Accessibility and Transit

There was a recent article in City Limits: Disabled Say Non-Mayoral Agencies Also Fail, which is definitely worth taking a look at. It brought up a number of thoughts about how transportation and emergency planning work. This particular paragraph stuck with me for a bit…

The MTA argues that upgrading New York’s ancient subway system necessarily takes many decades, but that new stations are always accessible, as are all buses. “The task of creating an accessible subway system is neither a quick nor easy one,” writes MTA spokesman Charles Seaton in an email. “It is not as simple as just adding an elevator. While all newly-built subway stations are ADA compliant, creating an accessible station within the existing system is usually done in conjunction with a complete station rehabilitation as it often requires the relocation of components, stairways and utilities.”

When I read the above paragraph a couple things slowly dawned on me. Firstly, while not always true, transportation planning has a reputation of being dominated by engineers. And, the above response is an engineer’s response, even though it comes from a spokesperson. By this I mean that it is a practical response to a daunting engineering challenge, given the age of our dear subway system. However, I strongly believe that to engineer something one first has to step back from the practical and look at the bigger picture. Government agencies are really terrible about communicating why they are doing what they are doing (I often think this might have more to do with politicians than the agencies, but that is for another discussion).

A big part of why transparency in government is so desirable is to understand the motivations behind decisions as well as the outcomes. It is good to know that when a station is rehabbed that it will be upgraded, but will stations be rehabbed? Other questions…

  • When?
  • Is rehabbing a priority?
  • What makes it a priority? Keep the system running as is? Accommodate increased demand? Improve accessibility? Make the system more resilient in emergency situations?
  • Are some stations more of a priority than others? How is that decided?
  • How are stations being rehabbed so that they work together as part of a seamless experience?
  • How much does the MTA know about the people who use the stations? What do they know about the people who don’t use their systems and why they don’t?

Having had the experience of working at places where there was barely enough funding to keep up with the status quo, I can only imagine what the MTA is dealing with, but there were some simple lessons from those experiences that taught me that it is actually possible to achieve change even in the face of the most depressing budget. The first and foremost is to have clear goals.

Having clear, stated goals does two things: it allows one to argue more effectively for funding, and it helps to communicate to the people using your service when they are frustrated and don’t understand why change is so slow. While the first reason might not apply here, it wouldn’t hurt, and it certainly would help with the second.

I love using the subway. It is a large part of why I live in New York City. I would like to know that if I should happen to accidentally get older or break a leg, that I would still be able to get around the city. Being clear about goals for accessibility is something that users of the MTA systems would appreciate, because it would acknowledge that the MTA has a huge base of repeat customers who are only growing older.

I could not find any mission statements or goals on the MTA website, which doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that they were not prominently displayed enough to reach people effectively. I did, however, find a lot of good data and facts about how to utilize the system and even some performance metrics (again back to an engineer’s mind set). Likewise there are lots of ads on the subways about individual MTA service improvements like Fast Track, but not really an overarching message.

Essentially I have no idea what the MTA transit systems will look like in 15 years, who it will be serving, and how well it will be serving them. If the City Limits article is any indicator, I am not alone in wanting to better understand the potential future of the MTA systems. This is an easy fix which doesn’t require too much funding. So MTA, pretty please?

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