Why you should care about subway accessibility

Some quick housekeeping before getting to a really important subject.

If you haven’t already heard the news, starting Monday I will be the new senior reporter at Jalopnik, where I’ll be doing enterprise reporting at the intersection of transportation and technology. My predecessor in that role did superb investigations and I look forward to continuing that tradition.

I don’t anticipate this changing an awful lot around here for the time being. That being said, here are two things you should know:

  1. The weekly free editions will be going out on Monday mornings instead of Fridays (so that I have the weekend to put them together)

  2. When I launched the paid tier in December, I promised paid subscribers “50 percent more Signal Problems” per year, or about 25 paid editions. This is the 12th (not including the correction). I expect to get close to the promised 25 by the end of the year if not surpass it. But, realistically, the pace is going to slow.

In light of that, if you feel like this a different deal than you signed up for and prefer to unsubscribe, I understand. Please just go right ahead and cancel. If you're on an annual plan, let me know and I'll make sure you get a pro-rated refund.

I will still be sending out weekly in-depth emails about all things MTA.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


New York’s population is getting older. According to a 2017 Comptroller report, the number of senior citizens increased by 19 percent from 2005 to 2015. The city’s senior citizen population is expected to rise to more than 1.4 million people by 2040, up from 1.1 million today.

Not all senior citizens need elevators, but many of them do in order to use the subway regularly. And many people who need elevators are not senior citizens, or disabled at all. Maybe they’re a parent with a stroller, or are carrying heavy luggage to the airport, or have a shopping cart full of groceries. This is why, regardless of who you are or what your circumstances are now, you should care about the lack of accessibility in the subway.

And there are even fewer accessible stations than you might realize. A few weeks ago, I shared Jessica Murray’s analysis that the MTA’s accessible stations figures overstate the degree to which stations are truly accessible:

When it comes to an honest accounting of the state of accessibility, the MTA has obfuscated the real number of stations, falling back on the argument that our system was once made up of three companies, as if it’s impossible to change the mode of counting stations to international standards. Their counting methods are also wildly inconsistent, with parts of some station complexes still being officially counted as one, including Union Square, N/Q/R/W and L as one station (4/5/6 is a separate station that’s still inaccessible). West 4th Street counts as one station despite having two sets of tracks and two lines.

I have come across Murray’s work a few times on accessibility issues and always appreciated her insight, so I figured it was past time to chat with her.

We talked about the history of subway accessibility, why we find ourselves in the morally unjustifiable situation we’re in, and why all New Yorkers regardless of health or physical ability should care about the issue (hint: you might not be healthy forever).

Just a quick note: we conducted this interview before the Daily News reported NYCT is working on a contingency to cut back on the new 50 accessible stations goal within the next five years due to funding priorities (for what it’s worth, NYCT president Andy Byford assured the board that his commitment to that goal is still “rock solid”). So when I asked Murray if she was worried this might happen, her answer (“I absolutely have that concern”) took place before her concern was proven entirely justified.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Aaron Gordon: I want to ask a little bit about you first. I know you're a graduate student. You're working on a PhD if I'm not mistaken. Tell me about what you’re working on.

Jessica Murray: I'm doing a PhD in developmental psychology. I'm interested in how transportation is not only a key to self-determination for everyone but how the transportation environment itself doesn't really support self-determination for people with disabilities.

AG: And you've been looking into the accessibility issue in New York for some time. Why did you choose this topic? How did you get into it?

JM: I did a master's degree before I started this Ph.D program in the psychology of work and family track at The Graduate Center at CUNY. I came back to school with this interest in commuting and stress and how that affects people at work and at home. There's a little bit of literature about that but not much.

But some of the classes I took, we had to dig into local issues and wheelchair-accessible taxis was a topic that I had to do an assignment for. When I started looking into this lawsuit that was happening at the time and then started looking at other transit issues, I realized how horrible it was for people and got drawn into the issue itself and the history behind it. And I myself have multiple sclerosis. So there was kind of a bit of a personal reason there too.

