When living in New York City, public transportation is often the lifeblood to accomplishing everyday tasks. One of the most unique and popular forms of transportation is the subway, but what if just getting on and off the train was considered a successful day? In a New York Times op-ed piece, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn addresses just this. He accounts his struggles of navigating the outdated and broken down New York transit system.
Blair-Goldensohn began using a wheelchair after a tragic accident in Central Park, and he realized systems that once were benevolent to him now impeded him from living his life to the fullest. Routinely bombarded by broken elevators, he is forced to either extend his ride to the nearest accessible station or rely on the kindness of strangers to carry him and his wheelchair up the stairs.
“New York’s subway is by far the least wheelchair-friendly public transit system of any major American city, with only 92 of the system’s 425 stations accessible. That means fewer than one in four stations can be used by people in wheelchairs when elevators are working — and they frequently are not,” says Blair-Goldensohn.
In 2015, 17.5 percent of people age 16 and over with a disability were employed — compared to 65 percent, the employment-population ratio of those without a disability. With many New Yorkers depending on public transit to get around — including to commute to and from work — inaccessible transportation can make it even more challenging for people with disabilities to travel to work, creating another barrier for a population that is already at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a job.
“On average, 25 elevators a day stop working, and these breakdowns are not quickly resolved; their median duration is nearly four hours,” Blair-Goldensohn writes. “Moreover, with a single elevator serving both directions at most stops, a breakdown means that a disabled rider exiting the train will be trapped on the platform, and one hoping to board will have to find some other way to travel to where they need to go.”
For what is usually a progressive city, New York is lagging behind most other metropolitan areas in the U.S. For example, after a 2002 lawsuit, the city of Boston has made 48 of its 53 stations wheelchair accessible. For a population that experiences a heightened sense of vulnerability, this just adds to their disadvantage in leading a productive and fulfilling life.
People in cities across the country could benefit from similar action. An estimated 2.2 million Americans use a wheelchair, while about 6.5 million use a walker, a cane or crutches. And 15.2 million Americans have some kind of physical difficulty.
The general consensus is a narrative that if the government acts in ways that benefit solely one population, that the daily life of the rest of the citizens suffer. Yet, in a study by activist Angela Glover Blackwell titled “The Curb Effect,” a small step to help people with disabilities by cutting ramps into curbs actually helped the overall population. Mothers with strollers, deliverymen with dollies and travelers with heavy baggage all happily benefited from this small change in public service.
In the same way the methods in “The Curb Effect” helped everyone, an increase in working elevators in subway stations can benefit the whole. A working elevator can be a blessing not just to people in wheelchairs or with a physical difficulty, but also workers with heavy equipment, travelers, pregnant mothers, and cyclists can all benefit as well.
And for some, like Blair-Goldensohn, the necessity of equal access doesn’t strike until it has a personal effect. “I was once like many other able-bodied New Yorkers, only vaguely aware of subway elevators, merely noting that they seemed dingy and often out of service,” Blair-Goldensohn shared. “But now that I needed them, the reality was more stark.”