Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Subways Are Not For Everyone

Frieda Zames, who uses a motorized scooter because of a bout with polio, was fed up with trying to ride city buses.

Most city buses did not have wheelchair lifts - and the ones that did were routinely broken - and so Zames and other activists sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Zames and a friend also organized a protest, parking themselves in front of an M14 bus on the corner of Third Street and Avenue A, refusing to let it move.

At the time, public officials scoffed at such protests as little more than a nuisance. The mayor said it would be cheaper to buy every disabled person a limousine than to make city buses handicap accessible. One transportation official called federal legislation on the issue "a cruel hoax."

That was 20 years ago. Today, all 4,457 of the MTA-operated buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts that are used 800,000 times a year by most of the 51,000 New Yorkers who are in wheelchairs.

"The bus system, at least in Manhattan, works quite well," said Zames, who is now 70 years old.

The buses are the one success story in what advocates for the disabled see as a major local civil rights issue – the right to get around.

"What we're talking about here is giving people with disabilities the same kind of options that everybody else has," said Terence Moakley of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.

Appropriate transportation for the hundreds of thousands of mobility-impaired New Yorkers is not just a right, it is the law. (See Gotham Gazette article from 2000, "A Decade of Disability Rights"). But 13 years after the passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, advocates see one failure after another:

  • Fewer than eight percent of the subway stations in the city are fully handicap-accessible
  • The "Access-A-Ride" van service — which offers 24 hour, door-to-door service to those who cannot ride subways and buses — is plagued by poor service, mismanagement, and safety violations
  • The city has no yellow taxicabs for passengers in wheelchairs
  • There are 61,000 sidewalk curbs that people in wheelchairs cannot cross that were supposed to be fixed by 1994.
  • Some ramps to water ferries are not handicap accessible.

The city says it is complying with federal requirements as quickly as it can, given the size of New York and the age of the transportation system — the last subway line was built over 60 years ago.

And if no public officials make comments as snide as Mayor Ed Koch did about the cost of accessible buses, it is just a fact that costs are very high to provide adequate transportation for the disabled. It costs $260 million to operate Access-A-Ride vans, an increase of 650 percent from eight years ago. And each new MTA bus with a low floor and a wheelchair ramp costs $331,000.The middle of a budget crisis is not the time, the cost-conscious say, to start focusing on an issue already long ignored.

But, the disabled ask, when is a good time?


New York City lags behind other large cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington D.C. when it comes to making public transportation fully accessible to its 1.8 million people with disabilities, 220,000 of whom use wheelchairs, crutches, braces, or some other mobility device to get around.

"In order to compare New York City to other cities, you first must recognize the scale," said Frank Bowe, a professor at Hofstra University and former director of the American Council of Citizens with Disabilities. "New York City is by orders of magnitude larger and more complex in its transportation systems than others."

The first major law requiring the city to modify its public transportation came in 1973, with the enactment of the federal Rehabilitation Act which prohibited unfair treatment of disabled individuals in programs or activities that receive government funds, including public transportation.

It was not until 1990, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that the law explicitly prohibited all discrimination against people with disabilities and required all forms of public transportation to be accessible or that a comparable option be offered.

However, the city complies, said Bowe, only when pushed to by formal complaints.


In the last two decades, the MTA has made improvements to subway stations to accommodate more passengers.

The agency has added elevators and ramps to some subway stations, posted large print or Braille signs for the blind, installed platform-edge warning strips, and provided text-messaging pay phones for the hearing impaired. All Metrocard machines can give both text and audible instructions. And the MTA even offers training courses for riders who are blind or visually impaired so they can learn to better navigate the subway system.

However, for many New Yorkers the subway is still not an option.

Of the city's 468 subway stations, only 36 are wheelchair accessible and many of those have problems.

Alexander Wood, who uses a wheelchair, recently got off at the 125th Street station to find that the elevator was broken. Wood, who was on his way to a business appointment, was stranded. He couldn't get to the street or even to another subway platform. He had no other choice but to call for help.

"The police sent down four lady cops, and they see this man who's 6 foot tall, 200 pounds, with 50 pounds of gear in a wheelchair, and they're like, 'What are we going to do now?'" said Wood, who heads up Disabilities Network of New York City. "Finally some of their colleagues came along and it worked out fine."

At other stations, passengers can only use one side of the platform. For example, at the Cortlandt Street station in lower Manhattan, there are elevators on the downtown side, but not the uptown tracks. And many subway stations also have wide gaps between the platform and the train, making it difficult for less mobile people to board.

"I am so afraid of those gaps between the platform and the train - being dragged or something - that I just don't use the subway," said Frieda Zames.

The MTA has plans to modify another 64 stations by the year 2020, which would create a total of 100 accessible stations. The renovations will cost an estimated $530 million.


One night last fall, Alice Crespo, who is blind, was trying to get from a friend's house in Brooklyn to her home in Queens. Like many New Yorkers with a disability, Kreslow's primary form of transportation is Access-A-Ride, the city's 24-a-day van service for those unable to use buses and subways.

Crespo called and the van came to pick her up. However, when she went to get in the van, the driver told her that he would not take her where she wanted to go because it would make him late for his next scheduled pickup. He suggested he drop her off at a subway station and so could take a train home. Crespo refused; the driver told her to hail a cab.

"It's not like I can just see one on the street and get it, " said Crespo. "I'm totally blind."

After 20 minutes, the van driver relented and took her home.

