Tackling the MTA’s accessibility problems

The largest public transit system in the nation believes Quemuel Arroyo can bring about much-needed improvements, but some advocates fear it will be business as usual.

Quemuel Arroyo is attracted by transportation’s ability to close social inequities. That is a big part of what led him down the path he has taken, he said on an April morning in Battery Park, now serving as the first chief accessibility officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“I honestly believe that transportation has the power to drastically enhance a community and individuals’ lives,” he said, wearing a mask declaring “New York Tough,” “or if not done the right way, really create barriers that preclude someone from living their best life.”

But the inequities he’s tasked with trying to overcome in New York’s transit system are enormous. That became clear as Arroyo, who uses a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury at 18, exited the park for a scheduled photo shoot in the nearby Bowling Green station: The one elevator at the station was out of service.

That occurrence is hardly a rarity in New York. While station elevators had overall availability of 96% in 2018, the advocacy group TransitCenter found that 84% of elevators reported at least a week’s worth of outages that year. That’s on top of the already dismal availability of elevators for people with disabilities, older adults and other New Yorkers. Just 25% of the 472 subway stations across the city have elevators. Arroyo said the closest subway station to his home in Harlem doesn’t have an elevator.

And there are plenty of other challenges for improving accessibility across the MTA. For one, the paratransit service offered to New Yorkers with disabilities, Access-A-Ride, is often called “Stress-A-Ride” by users because of its inconvenience. 

While the creation of a new top level position at the MTA dedicated to accessibility has been celebrated by advocates for people with disabilities, there is still lingering concern that the appointment won’t be enough to bring about big picture change. Some fear that Arroyo may not have enough power and influence within the MTA to bring a greater focus on accessibility. Some are worried that the position will be used as a public relations tool to make the MTA look as if it’s making progress while continuing business as usual. 

“The ultimate expression of that agency’s commitment to accessibility will be expressed through the budget. And that’s how we’re going to know if this has made a difference.” – Ben Fried, TransitCenter spokesperson

Given that Arroyo is still only about four months into the job, it remains to be seen if those concerns will be realized. For his own part, Arroyo is confident in his ability to bridge the gap between New Yorkers with disabilities and the MTA, despite a long, fraught history between the two. 

“I always say that my role is not to be where the buck ends, or to be the guy on accessibility,” Arroyo said. “I'm the guy who’s facilitating a conversation.”

Arroyo’s foray into transit and accessibility led him to the New York City Department of Transportation in 2014, where he’d go on to become chief accessibility specialist. “When I first met with (then-Commissioner) Polly Trottenberg, I said to her, ‘I don’t see people with disabilities in the website, in your brochures, and I don’t hear that as an agenda item,’” Arroyo said. “That was our first conversation and she said, ‘Huh, funny enough, that’s one of the first things I noticed too. What are you going to do about it, like what’s your plan?’”

During his five years at the city agency, the city built its first raised crosswalks which serve as speed bumps to slow drivers and allow older adults and people with disabilities to cross more easily. He also helped improve boarding on the Staten Island Ferry. “Most people don’t realize this, but tides change hourly, and if you are a person with a disability, your experience on and off a ferry could be quite different depending on the tide,” Arroyo said. The city went on to allow people to board ferries on the lower levels, which was previously prohibited for security reasons, to get around that barrier. 

Arroyo sees his role at the MTA as fairly similar to his role at the city Department of Transportation, except at a much, much larger scale. He’s tasked with bringing accessibility to the forefront throughout the MTA, which encompasses New York City Transit, the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North. “Weaving that narrative and that agenda throughout the entire organization is a pretty steep challenge because you’re dealing with very different organizations that have their own cultural identities, and now we're bringing them together, creating one identity,” he said.

The paratransit service offered to New Yorkers with disabilities, Access-A-Ride, is often called “Stress-A-Ride” by users because of its inconvenience.

The MTA has historically been resistant to make changes that improve accessibility. The United Spinal Association, then known as the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, was the first to take legal action against the MTA in 1979, arguing that the prevalence of inaccessible stations amounted to discrimination. The MTA argued in response that installing elevators in often old stations would be excessively expensive and difficult, and they would be used by few riders. But the lawsuit eventually led the transit authority to begin making improvements for passengers with disabilities. And with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, those measures to improve accessibility became mandated by law. 

Thirty years later, significant swathes of the city’s subway system continue to fall short of the law’s requirements. Logistical challenges make it difficult to install elevators in old stations in a century-old subway system, and the installations continue to be expensive. According to the MTA’s latest capital plan, the cost of building new elevators in the city’s subway system averaged $78 million per station, far more than similar projects in cities such as Boston and Paris.

Still, more efforts have been made in recent years to accelerate accessibility projects. Former New York City Transit President Andy Byford unveiled a plan in 2018 that aimed to make more stations accessible so that riders are never more than two stops away from a station with an elevator. He also hired Alex Elegudin to serve as senior adviser for systemwide accessibility, the first chief accessibility role at New York City Transit. Elegudin served as a predecessor to Arroyo. 