You mentioned history. I think it's really important to understand the history behind why things are the way they are. Especially with New York City transportation issues, it's so hard to separate decisions made decades ago from the decisions being made today. Although accessibility has gotten a lot more attention recently, there's very little attention to why things are the way they are, how it got to this point.

So I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the history behind this problem of trying to make the subway accessible. Why is it that so much the system is still inaccessible today?

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of written history about why it's this bad. But it all kind of boils down to the key station agreement. New York had other laws on the books well before the ADA and there were lawsuits happening well before the ADA. So this lawsuit that was settled with the hundred key station agreement actually started in 1979 because they were starting to renovate subway stations without providing accessibility. That was in violation of New York state laws about architectural access.

And then when the ADA was up for discussion, from my understanding talking with some people who were involved at the time, New York was very adamant that the subway was going to be too expensive to make accessible and so they were concerned that it was going to become this huge financial albatross.  The ADA mandated a timeline for transit systems to get to full accessibility and I think that was 2020. The FTA (Federal Transit Administration) required that all the transit agencies put forward a plan to make their systems fully accessible. And since this was a kind of ongoing lawsuit, there was a previous agreement to make 54 stations accessible under this first lawsuit. And then it was the second lawsuit while the ADA was being discussed they negotiated this hundred key station agreement. So basically they said we'll do this minimum key stations first and then we'll figure out the rest later. But they hadn’t really made a plan for what comes next until Andy Byford came along.

There’s a lot of very hazy details because I've never been able to find much recorded history about the settlement of these lawsuits. I believe assembly member Jo Anne Simon was also part of those negotiations. I've heard her say that the MTA leadership was very obstinate about not wanting to do any of it at all and they were very stubborn. At the time a hundred stations was the best they could get.

What do you make of the MTA’s argument that the cost of making the system accessible was prohibitive? Do you think those were valid concerns at the time?

I mean, elevators are not cheap. It definitely takes an investment to make it happen. But I think the MTA kind of cornered themselves into this position where it's only about wheelchair users from the get-go. They said well, there's not that many wheelchair users that are even going to use the subway. Paratransit was born out of this whole discussion as well.

So, when they said we're not going to make the whole system accessible, people with United Spinal (the plaintiffs) said you have to provide some other mode of transit for them if you're not going to make the subway accessible. At the time, the MTA said oh, well, it will be cheaper just to drive everyone from point A to point B instead of making the whole system wheelchair-accessible.

28 years later, we see that paratransit costs are through the roof. It's going to cost $500 million this year. That's what the projection is for paratransit and that serves about 144,000 passengers right now. So that's not really a sustainable alternative in my opinion.

It seems like it was a very short-sighted calculation.

Right and the ADA does have a requirement that 20% of any construction budget has to go to making a structure accessible and the FTA has issued guidance that when they renovate a station and they fix any entrances, like they replace the stairs, for instance, they have to put in an elevator as well no matter what the cost is. The MTA gets federal funding so they are required to abide by federal guidelines.

This recent Enhanced Station Initiative where they renovated 19 stations without putting in elevators I think outraged a lot of people because the law is clear. They haven't even finished the hundred key stations yet. Their deadline is next year.

It’s really interesting to think about this problem from a time-horizon perspective. That’s been a big revelation for me. I may not need the elevators today, but I may need them tomorrow, or in 10, 20 years. How many people who thought this wouldn't affect them in 1979 or 1991 now find that they could really use an elevator?

Of course. And how many people take a taxi to the airport because it's just too hard to lug a really heavy suitcase up and down the stairs at different transfer points if you wanted to take the subway? Even if there's a small percentage of the population that needs an elevator a hundred percent of the time, a hundred percent of the population needs one at least a small percent of the time.

I'm also part of Rise and Resist Elevator Action Group and our campaign slogan is “elevators are for everyone.” We’re trying to change this idea that it’s this very niche population that needs it and therefore it's less important and therefore we should not spend that much money. All of that thinking is just wrong. Once you put elevators in, then all people use them and you can't stop them from using it.

I want to talk about this key stations number which you brought up a few times. You wrote an article recently talking about how this number of key stations is actually kind of slippery and the way that the MTA defines it doesn't really match the experience that people have when they try and use these stations.