According to testimony at a recent City Council hearing, such experiences are common for passengers who use Access-A-Ride services.

Customers complain of late pick-ups or vans that never show up, and of drivers unfamiliar with New York City streets who have been known to take passengers on grueling, roundabout trips. Some even refer to it as "A Stress-A-Ride."

A series of recent articles in the Daily News have tracked the Access-A-Ride problems, including 619 accidents involving injuries and major damage in the last year. The problem, critics say, is a decentralized system that uses ten private companies that do not have adequate oversight and have little incentive to improve service. Only two of the companies passed their most recent safety inspection.

"Right now the Access-A-Ride program is so inefficient that it is committing a violation of human rights against the same people it is supposed to be serving," said City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who joined in a lawsuit against the van providers.

At a recent hearing, Howard Ende of MTA New York City Transit spoke in defense of the service, stating that the organization's complaint rate was only 8 per 1,000 riders. He added that Access-A-Ride is scheduled to receive 500 new buses by 2003.

New York City's paratransit service, which receives requests for 200,000 rides a month, is also the most expensive service of its kind in the country, averaging $56 per trip.

In 1998, the total cost of Access-A-Ride was $41 million; in 2002, it cost $260 million, an increase of 600 percent in eight years.

Passengers pay $1.50, which only covers about three percent of the total cost. Since there are no state or federal funding for the program, the city pays for a about a quarter of the cost and the rest comes from the general operating funds of New York City Transit – which means fares and general subsides.


Last year, Stacy LaRoche was trying to hail a cab with "Lucky," a guide dog who helps LaRoche walk. Three separate taxis refused to pick her up. After an investigation by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the drivers admitted they did not stop for LaRoche because she had a dog; each was fined $200.

But for many people with disabilities in New York City, the issue is not whether a cab will pick them up, but whether they can get in at all.

Unlike 40 U.S. cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, New York does not have any wheelchair accessible taxis in its fleet of 12,287 yellow cabs. And there are only four wheelchair accessible, for-hire cars in the city.

Two years ago, it looked as if wheelchair accessible yellow cabs might become a reality when the Taxi and Limousine Commission proposed that all new yellow taxis purchased after July 2001 be accessible. The commission later rescinded the proposal, arguing that the poor economy, the financial fallout of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the cost of providing insurance for accessible vehicles were too high for the commission to overcome.

Whereas a standard yellow cab costs between $23,000 and $24,000, a new wheel-chair accessible yellow cab can cost as much as $40,000, not including vehicle insurance that runs up to $15,000 a year. Converting an existing livery van with a wheelchair lift costs about $7,000.

"It's a false hope to say that 50, 100, or 200 yellow cabs would really help the disabled community," said Taxi and Limousine Commission Chairman Matthew Daus at a City Council hearing last month. The commission now supports a plan to make more livery cabs handicap accessible, in part because their insurance is less costly than yellow cabs.


In many areas of the city simply crossing the street is impossible because sidewalk curbs are too high for many wheelchairs.

"It's very simple," said Robert Stulberg of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. "If you're in a wheelchair and you pull up to a corner that's not ramped, you literally cannot get to the other side of the street."

The Americans with Disabilities Act set a deadline of 1994 for all cities to comply with regulations that would cut curbs and replace them with sloped inclines at street corners. However, by that time, the city did not have a plan to fix the city's 12,750 miles of sidewalks.

The organization Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association sued and the Giuliani administration fought the case in court for eight years.

In September 2002, the case was settled by the Bloomberg administration, which agreed to spend $218 million with the aim of installing ramps on the remaining 61,000 curbed street corners by the year 2010.

The city's transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, said that the agreement reflects the city's commitment to making street corners accessible "expeditiously" in a "fiscally prudent and sound manner."

However, the city is already behind schedule in meeting its goal of fixing all city sidewalks by 2010, completing just half of what should have been accomplished so far.


Although improving existing forms of transportation can be an expensive and slow process, advocates have hope for the future, in particular for water ferries.

The majority of New York Waterways ferries are wheelchair accessible, however, 13 ferries that were added after September 11, 2001 to provide increased boat service to lower Manhattan are not. All of the New York City Water Taxis, the newest ferry service in the city, comply fully with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

However, many of the city-owned docks do not have wheel-chair accessible ramps.

Recently a bill was introduced into the New York City Council, that would require all water transportation and ramps to ferries to be wheel chair accessible. Advocates are encouraged by the support the legislation has in the City Council, where 47 of the 51 members have signed on as sponsors and hearings on the legislation are underway.

Activists are also looking ahead ensure that future development projects like the 2nd Avenue subway, plans to make transportation an essential aspect of the plan to host the 2012 Olympics, and a new transportation hub in lower Manhattan are open to all New Yorkers.

Many remember the former World Trade Center station as being dependably accessible, part of the Manhattan subway route riders with disabilities could count on and are already lobbying planners and elected officials.

"It's a hub, there's going to connections to lots of trains, and we want to be able to get on all of them," said Jean Ryan of Disabled in Action.



• Disabled in Action
• Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association
• Access-a-Ride Demands from Disabled in Action
• Disabilities Network of New York City

• New York State Office of Advocate for Persons with Disabilities
• Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities
• Accessible Subway Stations in New York City
• The MTA's Guide to Access-a-Ride
• City Council Committee on Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, and Disability Services
• New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission
• New York City Commission on Human Rights

• The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
• Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
• The Americans with Disabilities Act



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