This story was co-published with WNYC.
I moved to New York in 2013, and several months later, I found myself watching the clock in my apartment as I waited for a city social worker to arrive. She was late, and I was anxious to get back to my job at a private investigation firm. Twenty minutes later, the social worker arrived.
“You work?” she asked when I told her I’d scheduled our appointment for my lunch break.
She’d presumed that I wasn’t employed, and that my schedule was flexible.
I use a wheelchair, and the meeting was to determine if I qualified for any government benefits related to my disability. One of the items we discussed was Access-A-Ride, the transit service that provides disabled people with an alternative to the subways, which are largely inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.
For the price of a subway ride, a wheelchair accessible van would pick me up at my apartment and drop me at my destination anywhere within the city’s five boroughs. So far so good. But then she explained the fine print. I would have to schedule my ride one to two days in advance. My pick-up time could be an hour earlier or an hour later than requested. The driver would have a 30-minute window in which to pick me up before he would be considered late. I, on the other hand, had to be outside to meet my van within five minutes of its arrival or I would be counted as a no-show.
And since the rides were shared, it could take a long time to get where I was going. She told me some users call it “Stress-A-Ride.”
I looked at the social worker, bewildered. The program she was touting seemed to make a similar assumption to the one she had made about me — that I didn’t have a job.
Like many people who use wheelchairs, I have a full-time job, back then as a private investigator and now as a research reporter for ProPublica. I like to arrive on time. As a journalist, I might have to head to an interview or event on short notice. And after work, I might want to have a drink with a friend.
How would Access-A-Ride ever work for me?
I didn’t sign up. Instead, I chose to live within walking distance of my workplace, an economic privilege that many disabled people in this city don’t have. This wasn’t necessarily the easy option. My office at the time was located in Union Square, in a Manhattan neighborhood that ranks among the highest in the city in median rents. On top of that, I had to find an apartment that wasn’t a walk-up, that didn’t have steps at the entrance and that didn’t have a closet-sized bathroom. In bad weather, I had to take a taxi or Uber to work. My decision to avoid Access-A-Ride has eaten into my budget. But the anxiety saved seemed worth it.
Still, I never stopped thinking about Access-A-Ride and the people who have to use it.
After joining ProPublica, I decided to see if there was a story worth telling about paratransit services in New York City. I started working with Jess Ramirez, then a reporting fellow on our engagement team, to reach the people who interact with Access-A-Ride: riders, drivers, dispatchers, city officials, advocates, caregivers.
We spoke to dozens of people who use Access-A-Ride. We heard from one woman who took Access-A-Ride to work and eventually retired early, in large part because the process was exhausting. A young man told us of trying to take Access-A-Ride to his first day at a new job, only to have the van’s lift break while he was on it. We read dozens of personal injury lawsuits filed related to Access-A-Ride. Audits from the city’s comptroller’s office detailed unaddressed complaints, a faulty discipline system for contractors and a failure to use technology like GPS.
We found that the system had suffered from lack of attention and investment by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and that, in recent years, it had grown faster in costs and ridership than the agency was prepared for. The economic impact of this on disabled people extends far beyond missing doctor’s appointments; it means it’s harder to find jobs and housing and save money. And beyond income, it means missing out on seeing friends, going to shows and museums and eating at interesting but out-of-the-way restaurants — many of the things that make living in New York City worth it.
The story of a slow, unreliable public transportation system is not an unfamiliar one to most New Yorkers. The city’s subway system is dysfunctional for everyone, its shortcomings regularly covered in the local news media. But for people who use wheelchairs or walkers, the subway is almost unusable. Most of the 472 stations lack elevators, leaving disabled people with limited options to get around. The problems other riders experience every day — delays, overcrowded trains, service changes with no warning — are compounded for people like me who are already limited in which routes we can take.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, was an attempt to address this problem. Under the law, cities are required to provide alternate transportation to their residents with disabilities who aren’t able to take standard public transportation. The paratransit service must be comparable to what’s available to able-bodied people, operating the same hours and taking riders everywhere that subway and bus routes go.