Most recently, the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan committed $5.5 billion to add elevators to 70 stations over five years. The COVID-19 pandemic and declining ridership devastated the MTA’s finances this past year, leaving those plans up in the air, though the MTA has continued some elevator installations throughout the past year. 

Advocates for people with disabilities are also concerned about how Access-A-Ride might be affected by financial woes related to the pandemic. The MTA has operated a popular pilot program to provide on-demand rides for $2.75 to about 1,200 Access-A-Ride users, which allowed passengers to bypass the inconvenience of scheduling rides a day in advance. The convenience has led users to take trips more frequently.

The MTA proposed doubling the number of program participants in 2019, but while also capping monthly rides to 16 per user and capping the ride subsidy to $15 per trip, with the rest of the cost being paid out of pocket. That’ll get people less than four miles, according to estimates. That proposal frustrated some New Yorkers with disabilities who said the on-demand service was a game-changer for them. “It would really not only hurt me personally but hurt my professional life if Access-A-Ride suddenly doesn’t work right or on-demand was suddenly gone,” said Eman Rimawi, an organizer at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest advocating to improve Access-A-Ride. “Because when I started at (New York Lawyers for the Public Interest) four years ago, on-demand wasn’t in place yet and I was taking traditional Access-A-Ride, and I was late the majority of the time.”

Those changes were put off because of the pandemic, and Arroyo emphasized the pilot program will continue until the health emergency ends. But some changes to the pilot program will likely be coming in the future. 

“We can never deliver it to every Access-A-Ride member out there, I mean we have over 160,000 people that are part of the Access-A-Ride community and eligible for those rides,” Arroyo said, adding that making mass transit as accessible as possible instead remained a bigger priority. He suggested, as MTA officials have in the past, that New York City pay up a greater share of its paratransit costs.

The MTA’s financial woes have improved in recent months, given that it has received more than $6 billion through the federal American Rescue Plan that has helped it stave off some of the worst-case scenario cuts discussed months before. But it remains uncertain how proposed capital projects will be affected even with the federal aid. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a report in April saying that the MTA will fall short of its $54 billion capital plan by about $2.9 billion because of outstanding debt. The MTA has contested that description, arguing that the billions in debt don’t need to be repaid until 2023 and that it’s too early to tell whether loans will be needed to carry out their plans.

“Tides change hourly, and if you are a person with a disability, your experience on and off a ferry could be quite different depending on the tide.” – Quemuel Arroyo

Frustration with the pace of change throughout the years has led many advocates for people with disabilities to see litigation as the most effective strategy to ensure progress. The MTA is currently embroiled in three lawsuits over its inaccessible subway system.

“The MTA has a history of leaving us at the altar,” said Susan Dooha, executive director Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York. Her organization is a lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit arguing the MTA is in violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York City Human Rights Law because its stations largely remain inaccessible. Ideally, she and other advocates want to see the MTA commit to an actual timeline for full, system-wide accessibility.

“The MTA should settle those lawsuits and then get down to the business of actually making the system accessible,” said Joe Rappaport, who heads the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, which is involved in the three lawsuits. 

Arroyo wouldn’t speak to the specifics of the lawsuits faced by the agency. “I am actively involved with all stakeholders on this in those conversations, ensuring that the disability experience is understood, that that disability community is heard … but really ensuring that my family, my new family at the MTA feels like they are not over-promising, they're not under-delivering, and then showing that they do provide the best possible plan to the litigants to our plaintiffs.”

This long existing tension between the MTA and riders with disabilities put Arroyo in a difficult spot. Most transit activists and advocates for New Yorkers with disabilities expressed praise for Arroyo and his intentions in the new chief accessibility officer role. But reforming a transportation system that has been slow to change may be difficult for one person alone to accomplish. Even with a senior-level position, it remains to be seen whether Arroyo will have the power and influence to actually change the MTA. Some are skeptical about what it means given the MTA’s checkered history. “It has seemed to me that the MTA has looked at its disability hires as people to push out the MTA’s messages to the disability community, in a kind of a PR effort,” Dooha said. 

Ben Fried, a spokesperson for TransitCenter, said: “The ultimate expression of that agency’s commitment to accessibility will be expressed through the budget. And that's how we're going to know if this has made a difference.”

Arroyo has laid out several priorities when it comes to accessibility initiatives. He joined other MTA officials in unveiling a new “Zoning for Accessibility” proposal this March, which would incentivize real estate developers to build and maintain elevators that are connected to their buildings at nearby stations outside of Manhattan. Similar collaborations with the private sector could be a good opportunity to circumvent the bureaucratic slowness of government.

“We need to start trusting the private sector to deliver the changes that we want to see happen in the public realm, and to do that we need to engage them and have conversations with them,” Arroyo said. Using technology is also a priority, such as providing real-time data for elevator and escalator outages and visually displayed announcements for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“Something that most people won’t say is that we share a lot of the goals that the advocates have, and that the public has, and we want those same enhancements that a lot of people shout and scream about,” he said. “However, we understand the resource constraints that we face.”

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