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For Disabled Subway Riders, the Biggest Challenge Can Be Getting to the Train

NEW YORK — “We’re cutting it a little close,” Gabriela Amari said as the F train sat in the Carroll Street station in Brooklyn, its doors open, waiting for a train up ahead to move. She was going to the stop after next.

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James Barron
, New York Times

NEW YORK — “We’re cutting it a little close,” Gabriela Amari said as the F train sat in the Carroll Street station in Brooklyn, its doors open, waiting for a train up ahead to move. She was going to the stop after next.

Amari was 50 minutes into her hourlong commute, a trip of only seven stops — not quite 4 miles — that always begins with a detour. Instead of a short walk to the Fort Hamilton Parkway station, the one nearest her apartment, she must head in the other direction, take a bus to the next station down the F line and then double back.

She does that because she cannot walk to the train at Fort Hamilton Parkway. She cannot walk.

Amari, 57, suffered a spinal cord injury when she was 35 and gets around in a motorized wheelchair. The Fort Hamilton Parkway station is one of 354 in New York City that lack elevators for people in wheelchairs — or parents with strollers, travelers with luggage or anyone else who cannot manage stairs.

Andy Byford, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new subway chief, has proposed a sweeping rescue plan for the failing system that focuses on core issues like modernizing the antediluvian signal system and adding new trains to the aging fleet. But he also made another ambitious promise: to add enough elevators by 2025 that no subway rider would be more than two stops from an accessible station. He also appointed a senior adviser for accessibility, a longtime advocate for disabled people who uses a wheelchair himself.

The plan is a tall order in a system where only about a quarter of the city’s 472 subway stations are wheelchair accessible, one of the lowest percentages of any major transit system in the world. That leaves long stretches of many subway lines off limits to wheelchair users. There are areas where the gap between stations with elevators exceeds 10 stops.

Then there is the question of whether the elevators that do exist are even working. One tally of elevator breakdowns found that, on average, each subway elevator breaks down 53 times a year. Many riders who rely on them make it a daily ritual to check apps and websites that track out-of-service elevators, but they say the sites can be slow to post updates.

And when the elevators do work, they are often tiny, foul-smelling and hard to find, positioned at the far ends of stations, forcing long wheelchair rides along narrow platforms.

Nor is building new elevators an easy task.

“New York is notoriously slow with construction in the subway, and elevators are extremely complicated to build in the tight space of a subway station,” said Sarah M. Kaufman, assistant director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. “Elevators also have not been prioritized, so when the MTA has funding, money is often diverted to new cars or signal improvements.”

A lawsuit against the transit agency, recently joined by the Justice Department, described New York’s subway system as one of the least accessible in the country. It said that all the stations in the Washington Metro and on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system are accessible to passengers in wheelchairs, as are 74 percent of the stations in Boston, 68 percent in Philadelphia and 67 percent in Chicago.

On the F and G lines in Brooklyn, seven stations lack elevators between the Jay Street MetroTech stop and Church Avenue, the station Amari must go to because the Fort Hamilton stop is inaccessible. No F line station south of Church Avenue is accessible until the end of the line at Stillwell Avenue, 12 stops later.

The picture is equally bleak on the R line, where 10 of the 11 stations between Atlantic Avenue Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn and the end of the line in Bay Ridge lack accommodations for wheelchairs.

On the D line, 10 stops between Barclays Center and the Bay Parkway station lack accessibility. The very end of the D line is one of the few places in the system that already meets Byford’s goal, with two stations that do not have elevators bracketed by two that do have them.

Other boroughs suffer as well. On the No. 6 line in the Bronx, only one of the 11 stations north of the Hunts Point Avenue station is accessible: the last one. On the No. 5, none of the five stations north of East 180th Street is.

“We all need to get to work,” said Amari, a supervisor at the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, a social services organization that is a party to lawsuits against the transit agency.

