Just after midnight on a Sunday in June, 60-year-old Monica Bartley and 55-year-old Geraldine Brown found themselves stranded at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. Both women use wheelchairs, and the accessible bus they depend on to take them home to Brooklyn had long stopped running. They called Access-A-Ride, New York City’s paratransit service, and were told they would not be able to schedule a ride until the following morning. Without an accessible subway station, and after failed attempts to hail an accessible taxi, the pair resolved to wheel themselves over the bridge. Brown, in a manual chair, hung on to the arm of her friend’s electric scooter.
It took an hour for the pair to cross the bridge.
This scenario is all too familiar to Bartley, who became disabled after suffering from polio as a child. “The most difficult thing for me with New York City transportation is getting an accessible ride when you need it," she said.
July marks the 25 anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act, the first legislation in the U.S. to protect the civil rights of people with physical and cognitive disabilities. Across the country, the ADA has improved the equality of hiring practices and introduced architectural and transportation standards that ensure access for the disabled. But while cities such as Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and Seattle boast newer public transportation systems built in compliance with the ADA, the state of public transportation in many older American cities leaves a lot to be desired. For Bartley and the 535,839 other New Yorkers living with an ambulatory disability, navigating the city’s transportation system is beyond daunting.
“I have to be prepared for an obstacle course when I decide to travel through public transportation,” said 31-year-old Lisa Rivera, who was born with cerebral palsy and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2011.
In a city where 56 percent of residents use public transportation to get to and from work, ensuring the disabled community can navigate the city efficiently and independently is crucial to their success in the workplace. As of 2011, the employment gap between disabled New Yorkers and their able-bodied counterparts was 41.3 percent, almost two points higher than the national employment gap. Many advocates attribute this disparity -- and the high rate of poverty among the disabled -- to the city’s inaccessible infrastructure.
“Inaccessibility is a symptom of discrimination against people with disabilities,” said James Weisman, executive vice president and general counsel of the United Spinal Association. “The single greatest obstacle is attitude -– underestimating the potential of people with disabilities.”
Currently, just 85 of New York City's 468 subway stations -– fewer than 20 percent –- are accessible, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. A 1979 lawsuit mandates that 100 stations be retrofitted to include elevators by 2020, but that will still amount to less than a quarter of all stations.
“Given the configuration of certain stations and the age of the system, it is simply impossible or cost prohibitive to make every station accessible,” said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “Focusing on the key stations allows us to focus precious resources on stations that will have the most impact –- stations with higher ridership and/or that serve as key transfer points.”
Frequent mechanical problems with elevators exacerbates an already abysmal situation, and often, wheelchair users have difficulty boarding the subway car designated for the disabled because of unleveled gaps between the platform and the train.
“Taking trains is very intimidating,” said Rivera. “Doors close quickly, and if there’s not a dispatcher paying attention, you can really get hurt.”
Technically, every one of the city's 5,700 buses is wheelchair accessible, but disabled passengers say reality demonstrates otherwise. Wheelchair users are supposed to be priority passengers, but Rivera said she often encounters drivers who claim they don’t have the key to operate the ramp, or refuse to operate it manually citing back problems. Many drivers have told her there is no room for her on a crowded bus, she said, and she frequently has to wait for two or three buses to pass before a driver will accommodate her electric chair.
New York City’s crumbling infrastructure poses further obstacles to those traveling in a wheelchair. In 2014, the Center For Independence of the Disabled, New York, conducted a survey of curb cuts -– the gradual slopes that bridge the street and the sidewalk -– in Manhattan’s downtown area. Out of 1,066 curb cuts surveyed south of 14 Street, 806 were deemed inaccessible. These curbs were characterized by crumbling concrete, potholes, barriers, incorrect slopes, or no cut at all.
“You have streets that are so inaccessible it’s hard to even grasp how bad it is,” said 26-year-old Dustin Jones, who lost part of his left foot in a surgical accident in 2011. “I never even noticed it until I was in a wheelchair myself.”
“Sometimes I can’t go up to the sidewalk...I have to take the risk of getting hit [by a car on the street] because there’s no other way I can get across,” he added.
