At the 14th Street–Union Square station, elevators can get riders to five of the eight lines that move through the transit hub — not great, but also not the worst when considering that less than 30 percent of the subway system is considered accessible by the MTA. But there’s another barrier waiting underground: vertical gaps between the platform and multiple train lines that are so tall Athena Savides can’t operate her motorized wheelchair over them. “I am traumatized by the experience of having my wheelchair get stuck,” she told The City. “That feeling of being trapped still gives me anxiety and keeps me from using the subway.” A new class-action lawsuit filed by Savides and two other disabled riders in the Manhattan State Supreme Court this week would force the MTA to close the gaps — vertical, horizontal, and sometimes both — between the platform and the train, a shortcoming often overlooked in the conversation on MTA accessibility.
The complaint argues that the MTA and the New York Transit Authority “have not formulated any kind of plan to address the gaps that prevent people with mobility and visual disabilities from using the subway,” despite spending more than $100 billion on capital improvements to the system since 1982. Among the biggest gaps measured by the plaintiffs’ legal team: 14th Street–Union Square northbound 4 trains have a 5.5-inch vertical gap, 59th Street–Columbus Circle northbound B trains have a gaping seven-inch horizontal gap, and Times Square–42nd Street eastbound 7 trains have both: a 5.5-inch vertical gap and a five-inch horizontal gap.
The lawsuit comes just months after a settlement that will force the MTA to make 95 percent of its stations accessible by 2055. The improvements mandated by the settlement are mostly focused on installing elevators, which will improve stair-free access to most platforms some 33 years from now. However, without fixing the gaps, many passengers will remain stranded. The vertical gaps can stop people with mobility disabilities, including wheelchair users, from being able to safely board the subway, but the horizontal gaps can also be very dangerous, creating a tripping hazard for people who are blind and visually impaired, says Christopher Schuyler, a senior staff attorney with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s Disability Justice Program representing the three riders. “In our conversations with the disabled community,” he says, “the gaps are the main reason why most people don’t ride the subway.”
Many transit agencies have what’s called universal-level boarding, where all train floors are completely flush with all platforms. Washington D.C.’s Metro, for example, is generally lauded for its platform-to-train accessibility. In New York, due to variables in rolling stock and station design, the MTA would have to standardize all its train platforms and train cars line by line in order to achieve this. (Universal platform doors, which the MTA is exploring in a limited way, would also solve the problem because those issues would have to be addressed to install the platform doors, while making boarding even safer by making it impossible to fall onto the tracks between the cars.) Some agencies are making progress on these total overhauls: In 2018, Chicago launched a major initiative to make its system fully accessible, which included addressing vertical gaps and other issues at 42 stations, and four years later, 103 out of 145 rail stations have achieved this goal. Other agencies have swiftly implemented temporary fixes while making progress on bigger improvements. In Boston, where a similar class-action lawsuit spurred accessibility reforms, a 2006 settlement required stations to install bridge plates, large retractable or portable metal ramps similar to the ones deployed from buses to the curb. Bridge plates work well because they can close both vertical and horizontal gaps, but some require attendants to put them in place and help passengers on and off the train. This is a familiar sight on Amtrak or commuter trains that are well-staffed with conductors, but less so on the subway.
“We understand the challenge with the MTA’s system, with all the different trains and platforms, that there’s no one solution to solve the problem and it may be a collection of different solutions,” says Schuyler. What’s not acceptable, he says, is the MTA’s current solution for gaps: installing “accessible boarding areas” at some stations, where one part of the platform is elevated high enough to meet the train floor. That might check a box for an ADA requirement at a specific station, but it doesn’t do anything to address horizontal gaps, and more importantly, it doesn’t guarantee there will be a safe way for passengers to exit a train at their destination — which is why the complaint isn’t being filed as an ADA violation, but as a human-rights violation, says Schuyler. “The MTA’s definition of what an accessible station means is too limited. It’s essentially just stair-free access. Our lawsuit is about broadening the definition of accessible.”