Yesterday, New Jersey Transit held a groundbreaking ceremony at the Somerville Train Station for improvements that will make the stop along the Raritan Valley Commuter Rail Line accessible to the disabled. The station renovations will be complete by 2010, but the project is part of a long-term effort that will eventually make all 130 of the system’s stations easier to use for those with limited mobility.
NJ Transit isn’t alone; networks all over the country are investing in similar improvements to older lines, adding elevators, level platforms, and ramps to making getting to and from trains possible for those in wheelchairs. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act made it required for new and renovated facilities to make a “good faith” effort to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against in the public sphere. The results have been slow but steady expenditures for that purpose. Lines that people in wheelchairs once could not use at all are now speckled with handicap-friendly stations. See the map above (from smogr) for the wheelchair-friendly stations of the New York Subway.
The problem is that investing in equipment like elevators and ramps is incredibly expensive – part of the reason that renovating a New York City subway station, for instance, is so much more expensive than making improvements in stations of the London Underground or Paris Métro, where the transit agencies are not required to provide access to the mobility-impaired. The cost of maintenance, too, is out of control: New York has spent about $1 billion over the past fifteen years installing elevators, but they fall out of service so regularly that it is difficult for the handicapped to rely on their being in service. In 2007, one of every six elevators in the system was out of commission for more than a month!
When the Washington Metro’s first lines were being designed in the early 1970s, the question of whether to include elevators became a major point of contention between Metro chief Jack Graham and members of the Congress, who had passed the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, requiring federally-funded buildings to be handicap-accessible, according to Zachary Schrag’s The Great Subway Society. The system had been designed with five categories of the handicapped in mind: the semi-ambulatory, the uncoordinated, the aging, and those with sight and hearing problems. That’s part of the reason platforms on the Metro flash when trains arrive and there are no stairs that aren’t duplicated by escalators.
But the initial design didn’t do much for those in wheelchairs. Design and construction costs for elevators were expensive, so in a demonstration at Dulles Airport, Graham attempted to convince Metro’s board that those in wheelchairs would be able to ascend and descend escalators in their chairs. Graham made a fool of himself, and the result was a court-imposed requirement that all Metro stations incorporate full handicap access. All new transit projects since have done the same.
Graham’s insistence that the handicapped would be better served by a paratransit program, which would cost far less to maintain, since it would merely require the purchase of wheelchair-capable buses, was prescient considering the constant elevator outages that continue to plague the Metro system. Indeed, the elevator problems as well as the lack of fully accessible buses forced Washington to implement the Metro Access transit program, which provides shared-ride, door-to-door service to the disabled throughout the region. Not only was Metro designed for the handicapped, but they also benefit from service close to taxi runs at transit prices.
I think it would be hard to argue that new subway systems shouldn’t be designed from the start with handicap access to all levels. We shouldn’t be designing our transit systems to be discriminatory from the start. In addition, people without wheelchairs – transporting goods, on crutches, simply tired – take advantage of elevators.
But should we be spending millions of dollars on upgrading ancient stations to handicap accessibility when those improvements fail so often in actual use and when the handicapped have other options? And the speed of renovation is so slow that, as the map above demonstrates, even after years of work, very little of the New York subway system can actually be used by people in wheelchairs. On the other hand, if we share a societal goal to incorporate the handicapped as much as possible, is there any excuse not to fund improvements for them, and shouldn’t we speed up those repairs?
The middle-ground upon which most transit agencies appear to be making policy – in which a few stations are upgraded with oft-malfunctioning elevators – is expensive and problematic.
Image above: Accessible stations of the New York City Subway, Central New York City, from smogr