In New York, where the subway is the bedrock of mass transit, providing an above-ground equivalent has always been a challenge. Access-A-Ride is a victim of many of the same obstacles that plague the city’s buses which, subject to the city’s ever-growing traffic, are among the slowest in the country.
There are technological improvements that experts say could make Access-A-Ride more efficient, both for riders and for the MTA, but the agency has been slow to update the system. Policymakers often assume that people who use paratransit services aren’t technologically savvy, said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation and lead author of a 2016 report on New York City’s paratransit system.
“We simply cannot assume that people who are disabled don’t use technology,” Kaufman said. “But it’s being assumed in [Access-A-Ride’s] technology development.”
She said making better use of the app-based and GPS technology that Uber and Lyft have developed would go a long way toward making Access-A-Ride a service that works for everyone. The MTA is starting to take steps in this direction, such as installing GPS in its blue-and-white vans, creating a section within its MyMTA app that riders can use to schedule rides as an alternative to calling and partnering with ride-hailing apps like Curb.
But the MTA doesn’t have the money to innovate much beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The agency is already spending unsustainable amounts of cash on the Access-A-Ride program alone.
In 2019, the MTA spent $614 million on paratransit services for about 160,000 disabled customers. Each ride in a blue-and-white Access-A-Ride van cost the MTA on average $86, significantly more than the average taxi trip in the city. In a pilot program launched in 2017, the MTA experimented with allowing 1,200 paratransit riders to request taxis on demand through an app. The program was immensely popular with riders, but less popular with the MTA. Even though the cost was much less — on average $40 a ride — riders were using the service more because it worked.
MTA officials have said they’re looking at ways to make the program financially sustainable. In November, they expanded the pilot program to 2,400 users but capped the number of on-demand trips each participant is allowed to take at 16 rides a month. Earlier in 2019, Access-A-Ride announced a plan to move toward using taxis and livery vehicles, which advocates said is a step in the right direction. But the transition had a rocky rollout, leading to rider complaints about late or no-show vehicles.
The paratransit service would be less overburdened, of course, if the subway were more accessible. Only a quarter of the stations have elevators, which makes it, proportionally, less accessible than the subway systems in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., according to TransitCenter, a transit advocacy organization.
Even at the stations the MTA deems accessible, constantly broken elevators, wide gaps between the train and platform, and unannounced service changes make the subway difficult to use for people with disabilities.
There were 14,092 subway elevator outages in 2015, according to the Rudin Center. In a second report published in 2017, the authors analyzed Access-A-Ride ride data, finding that in 2015, trips that started or ended near non-accessible subway stations cost a total of $258 million. If even some of those stations were made accessible, that would result in long-term savings for the MTA.
The MTA had begun making accessibility more of a priority under a new head of New York City Transit, Andy Byford, who appointed Alex Elegudin, a wheelchair user, to a new position as senior adviser for accessibility. Under Byford’s Fast Forward plan, launched in 2018, at least 50 subway stations would be made accessible over five years; last September, the MTA raised the goal to 70 stations.
In January, though, Byford resigned after months of tension between him and the governor, Andrew Cuomo. Many of the the accessibility improvements that Byford championed are now part of the MTA’s new five-year capital plan, but transit experts and rider advocates say the loss of such a vocal advocate has left them uneasy about the fate of the agenda Byford laid out during his short tenure.
For many people with disabilities, most of New York City is a transit desert. The economic impact is severe, advocates say. The employment rate for people with disabilities in the city is 35% versus 74% for those without disabilities. Some of those people can’t work for reasons unrelated to transportation. But a truly accessible public transportation system, whether through Access-A-Ride or the subway or a combination of the two, would go a long way toward reducing that disparity.