just 15 stations, with the pace slowed down by the financial crisis due to Covid-19, which had considerably reduced the number of subway users for more than a year. Today the subway is returning to previous user levels, but more importantly — in light of repeated complaints and reports sent to the press — the MTA has confirmed it plans to modernise one of New York City’s most important infrastructures once and for all.

New York City, a subway not for everyone

The issue of New York City’s subway accessibility is not new. It has been debated for years, without anyone really taking effective action. The first lawsuits against the MTA date back to 2017, while a 2018 Report conducted by the office of the New York City Comptroller (which monitors the proper functioning of municipal agencies) revealed that at least 200,000 New Yorkers with various disabilities live in areas of the city where their local subway stop is inaccessible to them.

Moreover, the planned fixes will not only ensure a direct benefit for the disabled but also for hundreds of thousands of elderly people or families with very young children who today struggle to use public transportation in the city.

The issue is an economic one, according to Danny Pearlstein, Director of Policy and Communications at the Riders Alliance (the association that brings together and represents U.S. public transportation users).

“It’s up to the governor and federal officials to start congestion pricing and raise the revenue needed to upgrade hundreds of subway stations for full accessibility,” he said. “With gridlock, pollution, and carbon emissions compromising New York’s recovery, the time is now to implement congestion pricing and deliver the reliable, accessible subway New York needs and deserves.”

The Federal Government has gotten involved. Last year the Biden Administration voted for the All Stations Accessibility Program Act, an investment plan included within the broader “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” that provides for a federal investment of $350 million a year for over a five year period to 2026. It is certainly a starting point, but not yet enough to address the need for modernisation of what is America’s major transportation infrastructure.