Well, when I found this hundred key station agreement, I notice that there's some stations that are listed multiple times. I know that this is something the MTA does, it's a weird quirk because of the history of having three different rail companies be combined. They say that's why we count some stations multiple times. Times Square, they count as five stations. For any layperson who doesn't know that quirk and they hear this idea of a hundred key stations, they think, oh yeah the key stations would be like the really big stations where there's transfers. Those would be key, so obviously Times Square would be a key station, but I don't think they're thinking that that's five stations. And so yeah essentially when you take out the duplicate stations and you actually end up with like 80 actual stations.

And then I think the most egregious part of that is that they count the Times Square shuttle. As you know, there's only two stations, Grand Central to Times Square, but the amount of investment that they're putting into that transfer is enormous. It's like $200 million. And the 7 is already accessible. It goes to the exact same place. So why are we even doing that? I don't understand when there's so many other stations that could be renovated with that same money.

There's so much about that that doesn't make sense. On the one hand $200 million to make two stations accessible is so much money just to start.

That's only from one station. It is only for one station, for the Times Square.

So that's even worse.


Are they doing it because it's legally required under the agreement?

It seems like they're doing it because it's part of this legal agreement, but I think that this legal agreement may need to be re-looked at. I can't imagine a scenario where they wouldn't be able to renegotiate.

All of this talk about increasing funding for the system, obviously Andy Byford came in and made accessibility one of the one of his key goals for his tenure at Transit, but also it's very clear that he's not going to get all the money that he's asking for. Do you have any concerns about where this money is actually going to go and whether accessibility issues are once again going to be kind of put to the side to address other concerns?

I absolutely have that concern. This is something that Rise and Resist has been really active on. I actually went to Albany last week and I testified at the senate Transportation Committee hearing about exactly this issue, that this is always deemed less important.

But MTA spends more money on other projects that will help fewer people. East Side Access will benefit about 200,000 people and cost $11 billion. Even though they're still doing this elevator study to see how much it would cost to upgrade the entire system, their informal estimates are also $11 billion and there's far more than 200,000 people that would benefit from a fully accessible subway.

So what we're asking for at Rise And Resist is that they mandate a percentage of the budget goes to accessibility no matter what the budget is and you know, if it's one of the four pillars, it should receive 25% of the budget in our mind because if it's equally important the spending should reflect that.

Yeah. Absolutely. It's been interesting to watch as a reporter, to see this issue get more attention, but at the same time, have a keen sense that other priorities are already being assigned a higher importance. That worries me because historically accessibility does not make the top of that list.  

No it doesn't and that's why we're in this predicament that we are today because it's always less important than something else.

But you know, it's catching up with us and that's why people are so upset. People that didn't think about it 20 years ago are now starting to feel the impacts. And this demographic change is happening where in the next 10 years we're going to have more old people than young people. So people aged over the age of 65 are going to outnumber people between the age of 5 and 17.

In New York?

In New York, yeah. Those are the projections.

So the last question I want to ask you is to move us past elevators for a second. I don't mean to minimize it but accessibility is about a lot more than that. What are some ways in which the subway is not accessible right now that doesn't have to do with elevators?

A lot of my research focuses on the various disabilities that are not supported by the subway and the bus system. The result is that people end up either relying on paratransit or not going anywhere. Or they can maybe figure out how to go from one place to another place and back home, but they don't really have access to the whole system because there are a lot of things that are not consistent.

Any kind of service change should be announced audibly and visibly and that definitely doesn't happen consistently. The wayfinding in the subway is not consistent, either with Braille or with signage that tells people where to go. For people that have cognitive disabilities, that may affect their spatial awareness or their ability to navigate or their ability to understand signage.

People that don't speak English have a really difficult time using the subway because it's foreign to them and there's not support for that. We have an incredibly complex system. It's the most cognitively complex system in the world. There are a lot of people that are just intimidated by it. Even tourists. We’re basically losing money by not welcoming people. think our information systems can do a lot more to make transit easy to understand, easy to navigate, and easy to use.