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Does NYC Transit leave disabled riders in the lurch?

August 6, 2007 

This story was reported by the staff of the Summer Journal and was written by Arielle Concilio, Oriana McGee and Jordie Ricigliano. 

NEW YORK—The Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched an online service Wednesday to inform riders about broken subway elevators, but a Summer Journal investigation found that the new system can still leave riders stranded.

A review of 13 elevator-equipped stations in four boroughs showed that some broken elevators were not listed on the MTA’s Web site or elevator hotline, leaving those who depend on elevators—the disabled, the elderly and passengers with strollers or heavy luggage—without the information they need to navigate the city.

While relatively few subway stations are accessible to the disabled—about 60 out of 468 stations—the obstacles for these riders are amplified by frequent elevator outages, the MTA and disabled rider advocates said.

As a result of two elevator breakdowns not included on the MTA’s telephone or online updates, Summer Journal reporters attempting to travel an accessible route from 42nd Street to 34th Street were forced to go north to 66th Street and then south as far as Brooklyn.

The MTA, which previously gave elevator breakdown reports only through a telephone hotline, began posting the information online Wednesday. That day, nine elevators breakdowns were reported on the Web site.

Summer Journal reporters began their trip at the Times Square station, where they found that the elevator serving the No. 7 and downtown No. 1, 2 and 3 lines was out of order. Instead, they traveled uptown to the next available elevator on the No. 1 line, at 66th Street/Lincoln Center, and switchedto a downtown train.

At 34th Street/Penn Station, they exited the train and encountered another broken elevator. Though an MTA crew was repairing the elevator, it still was not listed in the telephone or online updates.

For disabled riders, this elevator is the only means of getting off the platform. The reporters boarded a downtown train and continued until the next accessible station: Borough Hall, in Brooklyn.

The ride from Penn Station to Borough Hall, including a switch to an express train, took a total of 23 minutes.

“Subway elevators are lifelines,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Disabled Riders Coalition, who accompanied the reporters on the trip. “One broken elevator can send you into another county.”

MTA officials acknowledged that there are flaws in the elevator updates, and said that improving the update system is one of their top priorities.

“There’s just a little lag time with these things,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Sof fin told the Summer Journal, referring to the elevator outages not listed in alerts. “It’s our goal to make it as close to real-time as possible but I think people should understand that we’re just not there yet.”

The Summer Journal also observed that an elevator at 66th Street/Lincoln Center was out of order at 10 a.m. When reporters returned at 4:30 p.m., the elevator was working, but it was still listed as broken on both the telephone and online services. The next day, that elevator was still listed as broken.

The MTA currently updates its telephone and Web alerts three times per day, at 6 a.m., 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Later this year, the agency plans to post elevator outages as they occur, 24 hours per day. It also plans to post the reason for each breakdown and the expected date of repair, according to New York City Transit, which runs the city’s subways.

While Harris called the online alerts “a step in the right direction,” elevators break down too often, he said.

The problem peaked in January, when, for four days, elevator outages were reported in the double digits each day and reached a maximum of 25 broken elevators on one day, according to the Disabled Riders Coalition.

While some New York subway stations have had elevators for decades, the MTA began installing more of them after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The law protects the rights of people with disabilities by setting standards for public buildings and transportation systems, including elevators and ramps.

The New York subways currently have 158 elevators, of which 138 in 61 stations meet ADA standards, according to NYC Transit. Harris disputes those numbers, saying that only 57 stations are fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Soffin noted that installing elevators is not easy in a system as old and as busy as New York’s.

“We have a subway system that in many cases is more than 100 years old and so obviously is built for a different generation,” he said. “That creates a tricky and difficult situation, especially in New York, where it’s hard to start from scratch.”

The cost of renovating—as well as the fact that subways run 24 hours per day—contributes to the challenges of creating more accessible stations, Soffin said.

By 2020, the MTA plans to have 100 stations that meet ADA standards.

Asked why current elevators break down so often, Soffin said, “It’s something that we’ve been spending a lot of time with. And part of the answer is we simply can’t keep enough repair people on staff. Part of the problem is that some elevators are very old, and we simply don’t have the parts on hand.”

NYC Transit noted that it preemptively replaces parts that tend to fail more often.

The Summer Journal observed passengers struggling up and down stairs at stations across the city. At the Canal Street station on the A, C and E lines, Marie Turner, 42, walked slowly down the stairs with the aid of a cane.

“They should make an escalator,” said Turner, who usually travels by Paratransit, which picks her up at her home and delivers her directly to her destination. At the bottom of the stairs, she decided not to take the subway after all.

“Never mind!” she said, walking back up the stairs.

At the Borough Hall station in Brooklyn, Rebecca Kim, 30, waited for an elevator with her child in a stroller. “Where there are elevators, they work,” said Kim, a student at City University of New York. “But there aren’t many around.”

At the Times Square station, a little person pulling a cart pressed the button of the elevator that was not working and was not listed that day on any MTA alert.

An out-of-order sign was illuminated next to the elevator door, but no other details or contact information was listed. After waiting for a few minutes, Alex Sotomayor, 29, who is about 3 feet tall, gave up and walked away.

“There’s no one to complain to,” he said in Spanish.