Disabled in the Bronx? Good luck finding a subway station

“Access Denied” campaign presented 2,000 signatures to the MTA board on Sept. 16, demanding an elevator at the Mosholu Parkway Subway Station. (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

Monica Bartley’s days usually begin the night before.

The 60-year-old polio survivor has to schedule her transportation for the next day using Access-A-Ride, the handicap transportation service provided by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. She does not do this by choice, but because her options for public transportation are limited.

Monica has been utilizing a wheelchair since she was 15 years old.

A common frustration for many of the city’s 99,000 wheelchair users is the lack of subway station elevators, and spotty maintenance. A typical journey for her would mean first finding a station with an elevator. Then, after a long, difficult subway ride, she would arrive only to find that the elevator at her destination station is out of service.

An elevator at Harlem’s 125th Street Station is blocked off with a sign: “Down for Maintenance.” (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

“So then, I have to retrace my steps and go across the platform to the other side,” Bartley said. “I take the subway back to where I got on, and then take the bus instead.”

The New York City subway system opened in 1904 and completed in 1953 is one of the oldest and most comprehensive systems in the world. With 472 stations, it also has the largest number of stations in use compared to other major urban systems, including Chicago, Tokyo, and London.

However, handicap accessibility experts say the system has far fewer stations that disabled riders can use, compared to other major cities such as Chicago, where 70 percent of its stations are handicap accessible.

“New York City is really behind the curve,” said Susan Dooha, the executive director for the Center for the Independence of New York, a non-profit advocacy organization founded in 1978. “We are one of the least accessible cities in the country when it comes to accessibility in our subway stations.”

“We should be doing better,” Dooha said. “We need to be doing better.”

More than 70 percent of all New York’s subway stations are not properly accessible for one or more reasons to the 836,000 handicapped New York City residents, according to the Center for Independence of the Disabled in the City of New York.

In the Bronx, the problem is more acute than in any other borough. A full 83 percent of its subway stations discriminate against the disabled.  This means that if you are in a wheelchair or are unable to use the stairs or escalator, you can access only 17 percent of the subway stations in the Bronx, compared to 36 percent of stations in Manhattan.

The new MTA president has pledged to make it a priority to install elevators and make other renovations across the city’s stations in order to make them more accessible to the physically disabled, the blind, the deaf, and the mentally impaired.

But handicap advocacy groups argue that the plan has fuzzy deadlines and no tangible time table.

A handicap sign hangs in the Bronx’s 161st Street Station, one of the few stations in the borough that is accessible to the disabled. (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

Recently, advocates throughout the city have revived the campaign to make more stations accessible. In early August, advocates held a rally at the elevated Number 4 Line Mosholu Parkway Subway Station in the Bronx to demand an elevator. Speakers at the rally claimed that an elevator was needed because the surrounding area consisted of both hospitals and retirement homes.

“If you’re someone with a disability, a single step, can be an impediment to you getting from one place to another,” said Eric Dinowitz, Community Board Chair for the Aging in the Kingsbridge, Fieldston, and Riverdale area of the Bronx.

“The fact that there is no elevator here at this train station means there are people with disabilities who are unable to get to and from a doctor’s visit, businesses, a loved one,” Dinowitz said.

Dinowitz believes that the Mosholu Station is a priority because 10 percent of the residents in the surrounding area–around a thousand people–are unable to use the subway station. For these people, the 54 steps to the station platform above is an impossible climb to make.

Dinowitz, along with other community leaders, started a petition to present to the MTA board, requesting that an elevator be installed at Mosholu Parkway.

A woman with a cane slowly makes her way up the 54 stair climb to reach the Mosholu Parkway station platform. (Photo credit: Allen Devlin)

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, federal, state and local government institutions are required to protect disabled individuals from discrimination. New York City subway stops have not been compliant with the act since it was enacted.

“It is now 28 years after the passage of the ADA and we are still faced with defiance in getting our city and our state to implement law,” said Dooha, who has been on the front lines of the initiative for the last decade.

She believes that the MTA has dropped the ball in terms of improving New York City’s subway stations for better accessibility, which negatively affects the 2 million New Yorkers who live with at least one disability.

In January, the MTA hired Andy Byford as its new president. Byford immediately recognized the problem of accessibility in New York and listed it as one of his top priorities. Since taking office nine months ago, Byford has spoken to accessibility advocates across the city and has had many public appearances with the groups for the improvement initiative.

In June, Byford proposed an extensive investment plan titled “Fast Forward” that would, in theory, drastically improve accessibility to the city’s stations.

According to MTA.org, the plan would cost around $40 billion to implement. It relies heavily on outside funding. The MTA emphasizes that the plan will not only help those in a wheelchair or someone on crutches, but also “those who have vision or hearing loss, or are elderly and have trouble climbing stairs, or have a cognitive disability, or have a baby in a stroller, or any number of other challenges.”

A poster detailing Andy Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan is tacked to the wall at the 125th Street Station. (Photo Credit: Allen Devlin)

The plan includes training for all employees to prepare them for assisting the disabled, better communication, and an additional 50 fully accessible stations by 2023. The 50 stations will be spread out in a way so that subway riders are never more than two stops from a usable station. The MTA is aiming for full accessibility in New York City by 2033.

But, many of the disability advocacy groups who have voiced their disapproval of the lack of accessibility in New York City subway stations, claiming that the MTA is not following the law and discriminating against the disabled, including “Rise and Resist,” “Access Denied,” and the Center for the Independence of the Disabled in New York, are skeptical about the MTA’s ability to complete the plan in the schedule given and are unhappy with its unwillingness to commit to a concrete time table.

“We don’t want vague promises that X number of stations will be made accessible without any form of legal documentation backing that up,” said Dooha.

The main hang up for the MTA is where the $40 billion will come from. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio believes that the state should put a significant amount of money towards the project, while Gov. Cuomo has said that the project funding should be “50-50” between the state and the city. Byford is hoping the city and state governments will reach an agreement in terms of supplying funding, but a resolution has not yet been reached.

Bartley says it all sounds too familiar.

“We’ve heard it all before, where the MTA had a plan to make subway stations accessible, and we see stations being renovated, but elevators are not put in,” said Bartley, “I am hoping that they will honor their commitment to the Fast Forward plan. I am hoping that when this is all settled, we will have some firm agreement to the number of stations that will be made accessible, as well as a timeframe in which all of that will be done.”

“Funding is a key part of the project.” She added.

On September 26, the “Access Denied” campaign, an initiative created to combat the lack of accessibility in New York City subway stations, including Dinowitz and Bartley, presented 2,000 signatures from advocacy supporters in favor of improving the Mosholu Parkway Subway Station to the MTA board in downtown Manhattan. Dinowitz believes that transportation oversight is lacking and that city, state, and federal assistance is crucial to improve subway stations, but he does not think that pointing fingers is the right thing to do.

“For six weeks, the Northwest Bronx has made their voice clear: They want an elevator at Mosholu Parkway,” said Dinowitz after the board meeting concluded. “From residential neighbors, to local businesses, to both hospitals in our community we stand together in this simple request. Our community has waited long enough for full access to our city.”

Bartley believes that the Mosholu Parkway station would be a step in the right direction, but the process of making New York City’s subways accessible for everyone is not over.

“I wish I could really just [travel] independently,” said Bartley, ” I wish I could just go about my business like other New Yorkers.”

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