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Time to Fast Track Accessible Public Transit

April 13, 2023
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Rylin Ives

The following op-ed by Rylin Ives is one of five standout essays written as part of an assignment for the Columbia MPH Core and published online on the Columbia Mailman news page.

If you are an able-bodied MTA patron, you are one injury away from second-class citizenship, which is an oxymoronic classification used to soften the reality that structural inequities deny one’s citizenship, humanity, and dignity in totality.

Currently, New Yorkers with disabilities that affect mobility are victims of an urban environment that actively restricts their autonomy and participation in society. According to the MTA, only 27 percent of New York City's Subways are accessible for those living with disabilities. In 2022, after years of tenacious advocacy by New Yorkers living with disabilities, a class action lawsuit and settlement surrounding treacherous gaps between the train cars and platforms forced the state legislature to commit to material change.

The state legislature committed to making 95% of inaccessible stations accessible by 2055. The MTA Capital Program invested $5.2 Billion to address accessibility and is now required to devote about 15 percent of the subway’s yearly capital budget towards increasing accessibility. Under the agreement, the MTA will make an additional 80 to 90 subway stations accessible every decade before reaching its goal.

The commitment is certainly revolutionary in the context of more than a century of exclusion and restricted rights purported to be protected under the law. Yet the timeframe begs the question: is accelerating the program an economic impossibility or a corporate preference to balance economic risk over the long term? And shouldn’t a century-old legacy of human rights infringements that continue to restrict freedom and access to movement provoke a swift and reparatory response?

Restrictions on the freedom of movement affect the mental, social, economic, and physical well-being of the disabled community. Under the current timeline, someone born with a disability today will be well into adulthood before they are free to be who they are or who they could be provided with their right to equitable access. Likewise, New Yorkers in late adulthood today, that may have spent their entire lives facing these barriers may not live to see a New York City where their autonomy is unrestricted. There are more than one million people in New York City living with a disability that face daily threats to their safety and overall well-being as they attempt to use the most efficient, convenient, and cost-effective mode of transportation the city has to offer. Station inaccessibility also has an impact on the 1.5 million New Yorkers who are over the age of 65, and more than 200,000 children under the age of two whose families traverse the city with strollers.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is a benefit corporation that oversees the operation and maintenance of the subway, commuter railroads, seven bridges, and two tunnels in New York City. Article 17 of New York State’s Corporation benefit law defines such an entity as one that “provides a general public benefit” is a “material positive impact on society and the environment, taken as a whole, assessed against a third-party standard, from the business and operations of a benefit corporation.” As a benefit corporation, the MTA fails to live up to the classification by disregarding the needs of so many.

Similar projects like the Renovation of Penn Station not only speak to the MTA’s proclivity to place pecuniary motives over the “general public benefit” but also to their advanced capabilities to undertake massive projects at warp speed if they chose to do so. The proposed Penn renovation led by the MTA is projected to cost $7 billion, but the state's economic development agency estimated it could cost up to 22 billion dollars. This would be one of the largest redevelopment projects in U.S. history, yet it is expected to be completed in 4 to 5 years. The project aims to add office buildings, retail spaces, residential buildings, and a hotel. The project has zero intention of addressing congestion and proudly presents itself as an aesthetic endeavor.

The MTA has demonstrated its ability to complete massive projects in a timely manner, and even in the face of a Covid-19 budget crisis, they plan to follow through on its mission to revitalize Penn Station. The ultimate irony of the Penn renovation project and similar initiatives prioritizing economic activity is that there are millions of disabled New Yorkers who are systemically excluded from participating in the economy. Contrasting these projects illustrates that the funding and manpower exist to lead a warp-speed project to make 95 percent of stations accessible in New York City by 2030.

The MTA is the largest transit system in the United States, in one of the most liberal cities in the U.S.; yet its complacency in the degradation of human rights to maximize profit reminds us that no matter where you find yourself in this country, (if you are looking) you will find a community fighting to remain visible.

Rylin Ives is a first-year MPH student in the Department of Population and Family Health.