Hundreds of millions of citizens around the globe flock to metropolises to access opportunities, freedom and adventure. For many, these cities sustain an ideal way of life with essential services, grocery stores, hospitals, offices and cultural attractions often just a few blocks away. But for people with disabilities, life in a big city is often a different story.
More than one billion people – approximately 15 percent of the global population – experience some form of disability.
According to the United Nations, people with disabilities include those who have “long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.
By 2050, some 68 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, up from today’s 55 percent. And as the world’s urban areas grow, there is an urgent need for cities to adapt to the needs of disabled people to ensure they are not marginalised and excluded.
Unlike any other marginalised group, anyone can become a member of the disability community at any point in their life. People can develop a physical disability because of an accident, illness, or simply, old age.
So what is it like today to live in New York City with a disability?
The city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) subway and bus system is well-connected and operates round-the-clock, making travel opportunities seem endless, but for the 550,000 New Yorkers who have difficulty walking, using this system to get around the Big Apple is not so appealing. Of 472 active subway stations, for example, fewer than a quarter are equipped with elevators.
According to TransitCenter, a US nonprofit organisation working towards more just and environmentally sustainable transit, that means a person who can navigate stairs can enjoy a total of 222,312 station-to-station trips while a person who requires an elevator can access only 11,990, or 5 percent, of the total possible trips.
The opportunities for a disabled person to travel are further reduced when considering the length of time that elevators spend out of service. The worst offender, 161st Street-Yankee Stadium station, is down 111 days of the year.
I live in New York City with cerebral palsy and use a motorised wheelchair to travel long distances for safety and time-efficiency reasons. During my undergraduate university years, I lived on campus in upper Manhattan, the most metropolitan of the city’s five boroughs and travelled 20 blocks to get to the nearest accessible subway station. Each time, I’d hope it was a good day and the elevator would be operational.
On different occasions, I’d find myself stuck on a subway station with a broken elevator. In such situations, I had two options. I could wait for a kind stranger to help me carry my 27kg chair up flights of stairs. Alternatively, I could get back on the train and ride it to the next closest station with an accessible lift, which could be as many as a dozen stops away, and then either take the bus or ride the subway from the opposite track back to my destination in the hopes that side would have a functioning elevator. New York subway stations tend to have different elevators for people going downtown and going uptown.
The MTA aims to make New York City’s subway system, the city’s central nervous system which runs on 100-year-old technology, completely disability accessible by 2034. At present, 25 percent is accessible.
Making the subway fully accessible will enable people with disabilities to better access essential buildings like hospitals and schools and allow them to be more included in society.
Accessibility is also crucial for tackling socioeconomic inequalities. New Yorkers with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty (36.5 percent) as those without disabilities (16.6 percent). A lack of transportation options is one of the most significant barriers to employment for New Yorkers with disabilities, according to a 2019 report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller.
Manhattan is the least affordable borough and is also heavily serviced by the subway compared with the city’s other boroughs where there is the issue of “transit deserts” — areas where one would need to walk more than 10 minutes to get to a subway station — and fewer nearby accessible stations.
Giving underserved communities more access to transportation is, therefore, a crucial step in allowing them to lift themselves out of poverty and access job opportunities.
MTA mobility: a work in progress
Since 1993, the MTA has managed Access-A-Ride, a public, city-wide network of vans and cars equipped with wheelchair lifts that drop passengers off at their destination within the city’s five boroughs for $2.75, the price of today’s subway ride, regardless of distance.
Passengers must schedule their ride one to two days in advance. If a ride is available, the passenger could wait up to 30 minutes from the scheduled departure time, however, the rider has only five minutes upon the van’s arrival to meet the driver before they leave.
If the passenger is not there, they are counted as a no-show and the driver leaves. As the fares are collected at the time of boarding, no-shows are not charged. But no-shows and late cancellations can lead to a temporary suspension from the programme.
Access-A-Ride services remain a convoluted and frustrating process for many of its users, including me.
In 2013, after moving to the city for university from my small town in New Jersey, I applied to join the programme. After months of waiting for approval to join, I finally got to book my first ride, only to be left stranded on the sidewalk for two hours before the driver showed up. By then, I had already missed the event I was supposed to attend.
The next time, I waited for the driver for nearly an hour. After one or two more attempts I stopped using the service altogether and avoided leaving campus, where I lived at the time, for about a year.
In 2017, Access-A-Ride launched the on-demand “e-hail” programme with taxi services that have wheelchair lifts. The service was a significant improvement over the previous setup because it allowed for real-time driver updating to assign new drivers to passengers if they were held up somewhere. Users of the programme can hail a taxi using the app and pay just the standard $2.75 fee.
As more people venture out using taxis rather than mass transit during the pandemic, there has been a shortage of taxis available through the e-hail initiative, meaning people with disabilities are facing wait times that are hours long, or rides are unavailable.
MTA buses are another transportation option.
While the transit agency touts its buses as “100% accessible to riders with disabilities” there are recurring issues. Bus drivers do not always know how to operate the ramps or lifts to board passengers with ambulatory disabilities. Even if the driver knows how to use the equipment, they need to be able to pull up to the curb to allow passengers with disabilities to safely get on and off the bus.
A lack of enforcement by the New York Police Department to stop cars pulling up at bus stops and no central city department responsible for clearing snow piles during winter can prevent drivers from getting close to the curb. This leaves people in wheelchairs stranded outside in the cold while others board the bus. Or they risk their safety when trying to drive their chairs either over the snow piles or into the busy road in an attempt to catch the bus.
Inaccessible cities: New York City
Making major cities such as New York City fully accessible is the first true step towards true equity and inclusion.
To make New York City more accessible, the MTA can start by ensuring that the subway elevators in place work consistently and that all MTA operators are trained to accommodate those with disabilities while law enforcement should better regulate curbs.
To highlight the struggles and social barriers people with disabilities face, and to show how these are issues that transcend borders, cultures and languages, we took a deep look into the state of accessibility through the lives of three women in different megacities.
Learn more about life for people with disabilities in New York City by joining Rebecca Lamorte, a former City Council candidate, as she navigates the megacity in “Inaccessible Cities”, the latest interactive web experience by AJ Contrast, Al Jazeera Digital’s media innovation studio.
To understand the state of accessibility in two other megacities, join Olajumoke Olajide, a disabled athlete, from Lagos, Nigeria, and Nidhi Goyal, a comedian and disability rights activist from Mumbai, India.