The MTA’s Key Station Plan for subway accessibility

This is an expansion of an earlier post explaining my inspiration for this project.

Citi Bike finally arrived on Memorial Day. More than 38,000 (and rapidly growing) annual members and an untold number of visitors now find swaths of lower Manhattan and northern Brooklyn within much closer reach.

But for the city’s disabled, the options for getting around appear static for the foreseeable future. Of the nearly 500 stations in the New York City subway and the Staten Island Railway, only 99 can be used by wheelchairs, with 19 more conversions planned through the end of 2020.

The 4/5/6 are inaccessible at Union Square - but there's a good reason for that.

The 4/5/6 are inaccessible at high-volume Union Square – but there’s a good reason for that.

The stations were chosen as part of the Key Station Plan, which New York City Transit put in place in 1994 to prioritize conversions in the nearly-century-old system. According to Sam Forde, an analyst in the NYCT Office of ADA Compliance, NYCT graded every station on five categories: ridership level, transfer between lines, transfer between different modes of travel, proximity to major activity centers, and whether it was at the end of a line. Key Stations “are the ones that met most of the criteria, and the disability community supported” to be converted, said Forde.

After selecting candidates, the Compliance team reviewed them to see whether installation of elevators was possible. They deemed infeasible several high-volume stations, including the Lexington Avenue Line at Union Square and Broadway Junction. (The 4/5/6 at Union Square is on a curve, making it impossible for the edge to comply with ADA specifications; Broadway Junction’s various lines are too far apart, and platform clearance is insufficient.)

Costs for conversion vary widely, but Forde was unable to confirm hard numbers. “It depends on so many different things,” he said. “Configuration: where exactly it comes out on the street level. We might have to purchase property. You don’t know what utilities you’re going to run into. There are so many variables.”

The federal government funds these conversions. But money is scarce: NYCT had to cancel a training program for disabled users due to personnel issues, said Forde. The eleven-member Compliance team has not begun thinking beyond 2020. (Much of that will depend on what money is available, which won’t be known until the end of this decade.)

"Rumble strips" along the platform edge are required by ADA.

“Rumble strips” along the platform edge are required by ADA.

There are alternatives to subway transit, of course. All MTA buses are fully ADA-compliant [p. 124], and the MTA offers a door-to-door option for disabled persons, Access-A-Ride. But buses don’t always serve convenient routes, and many find the personal service unacceptable.

“[Access-A-Ride] is undependable if you have to arrive somewhere at a particular time,” said Arthur Krieck, 63, who is legally blind and uses a guide dog. “They often arrive late at your pick-up spot and you have no idea when you’ll arrive at your destination.” Krieck, like Jason DaSilva, refers to the service as “Stress-A-Ride”.

NYCT is working to ensure its customers with disabilities can use the rail system, but it faces perception issues. While elevator availability in subway stations increased to 97.7% in 2012 from 96.2% in 2011, only 76% of customers found the service satisfactory. (Imagine getting to your destination only to find the elevator out of order.) It also expanded the Access-A-Ride program to taxis – but only in Manhattan. “Our Paratransit Division is looking at ways to extend the service to the outer boroughs,” said MTA spokesperson Deirdre Parker.

It’s one thing to read that it’s tough for wheelchair-users to get around on the subway, but quite another see it visually. For that reason, I edited the Vignelli MTA map to show current accessibility and planned conversions.

Many of us take public transportation for granted, so imagine you were to wake up tomorrow disabled. Would the subway work for you? Or would you have to find an alternative? (Click to enlarge.)

April 2013 accessible stations New York City subway v5

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9 Responses to The MTA’s Key Station Plan for subway accessibility

  1. Thanks for this well-researched post. I’d only suggest replacing outdated terms like “handicapped” with “disabled” or even “people with disabilities”, and most would not consider themselves “wheelchair-bound”, but wheelchair users.

  2. Brian S. says:

    Keith, great post. I know it’s weird to post on something that’s 7 months old, and this actually references the first part of this posting from 8 months ago, but I figured I’d post in the spot that’s actually received comments.

    You stated that “They’re only required to make stations compliant with ADA when they renovate them.” This is a common misunderstanding.

    Actually, that only applies to the non-Key stations. The feds have required that the MTA make all its Key Stations accessible by 2020. (Theoretically, they could keep key stations in dilapidated shape, but yet still have to make them accessible). The same applies to other operators of legacy urban rail systems in places like Boston, Philly, Cleveland, and Chicago, although the deadline year set by the feds varies depending on the system in question.

  3. Brian S. says:

    Wanted to add a few things I probably should have included in my above post from 3 months ago:

    1st, regarding renovation of non-key stations on any system, just to clarify, at least 20 percent of the budget must go toward ADA compliance, unless less than 20 percent of the budget brings a station into full compliance

    So if a transit agency uses 20 percent of its budget in the renovation of a station, and the station still isn’t ADA-compliant, it is under this circumstance that a station can be completely renovated yet not be made ADA compliant. Key stations, on the other hand, need to be made fully compliant even if no renovation occurs.

