BY MADELEINE THOMPSON
If Sue Susman were to take the subway from her Upper West Side residence to see her doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center on West 165th Street, she would have to take a downtown-bound 1 train at 96th Street, get off at 59th Street, and then transfer to an uptown A or C train. Susman, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, would have to plan her commutes around accessible subway stations, which are few system-wide and have unreliable elevators besides. She instead takes the bus or relies on her husband to drive her to her medical appointments.
A coalition of advocate organizations for the disabled hope to change that for Susman and tens of thousands of other New Yorkers. Citing what they say is the subway system’s pervasive inaccessibility, the organizations and several individuals last week filed class-action lawsuits against the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the city’s Transit Authority and the city in state and federal courts.
The first action, filed in state court, claims that the MTA’s failure to install elevators throughout the system is a violation of the New York City Human Rights Law. The second suit, filed in federal court, alleges the MTA of failing to maintain elevators where they do exist, which causes recurrent breakdowns.
“On average, there are approximately 25 elevator outages per day, with median outage lasting four hours and with many outages lasting for months at a time,” according to a summary of the case by the national nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates, a party to both suits. “Defendants further compound these issues by frequently failing to inform the public about outages, by not providing signage to describe alternate accommodations and/or accessible routes, and by not ensuring alternate transportation for people who cannot use the subway unless elevators are functional.”
In a statement, MTA spokesperson Beth DeFalco said the agency is committed to serving customers with disabilities. “That commitment continues to be evident in our current Capital Plan where we are spending more than $1 billion to increase the number of ADA-compliant subway stations and replace existing elevators and escalators,” she said. She did not elaborate, citing a policy not to comment on pending litigation.
Susman said she was thrilled to hear about the lawsuits. So was Fredda Rosen, executive director of Job Path, a group that supports people with disabilities by helping them find homes and jobs. “My first thought was, in a way, it’s about time,” Rosen said. “When we start working with someone who uses a wheelchair ... that really kind of limits the employment opportunities, because we know we’ve got to work around [the subway].”
Instead, Rosen’s staff often rely on buses and on Access-a-Ride, neither of which is an ideal solution, she said. Access-a-Ride requires passengers to call at least a day in advance to schedule a pick-up time, and has been plagued with complaints about long wait times. Rosen said the service has improved in recent years, but not sufficiently.
“We used to have someone on our staff who commuted on Access-a-Ride ... and it was more common than not that he’d be out in front of the building at 7 p.m. still waiting for his Access-a-Ride,” she said. A report by New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation and the Citizens Budget Commission last year found that Access-a-Ride is extremely cost inefficient. The report also estimated that making the entire subway system accessible could be done for less than $2 billion. The MTA, however, estimates the cost at $10 billion.
Disability Rights Advocates litigation director Michelle Caiola told The New York Times that the MTA has shown no interest in “any long-term plan to address the inaccessibility.” “We’ve talked to the MTA on multiple occasions,” she told the paper. Her organization was also involved in the 2013 lawsuit that resulted in a promise from the city to make half of all yellow cabs wheelchair accessible.
New York City’s more than 450 subway stations, most built before 1940, are the least accessible of the country’s 10 largest transit systems at 24 percent. According to The Times, comparably aged systems in Boston and Philadelphia have 74 percent and 68 percent accessibility, respectively.
During a recent trip to Portland, Ore., Susman was elated to find that all the city’s public transportation was accessible. “They have these trams going on tracks, and when it stops you press a button on the outside and a door opens and a ramp comes down, which is wonderful,” she said. Susman also mentioned visits to Lyon, France, and Boston as far more accommodating experiences. But, though it takes significant time and energy to visit her children in Brooklyn, among other trips, she would never leave the city. “My community is here,” the native New Yorker said.
In addition to increased accessibility in the subway system, Rosen hopes these lawsuits bring more attention to “disability rights as a civil rights issue, and [to] the issues around the full inclusion of people with disabilities in day-to-day life.” This, she said, is the greatest challenge disability advocates face.
An earlier version of this story indicated that Sue Susman takes a roundabout subway route to visit her doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. In fact, this is the route she would use if she didn't have access to alternative forms of transportation.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at email@example.com