There’s (not) an app for that

Why tech hasn’t solved NYC subway’s accessibility issues

Sarah Wyman
Sep 28, 2017 · 3 min read

Trip-planning apps like Google Maps, Transit, and Citymapper can predict subway arrival times, provide real-time service alerts and update routes by scraping data from the MTA’s Twitter.

They haven’t yet worked out how to map trips for disabled subway riders.

Leon Robinson expresses his frustration with New York City’s inaccessible subway system. A navigation app showing accessible stations and elevator status would give him “independence of action,” he said. (Photo by Sarah Wyman)

Leon Robinson, a wheelchair user from the Upper West Side, said he would use the subway more often if he knew he wouldn’t be trapped underground by a broken elevator. “That’s my greatest fear,” he said.

The MTA provides static data — or a list of stations with elevators — and real-time information about elevator and escalator status on its website. However, according to some disabled riders, the information is often incomplete or out of date.

Derrick Mullins, who checks the site daily and receives email alerts about elevator status, said he still encounters broken elevators frequently. “Sometimes I just come home again because there’s no other alternative,” he said. Mullins has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair.

Despite reports of lags in the MTA’s elevator service updates, app developers including the team at Transit — a public transportation navigation app in 125 cities worldwide — are using the feed to explore new ways of providing users with accessibility information.

“If there’s an elevator down or an escalator broken at a station, we will push that information to riders and show it as a service disruption,” said Jake Sion, chief operations officer at Transit. “So a rider can be using the app and see “Oh, hang on, the elevator is down at this stop. I’m going to use a different stop.”

According to Sion, Transit is working on a function to allow riders to plan a route including accessible stations and re-route if elevators along the way are broken.

That process is complicated, said Mel Plaut — a program analyst at Transit Center, a foundation dedicated to urban mobility — because subway stations often have multiple elevators and varying degrees of accessibility.

Stations can be partially accessible if elevator access exists between one platform and the mezzanine but not between the mezzanine and a different line. The more levels a station has and the more lines it accommodates, the messier coding becomes. If a station doesn’t have a center platform, for example, the data has to account for two different elevators.

“That’s why it’s so important to have that information come from New York City transit itself and not us trying to figure out workarounds that may be helpful,” said Plaut.

According to a Transit Center report released last July, the New York City subway system experiences a daily average of 25 elevator outages. 110 out of the city’s 472 subway stations contain at least one elevator.

Andrew MacDougall, head of communications for Citymapper,said developers are working with transportation agencies in London to amass accessibility data. ”It’s a very tough nut to crack,” he said in an email. “We need to consider things like street topography, accessible station entrances and exits and gaps between trains and platforms.” According to MacDougall, Citymapper hopes the MTA will partner with them to expand these efforts to New York City.

Andrei Berman, MTA spokesperson, emphasized the agency’s ongoing commitment to improving subway accessibility via email, but did not comment on whether there are plans to improve data or make it more widely available to developers.

Sahib Shakir, pictured at the 4–5–6 platform at Times Square 42nd St station, said she must plan her route before leaving the house to make sure it includes elevators. “Where I shop, where I make appointments has so much to do with which stations have elevators,” she said. (Photo by Sarah Wyman)

Transit accessibility affects more than just disabled riders. Kate Cowley, a mother of three young children from upper Manhattan, plans her routes in advance to make sure they include accessible stations. “I use Google Maps, and I have to toggle between a bunch of different pages to make sure there are going to be elevators and that they’re working” she said. Otherwise, Cowley relies on strangers to help her carry her stroller up the stairs.

Transit New York

Covering transit and transportation in New York City

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