    Generally a complete station rebuild requires full ADA compliance, due to the high cost of such renovations raising the value of 20 percent of the full cost to the point where full accessibility cannot be legally avoided.

    It is my understanding that a large number of elevated stations in the outer boroughs of NYC have been completely rebuilt using federal funds, yet have not been made fully ADA compliant. I’d have to see the budgets for these projects to know for sure, but these are likely gross ADA violations on the part of the MTA and may cost the MTA dearly in the future in the form of lawsuits.

    Age isn’t so much an issue for bringing the subway into compliance, as much as it is whether a station is underground or on an elevated structure. Installing elevators at elevated stations doesn’t require the excavation of elevator shafts that would be required on underground stations. For example, the oldest line of the Chicago ‘L’, the Green Line, predominantly runs on an elevated structure dating from 1892-1895. Yet despite its age, nearly all its stations of a pre-1900 vintage are ADA accessible. There’s no reason that the MTA can’t do the same on similar stations.

    2nd, regarding the curve at 14 St-Union Square on the Lexington Ave line, I don’t see how the platform edge is impossible to be made ADA compliant, seeing what I see in the video below seems to solve that problem Maybe I’m wrong though:

    Seems like a pathetic copout on the part of the MTA to avoid provision of access at a major transfer point on the US’s busiest subway line, as well as other stations with curved platforms.

    The issue of distance between individual stations at the Broadway Junction complex has no bearing on whether they should be made compliant, so I have no idea how they got to use that as a reason to leave it off the key station list.

    3rd, of the access problems you cite at stations south of Houston Street, note that in a couple months, the 6 stations that comprise the soon-to-open Fulton Center complex will be fully accessible. It appears that 3 of these 6 stations are not on your above map in any format, see the link for further info.

    Although it will leave the system far from perfect, the ability to have fully accessible transfers between 11 different lines appears to be a game changer for system accessibility, especially given the present dearth of accessible stations in Lower Manhattan.

  4. Nathanael says:

    I know I’m commenting on a very old post, but I’d like to:
    (a) thank you for your post
    (b) thank Brian for his comments
    (c) link you to this, which has the key stations list:

    …and comment. NYC has really been behaving quite badly; Brian noted the rebuild of elevated stations in Brooklyn without adding accessibility (probably illegal). But then this is the city which still doesn’t have accessible cabs (London’s cabs have been 100% accessible since, IIRC, 1991.)

    Chicago has done all its “key stations” and is now working on making the system 100% accessible. Boston is working on its last “key station” (the very difficult Government Center) and is also working on making the system 100% accessible — and they’re installing *redundant* elevators in key stations in case some of the elevators break. Philadelphia has done far more stations than its key stations (redoing a dozen at a time during elevated line rebuilds) and is now working on some of the most expensive and complicated stations which aren’t “key stations” (such as City Hall). Even the commuter rail lines around the country (which often started out with bare asphalt patches to board from) have finished their “key stations”, and most of them are now planning universal accessibility (with Metro-North and LIRR being embarassing exceptions).

    Meanwhile, NYC is still trying to evade the law, and the MTA had to be sued to put access in at Dyckman St. when it was being reconstructed. What the hell, NYC?

    The main idea of the ADA requirements was that stations would become accessible incrementally as they were rebuilt, eventually leading to 100% accessibility. The “key station” requirement was inserted to make sure that a basic bare-bones network of important transfer stations was prioritized. Every other city seems to understand this and is working towards 100%; indeed, London in the UK has said outright that accessible stations benefit everyone, disabled or not. NYC still seems to want to avoid spending money accessibility whenever possible. I don’t get it.

  5. Interesting blog (thanks) but there are two areas where I have not been able to find anything. First, elevator access is one wheelchair issue but how can the wheelchair get through the turnstile into the actual transit area? (There are gates but shouldn’t there be some sort of swipe card to allow for “self-service”?) Second, theose who are hearing impaired, why not have screens in the subway cars showing sign language as to coming to a station or what station is next. Those lights are fine but maybe not enough to help.

    • Keith Williams says:

      Thanks, Vince! To answer your questions:

      1. Wheelchairs can get in through the emergency doors, which can be opened remotely by station staff.

      2. The stations themselves are fairly well marked (at the very least, one sign every two columns) and should be visible from the cars. Many lines also have in-car displays with text, although several (B, C, D, G, 3 come to mind) do not.

      • Generally, wheelchair users use the AutoGate MetroCard to get through the doors in accessible stations.

        AutoGate is an automatic entry/exit gate that allows customers who have ambulatory disabilities, are accompanied by a service animal, or use wheelchairs to enter and exit the subway system. AutoGate units are available in many accessible subway stations in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

  6. Pingback: 25 Years Later, NYC Has a Long Way to Go on Accessibility | Mobilizing the Region

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