New York City’s Subway System Violates Local and Federal Laws, Disability Groups Say
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority discriminates against people with disabilities because of its widespread lack of elevators and electric lifts in the subway system, rendering it significantly more inaccessible than other cities with large public transportation systems, according to two lawsuits filed on Tuesday.
The plaintiffs, a group of disability organizations and disabled residents who brought the lawsuits as a class action in state and federal court, say that the city’s subway system is one of the least accessible public transportation systems in the United States, with the lowest accessibility rate — 24 percent — among the country’s 10 largest transit systems.
More than 75 percent of the city’s 472 subway stations do not have elevators, lifts or other methods that make them accessible for people who use wheelchairs, mobility devices or are otherwise unable to use stairs. Of the approximately 112 stations that are designated as wheelchair-accessible, only 100 currently offer working elevator service for passengers traveling in different directions, the lawsuits charge. (The MTA said that 117 of its stations are accessible to people with disabilities.)
The lack of elevator service in the city’s subway system has been a longstanding problem. Michelle A. Caiola, the litigation director for Disability Rights Advocates, which is representing the plaintiffs, said the legal challenge comes after many futile attempts to achieve a resolution with the transit agency.
“We’ve talked to the M.T.A. on multiple occasions,” she said. “There is not any interest in any long-term plan to address the inaccessibility.”
The state lawsuit, which focuses on a lack of elevators in the system, argues that the transit agency violates the city’s human rights law, whose aim is to “eliminate and prevent discrimination from playing any role in actions relating to employment, public accommodations and housing and other real estate, and to take other actions against prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, discrimination and bias-related violence or harassment.”
The federal lawsuit says that the transit agency’s failure to maintain operable elevators violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discriminating against people with disabilities in public facilities.
While relatively newer transit systems in Washington and San Francisco are completely accessible, even older subway systems have significantly higher rates of accessibility: Boston’s rate is 74 percent, Philadelphia’s 68 percent and Chicago’s 67 percent, according to the court complaint.
New York City’s sprawling subway system never closes, and it has the highest number of stations of any city in the world. Beth DeFalco, an agency spokeswoman, said that the agency could not comment on litigation but that it was “committed to serving the needs of disabled customers.”
She said the agency was spending more than $1 billion to bring 25 more stations into compliance with the federal disabilities act and an additional $334 million to replace existing elevators and escalators in the coming years. The authority believes it would cost about $10 billion to bring the remainder of the system in line with the federal law.
Christopher A. Pangilinan, 34, a program director at a transportation foundation in Manhattan’s financial district who uses a wheelchair and is one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuits, commutes every day on the subway from his home in Downtown Brooklyn.
A lack of lifts affects both his work and personal life. He takes a different subway line uptown after work in order to catch another line back to Brooklyn to reach a station with an elevator for southbound commuters. He said he regularly cancels social engagements if he finds there is no viable way to travel to a station with a working elevator. And he has counted more than 200 elevator failures in the last two and a half years — about one for every eight trips he takes, he said.
“This is a city that truly I do feel disabled in,” Mr. Pangilinan said. “If everything was working 100 percent, and had elevators, my disability would be transparent. It wouldn’t limit me. But because of the lack of elevators, my disability really comes to the forefront in terms of what activities I can engage in, in the city. It’s tough psychologically to be reminded of that.”
The authority said that its elevators and escalators are not available 100 percent of the time because they have to be shut down periodically for maintenance.
The state lawsuit lists many local landmarks that require longer trips for people needing elevator access, including Columbia University’s main campus, Hunter College, Mount Sinai Beth Israel, Brooklyn Hospital Center, Citi Field, the New York Stock Exchange, the Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The lawsuits do not demand financial remedies, but instead seek better procedures to deal with elevator maintenance and a long-term plan to increase accessibility, Ms. Caiola said.
Disability Rights Advocates recently filed another lawsuit against New York State and the conservancy that runs the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, charging that some of the park’s features exclude disabled people. In 2013, it was one of a handful of groups that reached a settlement with the city to ensure that half of the city’s yellow cab fleet would eventually become wheelchair accessible.