On a recent Monday afternoon, sitting in a wheelchair at the top of Carroll Street’s subway station, Justin Pines, 31, needed his brothers help to roll him backwards down the steps so he could catch the F train. He then traveled to 34th Street, the closest stop with an accessible elevator to his destination, the Ace Hotel, on 29th street.
For Pines, a former New Yorker, and other disabled people, navigating the subway system takes planning and reliance on others. Pines, visiting from Denver, had left New York after five years in 2016 when a skiing accident paralyzed him. He uprooted life to Denver where public transit provides full accessibility to wheelchair users and street layout is far more wheel chair friendly.
He still visits the city for work every six to eight weeks, and says Uber or Lyft are his preferred methods of travel. When he does take the subway, he maps out his commute by double-checking accessible stations and then MTA’s website to confirm elevators are working.
“I usually try to travel with someone in the case we need to call an audible and pull me up some stairs,” said Pines.
That lack of accessibility and unreliable elevators has resulted in two class action lawsuits that charge the MTA violates the city’s human rights law by not adding more accessibility.
In one suit, plaintiffs pointed to the lack of elevators in over 350 stations. In the other suit, plaintiffs detail unreliable elevators and lifts at stations that were supposed to be accessible, according to Rebecca Rogers, a representative and staff attorney from the Disability Rights Advocates.
Since 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, New York City renovated 100 stations with elevator lifts, said Rogers. This still leaves out roughly 75 percent of the 472 stations that fail to meet the ADA’s requirements.
“The MTA may believe that 100 stations are enough but it’s not, and they have no plan to do more,” said Rogers.
To renovate and satisfy the Federal Disabilities Act would cost an upwards of $1 billion to update 25 more stations, and an additional $334 million on replacing existing elevators and escalators, MTA spokeswoman Beth Defalco told The New York Times.
The MTA is expected to answer complaints on July 7, and settlements are currently being negotiated in the cases concerning inaccessible elevators, Rogers said.
Rogers admits that to make the entire subway system accessible it would probably take decades. “Even if it does take decades, as long as there is a plan that we can work with that is the biggest concern,” said Rogers.
So for now—and likely a long time to come—the lack of accessibility leaves disabled people to work out their own methods of getting around using the subway.
“New York is definitely not welcoming to the disabled community,” said Georgiana Burnside, a friend of Pines and an Arkansas native, after a recent visit.
Because Burnside’s spinal cord injury requires her to use leg braces and walking sticks, every subway ride involved worrying about tasks most people consider mindless. Whether carefully stepping down the stairs in fear of stalling people behind her or trying to walk through the turnstile fast enough, her every step was led by intimidation.
Although her physical abilities have steadily progressed since her 2015 skiing accident, she still finds herself at a setback when it comes to public transportation, whether having to ask someone to give up their seat on the subway or waiting in a stalled station elevator that reeks of urine.
“It’s quite troubling to be the minority that is never heard,” said Burnside.
She finds New York a paradox because although it is accepting of so many different ideas and people, the city excludes the disabled. Despite her frustration with the lack of accessibility, she said it motivates her to keep moving.
“The handicap community is a group of overcomers,” said Burnside. “We overcome loss everyday… but our response to these setbacks is what makes the community strong and inspiring. We overcome.”