She complained that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio spent months feuding over whether the city should pay for half of the subway action plan unveiled a year ago. The governor finally forced the mayor to put up $418 million, but Amari worried that there would not be enough for the elevators.

To make good on the elevator no-more-than-two-stops-away pledge, the transit agency is planning to make 50 more stations accessible by 2025. That would likely mean installing dozens of elevators, because a common configuration is to have one elevator reaching from the street to the level with the token booth and turnstiles, and a separate elevator serving the platform where the trains come and go. Many stations would need two elevators to train platforms, one for each direction.

Alex Elegudin, the newly appointed official in charge of accessibility, acknowledged that there were sections of the system with long gaps for riders who cannot use stairs. But he said the agency’s outlook was changing under Byford, who, Elegudin noted, “says words like ‘full accessibility.'”

“The MTA has never said those kinds of things,” he said. “I think the attitude at the MTA for too long has been, ‘We’ll phase in accessibility slowly but surely, in incremental ways.’ That has changed. We need to do it fully and quickly and for everyone. That’s become the new conversation and the new standard we’ll be held to.”

The transit agency does not have a cost estimate for the elevator project and has not chosen the 50 stations that will receive them. Nor does it yet have the money. For now, Elegudin said he was looking for “quick wins by the end of the year” — changes that would include training transit workers on accessibility issues as well as forums to engage disabled people in a dialogue. “It’s a form of bringing them to the table,” he said.

He also said he intended to “provide better real-time information” about elevator and escalator problems. Poor elevator maintenance was spotlighted recently in a report from the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, whose office kept tabs on 65 elevators and escalators over 18 months and found that the transit agency did not do scheduled maintenance on nearly 80 percent of them. When scheduled maintenance was done, it was often completed late. The Comptroller’s office said the transit agency did not systematically monitor whether defects found in elevators and escalators were corrected.

Elegudin said the agency was reviewing its maintenance practices.

“The truth is, some of the elevators that were installed early on aren’t as reliable and don’t provide the diagnostics we need,” Elegudin said. “There is nothing worse than getting to a station and finding the elevator is not working.”

He said it had happened to him. “You’re literally stuck in our system,” he said.

The transit agency is facing three lawsuits about accessibility, one filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan and the others in federal court. (The center that Amari works for is a plaintiff in two of the cases.) A spokesman for the agency said it did not comment on litigation. Separately, he said that transit facilities built before the federal Americans With Disabilities Act took effect in the 1990s were generally grandfathered in.

Joe Rappaport, executive director at the center where Amari works, said the transit agency needed to be required to live up to Byford’s promises. “Andy Byford’s successor or the successor after that may not have the same commitment,” he said. For now, the challenges persist. April Coughlin, a transit advocate and college professor who uses a wheelchair, anticipated problems on a recent afternoon when she took the R train to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. Since early morning, the app on her cellphone had said the elevator at DeKalb Avenue was not working.

It wasn’t when she arrived around 3:15 p.m. The sign promised it would be fixed by 5 p.m. (someone had crossed out 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.). But Coughlin was due at Long Island University to teach a class that began at 4:30 p.m.

“How do I get to work?” she asked on the platform, deep underground with no way to get to the street. “The building is literally outside.”

Instead she got on the train again, riding to the next accessible stop at Atlantic Avenue. Once there, she found the elevator from the platform to the mezzanine, and then the two elevators to the street. The doors on one closed before she could roll in. She took the other when it came.

“Now we backtrack,” she said as she rolled down Flatbush Avenue to LIU and her class.

Amari, having backtracked at the beginning of her commute, rode to Jay Street MetroTech station, arriving at 10:57, three minutes before she was due at the office. Two elevator rides later, she was wheeling down Jay Street and, after crossing Fulton Street, arrived at her office on Smith Street. It was 11:06. She was six minutes late.

“Having elevators every two stops would be better than what we have now,” she said. “I’m tentatively hopeful with Byford. He comes from London, a city that’s accessible. Their subways are accessible, and the taxi fleet is 100 percent accessible. They get it.”

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