City Hall – Investigations Committee Chair Eric Gioia, Transportation Committee Chair John C. Liu, Council Members and disability advocates today released the findings of a City Council investigation titled “On the Right Track: A Roadmap to Improving Transportation for New York City’s Disabled Population.” The investigation examines the problems New Yorkers with disabilities face in using the city’s transportation system, and issues a set of low cost, easy to implement recommendations for improving transportation safety and access.

In 2006, 1.5 billion people rode the New York City subway system and 741 million took a bus. Operating 24 hours a day with the largest subway fleet in the world and the largest bus fleet in North America, New York City’s public transportation system serves as a social and occupational lifeline for millions of people. Yet for the more than one million New Yorkers with disabilities, this city’s network of public transportation services can be woefully inadequate.

“For some New Yorkers with disabilities, getting to Europe could be more convenient than getting to a downtown doctor’s appointment,” said Investigations Committee Chair Eric Gioia. “In a city where the daily commute can be irritating for many, it is an onerous burden for the over one million New Yorkers with disabilities. The city is obligated by federal law to provide reasonable options for people with disabilities, but what we’ve heard is that all too often those options fail. Our system costs us too much and serves them too little. There are many common sense, low-cost, easily implementable steps we can take now to improve the system and ease the burden on New Yorkers with disabilities.”

A series of focus groups conducted by the New York City Council in partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY) Office of Student Affairs and Graduate Program in Disability Studies illuminated key challenges people with disabilities face within New York City’s transportation system. For example, participants with hidden disabilities were often denied assistance or questioned by skeptical transportation personnel and non-disabled consumers.

Participants regularly encountered MTA and Access-A-Ride (AAR) employees who seemed to lack the necessary training to effectively serve disabled passengers. In addition, the unpredictable state of repair of key equipment and infrastructure, such as subway elevators or wheelchair lifts, make even accessible modes of transportation like buses unreliable.

To combat some of these chronic problems, the Council has developed a set of low-cost, easy to implement measures that could improve the day-to-day transportation experiences of people with disabilities. Some key recommendations include:

1. The MTA and AAR should conduct regular customer service training for employees, with a focus on treating passengers with disabilities with respect and sensitivity. Focus group participants had copious personal accounts of rude, disrespectful and unhelpful treatment they received at the hands of transit and AAR employees. The MTA and AAR should implement an employee training curriculum, in collaboration with members and advocates from the disability community, and should incorporate regular, undercover field investigations to monitor adherence to its training.

2. Bus drivers should avoid bypassing bus stops with waiting passengers if the bus is not at capacity. Numerous focus group participants, particularly those in wheelchairs, told of being inexplicably bypassed by buses. Although drivers operate under significant pressure to remain on schedule, they should never bypass a bus stop or shelter that is occupied by anyone as long as there is space on the bus. The MTA should work with the Transport Workers Union to address any work conditions that would present drivers with disincentives to pick up passengers with disabilities.

3. AAR drivers and dispatchers should provide passengers with the most accurate and up-to-date information about delayed vehicles. Some participants told of horrific experiences waiting outside in inclement weather for rides that arrived late or not at all. Upon calling AAR to inquire as to the status of the driver, participants reported receiving vague and inaccurate responses from dispatchers. Dispatchers should provide passengers with the most accurate information available regarding the location and estimated time of a driver’s arrival.

4. AAR vans should display vehicle and driver identification in a conspicuous place inside the vehicle so that riders can report complaints with a greater degree of anonymity. Just as taxis display a driver’s name and license number, AAR should make the driver’s identification readily available to passengers – including passengers who are visually impaired – so that they can report service – good or bad – without having to provide information that could potentially identify the complainant (e.g., pick-up location together with time and date of ride, etc.). This feedback would be invaluable in detecting and addressing deficiencies in service.

5. The MTA should enforce daily inspection requirements of buses to ensure that wheelchair lifts and other accessibility components are in working order before the buses leave the depots. Focus group participants in wheelchairs recalled being bypassed by buses with an explanation from the driver that the wheelchair lift was out of order, wheelchair ties were broken, or even that the driver did not know how to operate the wheelchair lifts. The MTA should examine their current policies and practices regarding inspections of accessibility features to better ensure that only buses with working accessibility components are cleared to leave the depot.

“The MTA has, commendably, committed to improvements in transit service,” said Transportation Committee Chair John Liu. “However, subways and even buses remain beyond the reach of most people with disabilities. The MTA can and must change that, beginning with these basic and easy-to-implement recommendations. This way we can help more New Yorkers live independently, get around, and lead productive and fulfilling lives.” “The Council is strongly committed to providing access that will allow disabled individuals to travel throughout the city with as much ease as those without disabilities,” said G. Oliver Koppell, Chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse & Disability Services. “The recommendations of this report are easy to implement and should not be costly.” “As a higher education institution whose disability studies scholars produce leading-edge research on key disability issues, CUNY is proud to support the City Council in its analysis of the accessibility of the City’s transportation resources for New Yorkers with disabilities, including CUNY’s more than 9,000 students with disabilities,” said Chris Rosa, CUNY’s University Director for Student Affairs.

“This report highlights some of the most major inequities facing people with disabilities in our city; the lack of accessible transportation alternatives,” said Michael A. Harris, Executive Director of the Disabled Riders Coalition. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our city’s transportation system won’t be made accessible overnight, but implementation of the relatively simple recommendations made in this report would go a long way toward making our city truly accessible to all. It is incumbent upon the relevant agencies to thoroughly review and put them into place in an expeditious fashion.”

“If we want true equality in the city’s transportation system, we need to make it navigable for New Yorkers regardless of disability,” said Terry Moakley of the United Spinal Association. “For residents with spinal injuries or diseases, something like a broken subway elevator can completely eliminate access to effective public transportation. I am proud to support the recommendations of this Council report, and look forward to working to see many of them implemented quickly.”

“For many cancer patients in New York City, transportation to and from treatment poses enormous challenges,” said Kris Kim, an Executive Vice President for the American Cancer Society. “Lack of reliable and adequate services leaves patients at risk of interrupting treatment or worse, stopping altogether. We applaud the City Council for taking a hard look at transportation options for people with disabilities, and we look forward to working together to help implement the recommendations for improvement.”

Today’s recommendations will also inform broader work the Council is doing to ensure that the city remains accessible, not only for people with disabilities, but for senior citizens. The City Council and the New York Academy of Medicine recently announced the creation of the “Age Friendly New York” initiative, which will create a blueprint to help the City prepare for its growing aging population. This initiative will assess New York City’s age-friendliness, with focus on issues such as transportation access, and will bring together key decision makers and local communities to implement policy recommendations.