A Lack of access, underground or above

| 28 Jul 2015 | 11:19

If you’ve been in New York for any length of time, the subway has likely been part of your daily routine at some point.

That’s not the case for Todd Kreisler.

Kreisler, 57, has been in a wheelchair his entire life and for him, navigating the subway system is more of a chore than a convenience.

“I use the subway about six times a year, basically,” the Upper East Side resident said. He said that, in general, he only uses the subway when he has to travel out of the borough.

And for good reason: Where he lives, the closest accessible subway station is a 15-minute bus ride away.

Earlier this year, blogger Matthew Ahn drew up and posted online a subway map that only included stops that were accessible to the disabled. Of the 490 stops around New York City, just 103 appeared on the map (including those on Staten Island).

Ahn has been infatuated with subway culture since he moved to New York from Cleveland. Earlier this year, he set a Guinness World Record when he traveled through every subway stop in the city within 22 hours. Over the course of his travels, he noticed a trend — the rarity of handicap accessibility.

After being posted online in early June, Ahn’s map went viral.

“Some people posted some really good insights,” he said. “They’re a whole subset of the population that we don’t think of as having mobility issues, like people who have trouble climbing up more than one flight of stairs.”

Most of the country’s major cities with subways don’t have this shortcoming. In Washington, D.C., all of the city’s metro stations are accessible via elevator. Chicago’s Metropolitan Rail Corporation lists 173 of its 241 stations as “accessible.” The Municipal Transportation Agency in San Francisco offers accessible boarding for wheelchair users at all stations.

But New York’s subway is almost 100 years old, which can present engineers with sometimes massive obstacles — both physical and financial — when the authority looks to ameliorate access for the disabled.

Still, Sid Wolinsky, the co-founder of Disability Rights Advocates, said New York is lagging when it comes to disability access, especially on a global scale. “In Seoul, which is a 1000-year-old city, every single subway stop in the far-flung subway system is completely wheelchair accessible,” he said. “New York should be ashamed of itself.”

According to the MTA, the relative lack of accessible stations is a matter of engineering limitations. Nonetheless, the MTA is working to increase the number of stations accessible to the disabled. According to the authority’s Capital Program Report for 2015-19, $561 million has been earmarked for accessibility. The plan includes the installation of elevators at several “key” stations, including Times Square-42nd Street and Chambers Street/Nassau in Manhattan. An additional $436 million has been earmarked to replace 46 elevators and 35 escalators.

By Kreisler’s account, the city’s progress with regard to accessibility for the disabled has been slow, but steady. “I’ve seen changes,” he said. “When I was young, I hated Manhattan because I couldn’t navigate it. Now it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better.”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Similar in design to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex and sexual orientation among other attributes, the ADA also included provisions to ensure that public structures would provide reasonable accommodations to disabled persons. This, naturally, included the subway system.

But Title II of the ADA includes the following clause: “public entities are not required to take actions that would result in undue financial and administrative burdens.”

Wolinsky, though, said that the city is taking advantage of this passage to dodge its responsibility. “There is no absolute requirement that older stations which are not now accessible be immediately made fully accessible,” he said.

But he said, there is a requirement that renovation projects at subway station include a 20 percent outlay to create access. “This is federal law,” Wolinsky said. “This has been largely ignored by New York for 20 years.”

Ahn, the blogger who composed the map, is more hopeful. “I do think that, MTA leadership really believes that this is something that needs to happen,” he says. “It’s just not clear that, with the priorities they have, that it’ll be anything other than just individual stations, one at a time.”

A spokesman for the MTA, Kevin Ortiz, said handicap accessibility is one of the agency’s top priorities, even if he says that full accessibility just isn’t feasible, at least for now.

“Given the configuration of certain stations and the age of the system, it is simply impossible or cost prohibitive to make every station accessible,” he said.

To his disappointment, Kreisler agrees with that assessment. “You’re never gonna see 100 percent accessibility in New York,” he says. “I’ll never see it in my lifetime, I’ll tell you that much.”

But although he’s resigned, Kreisler said he’s also reconciled.

“I would like the subways to be better, but, you know, they’re not, and I doubt they ever will be,” he said. “But you deal with what you have.”