Stuck in Transit


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Wheelchair-bound commuters face a subway system on the East Side with almost no elevators


Kitty Lunn will never forget the day when she was stuck in her wheelchair for four hours in front of a broken elevator at the 51st Street subway station on Lexington Avenue. No one stopped to help her, thinking she was a panhandler, until a transit worker finally called firefighters to lift her back onto the street.


This sort of experience is not uncommon for wheelchair users or otherwise handicapped New Yorkers -- particularly on the East Side. There are, for instance, zero subway stations with elevators between 51st and 125th Streets on the East Side.


Paula Wolff, a representative from the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, who uses a wheelchair and is legally blind, said that getting around in New York as a wheelchair user takes a lot of patience, and some extra commute time.


According to the MTA, all of New York's busses are wheelchair-accessible. Most handicapped New Yorkers, or those who otherwise cannot easily access public transit, can utilize Access A Ride?a door-to-door van or car service that costs the same amount as a subway fare: $2.50 for all people who qualify.


Even when wheelchair riders can find their way to a subway platform, the problems don't end there: there's the gap on the platform that a wheel could get stuck in. On the LIRR and Metro North, conductors can put down a small ramp at each stop for wheelchair users to roll over without hitting the gap. But at short subway stops with extremely crowded cars, this is impossible.


"Our subways weren't built with disabilities in mind over 100 years ago, and it's very hard to retrofit access," said Wolff. "Even with subway stations with elevators, there's an elevator hotline that you can supposedly call and be told if it's working, but by the time you get there, the elevator might not be working anymore."


According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was amended in 1994, approximately 100 subway stations have to be fitted with elevators by 2020. According to the MTA, 80 of these stations have been put in place already. In addition, the Second Avenue subway line, which will include stops at East 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets, will all have elevators in them, as required by the ADA.


Even though the lawsuit only requires 100 stations, Wolff said the city could very well go beyond the minimum requirement -- and should.


"We are looking at stations that would benefit the most people," said Kevin Ortiz, a representative from the MTA. "We look at stations with highest ridership and multiple transfer points in terms of ridership and major areas of activity, so the stations given a priority are these."


As for Kitty Lunn's experience at the bottom of the elevator for four hours? Ortiz found this experience hard to believe. He said that when an elevator is broken, users can simply use the intercom system to reach out to the station agent.


Lunn, however, said while that sounds good in theory, in didn't help her on the day she was stuck.


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