All of these obstacles cause the disabled community to be increasingly dependent on Access-A-Ride, the door-to-door vehicle service that costs them $2.75 per ride and must be requested 24 to 48 hours in advance.
“Nobody can travel on 24 hours' notice and be socially viable or economically viable,” said Weisman. “You can’t come in to work early, you can’t stay late.”
Access-A-Ride is also notoriously inefficient. “I think they’re more late than on time,” added Bartley, “so one experiences quite a bit of anxiety when you're traveling.”
Access-A-Ride costs the MTA $465,390,000 each year, or $66 a ride – requiring a major subsidization Weisman believes could be avoided if more subway stations became accessible.
Meanwhile, the ability to spontaneously hail a taxi is an everyday benefit of New York City living that the disabled community doesn't enjoy. In comparison to competing international hubs like London, where the city’s taxi fleet has been 100 percent wheelchair accessible since 1989, only four percent of New York’s yellow cabs are currently accessible, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Accessible vehicles are mandated to comprise at least half of the city’s fleet by 2020, according to a settlement reached last February, and the TLC’s public affairs office said the agency is on-track and on-schedule to fulfill the agreement. But some members of the disabled community feel even this victory is threatened by the rise of transportation network companies like Uber.
Weisman, who has kept a wary eye on the slow integration of accessible vehicles, claims that 70 percent of the accessible taxicabs have not been sold to drivers because Uber's presence has brought down the value of medallions, the licenses required to operate yellow cabs in New York. He argues that Uber, a multi-billion-dollar app-based startup making major inroads in New York City, is attempting to replace the city's taxi network without ensuring accessibility for the disabled.
“Uber has not provided any accessible vehicles in any city,” he pointed out. “They’re leaving people with disabilities behind, and we can’t afford to let that happen. We can’t let them institutionalize a new inaccessible transportation system.”
Uber has continually defended its commitment to accessibility, citing its UberWAV service that allows users in outer boroughs and above 96th Street in Manhattan to hail existing accessible TLC taxis with an average pickup time of five minutes.
For Weisman, it's not enough. "Their business model is to close down the [city’s] taxis and to replace them,” he argued. “Telling us you’re going to hook us up with the thing you’re trying to destroy is not a great benefit.”
Uber denies that there is an inherent contradiction in sourcing accessible vehicles from the city's established fleet of yellow cabs. "By partnering with [outer borough taxi drivers], we are connecting them with riders both in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan as well as those in need of an accessible vehicle,” said Matt Wing, Uber’s Northeast communication lead. “This is fueling their business writ large and helping them connect to more fares no matter what part of the city they are in.”
There's a major catch to UberWAV, however. Outer borough cabs are permitted to transport riders into Manhattan, but can't pick up passengers south of 96th Street. So while a wheelchair user in Brooklyn can use WAV to travel to a job on Wall Street or a meeting in Midtown, for example, they can't use the service to return home.
Josh Mohrer, Uber’s general manager in New York, said Uber may extend its WAV service to all of Manhattan, though no date has been given. He said he's also looking for an economically viable accessible vehicle that Uber could introduce into its standard UberX service.
“I’m committed to having a wheelchair accessible option on Uber X … I’m actively searching for an [accessible] car that will make economic sense for the driver partner who wants to buy one, realizing that the majority of their trips will not be wheelchair trips,” he said.
Ensuring accessibility in New York City’s vehicle transportation system is crucial, but it is only part of a solution. Neither Uber nor taxis offer an economically viable mode of transportation for much of the disabled community.
According to Susan Dooha, the Center for the Disabled's executive director, nearly 40 percent of people with disabilities are living in poverty on a long term basis. And while the last 25 years have seen enormous strides for the community, the state of New York City’s infrastructure and transportation system is clearly inadequate.
"The taxi system in and of itself can’t be the total answer," she said. "We also shouldn’t let the public sector off the hook. The answer must be making public transportation really serve the public… Our subway system does not do that.”
Dooha recalls the protests of the 1980s in which activists strapped themselves to the fronts of buses to lobby for an accessible fleet. “Nothing that we’ve achieved over the last 25 years has been without a struggle,” she said.
Animation and Graphics by Evan Lockhart
Music by Little Sur