The MTA is facing a new legal challenge from New Yorkers with disabilities — just months after the transit agency settled two other lawsuits that resulted in a commitment to add elevators or ramps at most subway stations by 2055.
Three New Yorkers with disabilities on Tuesday filed a class-action lawsuit in Manhattan State Supreme Court that demands the MTA fix the gaps between subway trains and station platforms that can challenge riders who are blind or use a wheelchair.
“So much attention is paid to providing stair-free access in the subway system — and stair-fee access is essential, it’s crucial,” said Christopher Schuyler, senior staff attorney with the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “But it’s not the whole picture.”
The suit accuses the MTA of violating the city’s human rights law by not eliminating vertical and horizontal gaps of several inches and seeks to compel the agency to find fixes.
The court papers cite how several transit systems, including those in Boston and Chicago, have implemented protections that can include devices known as “bridge plates,” or retractable ramps which span the gap between platforms and trains.
In Hong Kong, the suit says, workers provide ramps to help people with disabilities board trains and also call ahead to stops where a user will be exiting to ensure that staff have a ramp ready there.
“We have to sue to get them to be in compliance and that’s unfortunate for me,” plaintiff Jackie Goldenberg, 78, told THE CITY. “It makes me feel unloved by New York, quite frankly.”
The lawsuit comes after the MTA in June agreed to settle a pair of class action cases with accessibility advocates and laid out a timetable for equipping most stations with elevators or ramps within decades.
It contends that sizable gaps between trains and platforms make it difficult — and in some cases, impossible — for people in wheelchairs or with sight disabilities to board or exit trains.
The suit says the MTA reportedly acknowledged as early as 2012 that the gaps should never exceed 2 inches vertically and 4 inches horizontally at platform sections designated accessible for wheelchair users.
Quemuel Arroyo, the agency’s chief accessibility officer, said after Wednesday’s MTA board meeting, that the lawsuit “comes as a shock to all of us here at the MTA” in the wake of the June settlement and other advances on accessibility.
“We’re really shocked,” Arroyo said. “I’m a little disheartened that this came back, but we’ll address in the courts.”
The complaint cites a 2013 report by the New York City Transit Riders Council that identified 91 stations across several lines where trains had excessive vertical and horizontal gaps.
They included a 6-inch vertical gap from southbound C trains at the 50th Street stop in Manhattan, a 6-inch horizontal gap between northbound B trains at 59th Street-Columbus Circle and 3-inch vertical gaps on southbound B trains at Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn.
“I am traumatized by the experience of having my wheelchair get stuck due to the excessive gap between the car and the platform,” said another plaintiff, Athena Savides, who repeatedly struggled to get her motorized wheelchair over a gap at 14th Street-Union Square. “That feeling of being trapped still gives me anxiety and keeps me from using the subway.”
Goldenberg, who has arthritis in her knees and describes herself as “a little frail” and with poor eyesight, said her own “daunting” fear of falling into the gap now keeps her off the subway.
“I’m taking cabs at this point or I’m walking,” she said. “I can’t afford to fall and that’s what it really comes down to.”
As part of its 2020-2024 capital plan — at more than $50 billion, the largest in MTA history — the transit agency agreed to put more than $5 billion toward accessibility upgrades at 70 subway and Staten Island railway stations in a system where just over a quarter of the 493 stops are currently in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We’ve made a huge commitment to [accessibility] and we’re going to keep executing,” Janno Lieber, MTA Chairman and CEO, said Wednesday.
The MTA completed 15 accessibility projects during the pandemic and, with the Department of City Planning, also enlisted private developers for help with installing elevators in stations that link to the developers’ neighboring properties.
Then came the June 22 settlement, which Gov. Kathy Hochul, transit officials and accessibility advocates all hailed as historic for a system that’s been sued repeatedly for accessibility issues.
“The MTA is committed to maintain the same level of investment in ADA accessibility in not just current, but future capital programs, until we achieve at least 95% of stations being accessible,” Lieber said at the time of the settlement.
Goldenberg said she’s hopeful the lawsuit will draw attention to the obstacles faced in the transit systems by those with disabilities, including having to “kind of make a little hop” to board a train.
“I’m much more aware of it when I’m getting on,” she told THE CITY. “It’s not exactly the long jump, but if the train is coming in and there is a rush or a press to get in there, I might not always be able to trust what I trusted 20 years ago.”