(Photos: Clarrie Feinstein)

Susan Scheer lives in the East Village and her daughter lives just across the river. But jumping on the L train to visit her isn’t an option. Scheer uses a wheelchair, and there’s no elevator at the First Avenue stop. “What would be a five-minute commute for most people, isn’t even possible for me,” says Scheer. Oftentimes, her daughter must make the commute to see her.

Before Scheer used a wheelchair, she was on crutches for 25 years and during the cold winter months would often have to wait 20 minutes for a bus to arrive. Alternatively, Scheer would resort to using the paratransit system, Access-A-Ride, which is coined “Stress-A-Ride” for its known delays and long commute times.  

But soon, Scheer’s commute will finally become a little easier. As part of a $5 billion systemwide effort, the MTA has set aside $40 million for improved entrances to the First Avenue station and an additional $59.1 million to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But critics, some of whom have filed lawsuits against the agency, insist that much more is needed in order for the system to be fully accessible.

“Even now, once I use the First Avenue elevator and want to go to the first stop into Brooklyn,” Scheer told us, “There’s no way for me to get to street level, because there are not elevators at the Bedford stop.” The only elevator-equipped station for the L train in Brooklyn is at Myrtle-Wyckoff, far from her daughter’s apartment in Williamsburg.

Along the L line in Manhattan, the MTA has dedicated $30 million to installing four elevators in the 6 Av station. The 14 St-Union Sq station is expected to have fully operational elevators by the end of the year. Construction began on the First Avenue station in July of 2017, but there is no set timeline for an end date given the recent confusion on the L-train shutdown.

Of New York’s 427 subway stations, only 110 (or 23 percent) are fully accessible. Often, their elevators are under repair and not fully working. In 2017, City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer conducted an audit of 65 elevators and escalators and found that 80 percent of them hadn’t received all of their preventive maintenance measures over an 18-month period, making the system constantly unreliable.

Even subway stations with operational elevators present safety hazards. Often, the gap between the train and platform is too large for a wheelchair to comfortably cross. “I use a motorized wheelchair, which could break with the gap,” says Scheer.

For over 20 years, Scheer has been advocating for the disabled in New York City. She is one of the founders of Access-A-Ride, most recently served as the Associate Director of Policy to NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and is the President of the Disabilities Network of New York City. In 2010, she was one of the plaintiffs who filed several claims against the MTA’ s transit cuts, stating the cuts were discriminatory as they disproportionately hurt the disabled community in the city. Scheer’s main bus route was cut, which she said at the time, “goes beyond inconvenience. This goes to, you know, my basic right to function.”

In April 2018, then MTA chairman Joseph Lhota released a statement touting the agency’s  “increased focus on accessibility” and its $1 billion investment in ADA compliance as part of its 2015-2019 capital program. The program included “$400 million to replace 69 existing elevators and escalators for better reliability, with future capital plans set to include funding for accessibility improvements to additional stations.”

The MTA had already agreed, as part of a 1994 settlement that exempted it from full ADA compliance, to make 100 “key stations” accessible by 2020. Eleven of the station upgrades– including 34th St-Herald Sq, 125 St, and 14 St-Union Sq.– have yet to be completed.

“The MTA has used the 100 key station agreement as their out,” says Jessica Murray, an organizer for the Elevator Action Group of Resist and Rise, an action group formed in the wake of President Trump’s election to oppose any government act that threatens democratic values. “It’s their way of saying they’re compliant.” The MTA did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

In 2017, Disability Rights Advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the MTA, claiming the overall lack of accessible stations violates New York human rights law. At the same time, the group filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the lack of elevator maintenance for the 100 “key stations” directly violates the ADA. The state lawsuit is in the midst of being settled.

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a plaintiff in the federal suit who has been wheelchair-bound for the last 10 years, says that picking up his son from school takes two trains, two subway lines and four elevators. On the best day, the commute from Chelsea to the Upper West Side takes 45 minutes, but most times the elevators aren’t operational, Blair-Goldensohn says.  

“It’s happened so many times where I get into the station and press the elevator button and it doesn’t work,” he told us. “It’s maddening because the city has the resources to invest in better accessibility.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request for the MTA, Blair-Goldensohn discovered that in one year, there were over 9,000 elevator outages, or an average of 25 per day. The primary reason elevators stopped working was broken doors, resulting in 450 entrapments for the year.

“MTA workers aren’t even aware when an elevator isn’t working,” says Blair-Goldensohn. “I’ll go into a station with an elevator and not know if I can even access the train.” He says using the subway can be “a stressful experience, and it’s frustrating. I’m fortunate to have access to a job that is close to an accessible station. But even I don’t want to use the subway because I know how arduous it can be.”

In New York City, around 77 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. Often, inaccessible transit is a key factor for the high statistic. In 2017, TransitCenter, a New York-based transit advocacy group, published a report that found that “someone requiring an elevator enjoys only 5% as much trip-making opportunity” as a person who can use stairs.  

“If elevators don’t work, it gives people the idea that the whole subway system is dysfunctional,” says Murray. “This stops people from going to places, meaning it’s stopping people who do not have access to work and education.”

The Elevator Action Group makes it abundantly clear that elevators are for all, including the disabled, elderly, injured, parents with strollers and MTA workers.

“When I’m in an elevator, you know who’s often in there with me?” says Blair-Goldensohn. “MTA workers! And when the elevators don’t work they can’t access the maintenance issues efficiently, holding up trains and creating delays. Everyone would benefit from elevators, everyone.”