As the MTA’s new — and first — chief accessibility officer, Quemuel Arroyo is responsible for trying to cajole an ancient subway system, two separate commuter networks, an evolving bus system, and Access-A-Ride to do a better job of serving passengers with a wide range of disabilities. It’s a daunting task. Roughly a quarter of the city’s 472 subway stations have elevators, and most of the rest are too cramped for a ramp that meets the criteria of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The MTA’s plans to make another 70 stations accessible by 2024 could be jeopardized by the pandemic and the cataclysmic $16 billion budget chasm. Architecture critic Justin Davidson talked to Arroyo about what he hopes to get done, how quickly, and for whom.
Justin Davidson: Tell me about your path to this position.
Quemuel Arroyo: It started with a spinal-cord injury at 18. I was downhill mountain biking, and I had an accident that left me paralyzed from the waist down. I lived at NYU Rusk Rehabilitation for about 10 months, in the pediatric ward. So there I was, an 18-year-old surrounded by 4-, 5- and 10-year-olds. I saw a lot of children whose families couldn’t be around, and the doctors weren’t really listening to them.
They needed an advocate.
Exactly. I had to use my voice to give those kids a way to be heard.
Where did you learn about design for accessibility?
I went to NYU and studied urban design and history of architecture. I was always the one saying, “Where does someone with a disability fit into Le Corbusier’s city?” I saw a huge void.
How did you go about filling it?
I interned at the Department of City Planning for [Bloomberg-administration commissioner] Amanda Burden. We were celebrating the first bike maps and access to the waterfront, and I was saying, “How are people getting down the steps to the water?” That led to my meeting Victor Calise, then ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] coordinator at the Parks Department. [He now leads the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.] I learned about disabled athletes and Paralympians who were right here in my hometown and helped me understand that life with a disability can be very fruitful and successful. The limitations of a disability are only those you allow to have an impact on your life. It’s true what many people say: They are not disabled, their environments are disabled. They’re designed with a prototypical user in mind, and that’s not us.
Eventually, that took you to the city’s transportation department. What was your role there?
To make sure that everything we did included our most vulnerable population. I brought my experience as a wheelchair user into our boardroom and to the construction team, so that everyone understood their personal and direct role in creating a more accessible New York. That was already their goal, they just didn’t always know what it meant.
Can you give me a couple of examples of ways you made a difference?
I’ll give you three. Because I was at DOT, we now have raised crosswalks, so pedestrians don’t have to go down a curb ramp into the roadway. Raised crosswalks make pedestrians more visible and force motorists to reduce their speed. It’s a beautiful blend of Vision Zero and the disability agenda.
Crossing the street is one of those urban hazards that brings together a lot of constituencies: people with disabilities, children, seniors, and anyone who walks slowly, right?
Yes. When we were discussing a proposed bill to double the number of accessible pedestrian signals [those beeping, buzzing WALK boxes affixed to stoplights], some people were talking about the expense and wondering why it was needed. Polly [Trottenberg, then transportation commissioner] turned to me and asked what I thought. I said, “I’m baffled that we’re having this conversation. There are over 200,000 New Yorkers with visual disabilities who rely on these to get across the street. So, yes, we should support this bill, but understand that it’s a floor, not a ceiling.” Those conversations helped my colleagues understand that we don’t see the world as it is, but as we experience it. Having someone speak from another kind of experience was helpful.
I think you said you had three examples from your time at DOT. Raised crosswalks, added pedestrian signals: What’s the third?
This is a fun one: lower-level boarding for the Staten Island Ferry. That may sound trivial, but boarding a boat looks different depending on the time of day. There were security prohibitions against boarding on the lower level, but it took a person with a disability to say, “I can’t get up a steep ramp at high tide.”
What’s striking about these interventions is that they’re largely invisible until you need them. Which suggests that the built environment could incorporate a lot more of these stealth measures.
Society still hasn’t digested the fact that people with disabilities are everywhere. And they should be part of every conversation about the public realm, the environment, the workforce — everything from the new bar down the block, where a person with a disability will want to have a beer with colleagues after work, to the newborn child whose parents will eventually need to access that kid’s school. We’re always there, but we’ve been omitted from so many conversations that no one was even aware.
Let’s talk about your role at the MTA. Obviously, the biggest issue is elevators and making more subway stations accessible. But that’s going to take time and a huge amount of money. It must feel like you’re facing a very high wall.
I felt the same way at DOT. Here, I’ll be able to look across the entire MTA and see what’s working well at Metro-North and replicate it at LIRR, or vice versa.
What kinds of things are you looking for?
I’ve been impressed by the LIRR’s passenger-load count. Before a train enters a station, people can see which cars are full and where they’ll have a better chance of finding a seat. In Oslo, a digital monitor showed me which car had an unoccupied wheelchair spot. That’s a great technological solution to the problem of where to get on the train.
A solution that helps those both with and without disabilities.
Same thing with OMNY [the MTA’s touchless successor to the MetroCard]. It’s great for people who might not have the dexterity to swipe a MetroCard.
I’m not sure anyone has the dexterity to swipe a MetroCard, at least not on the first try.
Right? An accessibility enhancement gives everyone a better experience.
Do any other cities have transit systems you’d like to emulate?
London and São Paulo built new wheelchair-accessible subway lines for the Olympics. But Oslo has wowed me the most, because it really covers a wide realm of disabilities. There’s no silver bullet, no one solution that addresses everyone’s needs. Oslo implemented a suite of solutions: a tactile guideway system for the visually impaired, audiovisual messaging, high-visibility messaging, the whole gamut. That’s what I want to do here. We should be helping low-vision and blind people, those who are hard of hearing and could benefit from an induction-loop system. Those who are deaf who would benefit from MTA workers who know ASL.
It seems like it can’t just be you representing that whole range.
I’ve never tried to speak for everyone. I lean on those communities to educate me and to show me what’s best for them, so I can express their concerns.
Are you finding your new colleagues receptive to your pressure?
You’d have a hard time finding someone at the MTA who doesn’t want to increase access to the network. That doesn’t mean I can deliver change tomorrow. I’m going to need to make a cultural shift here, and that will take time. We have a subway system that predates the ADA by 90 years, so we have to be realistic about what’s feasible.
You spent six years at DOT. What will success look like after six years at the MTA?
Like this: A tourist with a cognitive disability arrives at JFK and wants to take the train to Times Square. One look at their device gives them their public-transit options in a very simplified format, so that by the time they arrive at the AirTrain station in Jamaica, they know where to find an accessible ticket machine (or can just swipe their phone or credit card), how to navigate the station, and where the elevator is. All that happens seamlessly, and when they get to Times Square and get off the train onto a big, daunting platform, they already know where the exits are.
It sounds like your emphasis is less on slow-moving, structural interventions, like elevators, and more on technological tools. Which is appropriate, since you go by the nickname Q, like James Bond’s master of gadgets.
Ha, yes. But capital reconstruction and new initiatives are adjacent goals. One doesn’t exclude the other.
How would you rate New York’s navigability for people with disabilities?
I can’t think of a city with better access to wherever you want to go. We have more subway stations than any city in the world, so I find it hard to answer when people ask me where else I would want to live. I don’t own a car, and I have no interest in driving. I’m a pedestrian. There is no other place.