Public transit in Midtown West often a ‘nightmare’ for the disabled



Tamara Morgan (bottom right) watches the MTA Board Meeting. Photo: Robert Tokanel.

At the monthly MTA Board Meeting on September 27, the room was split down the middle, with suited board members seated around a rectangle of desks in one half, and an overflow of nearly 75 concerned New Yorkers on the other.

A newly formed activist group called The People’s MTA had brought about 25 people to protest the public transit system’s shortcomings in front of the MTA’s downtown headquarters before the meeting started, and chief among the complaints of many protesters and attendees was the system’s persistent lack of accommodations for people with disabilities. For the 15 people in wheelchairs positioned closest to the board members, the fact that the elevator at the Bowling Green subway station outside was out of service that morning added to the air of contention.

Halfway through the meeting, Tamara Morgan, 32, moved the motorized wheelchair carrying her 45-pound, 3’2’’ frame next to the podium to speak about her 20 years of experience using the city’s Access-A-Ride program, which provides pickup and drop-off transportation to nearly 150,000 people who cannot ride the subways or use buses because of mental or physical disabilities.

“I would estimate I’ve taken about 10,000 rides over that time,” she said. “I would say about 40 percent of the time the system is working correctly, and about 60 percent of the time it’s an absolute nightmare.”

Morgan, who lives in Jamaica, Queens, commutes to West 36th Street four days a week to work for a non-profit that creates support solutions for people with mental and physical disabilities. When she uses Access-A-Ride, her daily commute takes about six and a half hours round-trip, when it would be about two hours by subway.

“It’s absolutely obnoxious, it’s not right, it’s completely inhumane and unjust,” she told the board members. “You wouldn’t want any of your loved ones or yourselves in the predicament that we are in every day.”

New York’s public transit system is the least accessible of any major American city for people who need stair-free access, according to a 2017 report from Manhattan-based foundation TransitCenter. Just under half of the 27 subway stations in Midtown West are accessible, which, though better than the citywide rate of 23 percent, often makes commuting miserable for people who cannot use stairs.

Eman Rimawi, coordinator for the Chelsea-based New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said she never worried about accessibility issues before she lost both her legs due to illness four years ago, at the age of 29.

“So much of the city was suddenly just not accessible to me at all,” she said. Now, she takes Access-A-Ride from Throgg’s Neck to Chelsea to help lobby the MTA on behalf of other people struggling to navigate the city. Rimawi often finds herself stuck at the bar next to the office waiting for her ride home, and she hates paying for a service she feels is woefully inefficient. “I’ve sat around for hours,” she said.

The MTA is nearing completion of a commitment it made in 1994 to retrofit 100 “key stations” to comply with standards laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which brought major renovations to Midtown West stations like 34th Street Herald Square and Times Square. Eighty five of the 100 stations are currently finished, and the MTA says they will all be completed by 2020, with another 31 “non-key” stations at least partially compliant. But activists and disabled people say these efforts are nowhere near enough.

Terrea Mitchell, 49, who lives in a subsidized housing building for visually impaired people on West 23rd Street, said the people in her 205-unit building deal with the consequences of limited accessibility every day.

“There’s no accessible trains on 23rd Street on the West side; they have one accessible station and that’s all the way on the East side,” she said.

The stations that do have elevators often have technical problems that render them unreliable for disabled commuters.  In the second quarter of 2017, the Jamaica Center station in Queens had 45 elevator outages, and 19 outages were reported at 34th Street Herald Square Station, according to MTA records.

Access-A-Ride reservations need to be made 24 hours in advance, so Morgan often avoids the risk of riding the subway altogether, in case she encounters a broken elevator. The morning of October 11, the elevator at Jamaica Center was broken when she tried to use it, though the MTA web site did not say it was out of service.

“It’s very unpredictable, but you’ve just got to keep rolling with it,” she said. She was forced to take her wheelchair to the next station at Sutphin Boulevard.

Morgan has filed formal complaints about the lateness of Access-A-Ride drivers many times, and though the MTA responds within 21 days, the responses are usually brief and generic.

“I don’t think they’re malicious people,” said Rimawi, who said she’s been getting more constructive responses from Access-A-Ride in her role as an advocate than she did when she was only a rider. “I just think there’s so many people that have these issues, and they’re so understaffed that they can’t get to anyone. Which is terrible.”

The Access-A-Ride system was used an average of about 27,000 times per weekday in 2016, according to a 2017 annual report from Mayor de Blasio’s office, with 6.3 million trips taken for the year. Morgan said she was uncertain the opinions of the people using the system were really valued.

“There are so many oppressed communities, and the disabled community is definitely one of those communities,” she said, adding that she believed the MTA probably has the mindset that disabled riders, “just should be happy that they have something.”

A week after the board meeting, The People’s MTA held its first official meeting at an organizer’s space in Chelsea to brainstorm ways to better advocate for a host of outcomes, including better accessibility. Rimawi handed out surveys asking people to describe their experiences using the system and agreed to help formulate an action plan for the new group.

As the rest of the attendees cleared out around 9 p.m., she waited alone on West 27th Street. Her Access-A-Ride driver had just called, and he was going to be about 45 minutes late.

“They don’t care that I have to be at work in the morning,” she said.